Hack Archthon – Visualizing Digital Urban Planning

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As 21st-century urban planning is becoming increasingly complex, and data becomes more accessible, qualitative design is progressively supported by quantitative and digital methods. The value of Digital Twins as a support tool for decision-making processes, and for sustainable, evidence-based city planning is rapidly growing. As a response , we invented a new learning platform, the Hack Archthon, where future urban planners cultivate new knowledge, enhance their digital literacy, and are informed about the latest techniques used in digital urban planning.

To fill the gap between the quantitative and qualitative realities of urban planning,  students of architecture were introduced to various digital tools, such as data-driven 4D Digital Twins, agent-based simulations, geo-referenced data, and novel visualisation methodologies. As a learning environment, an alternative teaching format was experimented: a «hackathon» for architecture students («HackArchthon»). Thereby, the digital tools were presented to architecture students in an intensive learning platform, providing a dynamic environment for collaborative, problem-based, real-life urban planning.

Students were particularly encouraged to develop and experiment with innovative methodologies and aesthetics for effectively visualising quantitative data and integrating these findings into their own qualitative design projects. The overarching aim was to facilitate the decision-making process within the context of a real multi-stakeholder urban planning project.


Among the various elements of the project, we recommend the hackathon, as intensive learning platform. Organizing hackathons, such as the Hack Archthon, provides students with a unique opportunity to apply their knowledge in real-world settings and collaborate on innovative solutions. We recommend this format as it fosters creativity, teamwork, and problem-solving skills.

The Arch Hackathon showed me the value of combining different software tools to get the best results, rather than sticking to just one.
Student feedback

Within the context of an ongoing Innovedum focal point project (called “Visualization techniques of Digital Twins simulations in digital urban planning”), we offered to students of architecture an intensive learning environment to data-driven 4D Digital Twins, agent-based simulations, geo-referenced data, and novel visualization methodologies.

In a problem-oriented learning environment, students were confronted with a real-life urban planning project (Urban Transformation Project Sarajevo, UTPS). They learned the principles and the potential of agent-based digital models applied to urban planning, and researched, developed, and applied novel visualization techniques for Digital Twins in urban planning.

The implementation of the Innovedum project happened in two distinct phases. Initially, we engaged in active teaching by conducting workshops on digital tools integrated into the Design Studio of the Chair of Architecture and Urban Design. This phase aimed to equip students with the necessary skills to proficiently utilize digital tools in their design studio projects.

In a second phase, the project was taken to Sarajevo where we offered a learning environment in a hackathon format: a one-week-long “Hack Archthon”. During the event, students collaborated in groups, and while we provided guidance and support, the focus was more on facilitating their independent application of digital tools and urban planning concepts in the context of UTPS.

During the Design Studio days, students received feedback from the teaching team and the professor throughout the semester. During the Hack Archthon, feedback and support was continuously given by the on-site teaching team, leveraging the 24-hour intense learning environment for continuous exchange, group work, and desk crits.

Communication primarily took place between individual students or groups of students and lecturers, facilitated through in-person consultations during the Semester. The assessment of the Design Studio occurred during final crits, while for the Hack Archthon, in the spirit of the 40-year’s Olympic ceremony in Sarajevo, medals were awarded to the most innovative design solutions (no grades).

Studio Mobil, an on-the-ground data collection vehicle.

Innovative elements of the course

  • Introduction of GIS (Geographic Information System) data, GIS software such as QGIS, and the concept of agent-based Digital Twins and simulations into D-ARCH design studio curriculum.
  • Provision of novel visualization data such as drone-mapped point-cloud database of Sarajevo and introduction to cutting-edge visualization techniques such as game engines and web-GL libraries.
  • Development and usage of a custom Application Programming Interface to access Digital Twin results, facilitating direct integration of quantitative data into students› designs.
  • Experimenting an intensive learning platform such as a hackathon for architecture students («Hack Archthon»), providing a dynamic environment for collaborative, problem-based, real-life urban planning.
  • Conducting the Hack Archthon in an active workspace, the ETHZ’ Urban Design Studio in Sarajevo (also called Urban Lab), fostering creativity and interdisciplinary collaboration through exhibitions, presentations, discussions, and workspaces between ETH and University of Sarajevo students.
  • Organizing the Hack Archthon in an «unknown» city, complementing the digital world with site visits to enhance students› understanding of urban contexts and effectively bridging the quantitative and qualitative worlds.
  • Integrating the Studio Mobil, an on-the-ground data collection vehicle, immersing institutions and students in real-world urban environments and facilitating experiential learning within the cityscape. Studio Mobil is a decentralized mobile research laboratory which allows students and researchers to collect additional and missing data for calibration and validation of the developed digital models. The method spans from point cloud drone mapping to LIDAR climate data.

Effects on student learning

  • The introduction to agent-based Digital Twin simulations, cutting-edge visualization techniques, and – especially – the incorporation of digital mapping tools such as GIS data, had a positive effect on student learning. By introducing these tools and concepts, students were empowered to approach urban planning challenges with a more comprehensive understanding that integrates both qualitative and quantitative aspects.
  • The utilization of the Digital Twin, coupled with API access, showed-cased the capabilities of evidence-based urban planning.
  • The intense learning platform experimented with the Hack Archthon not only fostered collaboration and critical thinking but also allowed students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world scenarios, thereby enhancing their problem-solving skills.
  • Ultimately, we believe that these innovative elements are useful to equip students with the tools and mindset necessary for success in 21st-century urban planning.
I really enjoyed the hackathon as it was a great opportunity to experiment with different media and programmes.
Student feedback

Hack Archthon medal ceremony in the Olympic Legacy Spirit of Sarajevo’s 40-year celebration

ETH Competence Framework