Eight lanes running straight across the Hobson Bay lagoon; Auckland city ahead under a glowering grey sky.

That picture on the front page of the Herald in 2004 spelled the end of the Eastern motorway. It sunk John Banks' first mayoralty and won Richard Simpson and his Action Hobson colleague, Christine Caughey, a term on the Auckland City Council.

"Christine said we needed a picture so people could see what was proposed and engage with it," says Simpson.

As co-founder of one of the first computer graphics companies, Cadabra, Simpson was a dab hand at delivering data to the eye.

Cadabra's innovations included modelling the shade cast by office towers around Auckland and creating visual representations of the effects of the various planning codes governing the central city.

His spell in local government has given him an even greater appetite for using graphics to inform planning decisions.

He's now doing business development for NextSpace, a company formed out of a partnership between Right Hemisphere and the Ministry of Economic Development to find more applications for Right Hemisphere's world-leading 3D visualisation technology.

Right Hemisphere's focus is on industries such as aerospace, to which it provides the software now used by companies such as Boeing to render and manage their designs.

"We want to be a catalyst for the expansion of the computer graphics industry here in New Zealand. This could be the next Fonterra," he says.

One of its major projects is the Visual City, creating the next generation of digital tools that cities can use to do their spatial planning. "If we can get this right, there are 1000 cities bigger than Auckland it can be taken into, as well as any number of smaller ones. It's a billion-dollar opportunity for New Zealand Inc."

It's an opportunity our cousins across the Tasman seem receptive to, with a major investment in Virtual Australia. That's part of the wider Digital Earth project that Simpson is also involved in, as the chairman of the International Society for Digital Earth's working committee on the digital city.

NextSpace is working with water authorities in Melbourne and Sydney on projects to upgrade water and sewerage systems. The NextSpace tools allow them to incorporate and correlate any number of rich data sets.

On top of basic topographical maps, LiDAR or airborne laser scans allow them to add in the built environment, with hyperspectral imaging adding further layers of textures.

That means planners can not only get an idea of what sort of ground cover exists but even the types of trees and the likely root patterns which might affect their networks.

"Sydney spends $600 million a year on tree-related problems," Simpson says. "With the greening of cities, a lot of trees were planted along sewer lines and they are getting big now.

"Planning is not a 2D problem, it's a 3D problem." Broadband will add more opportunities for real-time data collection which can be fed into such models.

The new low-pressure sewer networks that South East Water is building in Melbourne will use information collected at street and house level to determine the best times to pump waste out of smaller holding tanks to lower the use of energy.

"With Auckland, there are opportunities to create models in 3D, so people can see what the city might look like in 20 or 30 years. It also allows for the creation of consultation tools so homeowners can see how a development is relevant to them."

One such project Simpson is promoting through visualisation is a bridge over the Auckland Harbour, to mark the Anzac Centenary in 2015.

In some ways, it's a metaphor for what he's trying to do. The current tunnel project is about trying to hide as much of the infrastructure underground as possible - at great expense in construction and maintenance costs - while it doesn't do everything a harbour crossing needs to do.

Simpson says the Visual City model of bringing together a wide range of data and working with it in a more understandable way will improve not only the design process but the consultation required to get public acceptance.

He's concerned the structure developed for the Auckland Super City could encourage the sort of disconnected mentality that precipitated the push for a super city in the first place.

The greater use of geospatial data could be what's needed to break the document-centric approach that locks council thinking into narrow silos, Simpson says.

"The Auckland council, because of its size, should support innovation and local business because part of its mandate is economic growth.

"I'd like to see a [council-controlled organisation] for the Visual City, so it's not just seen as an information technology thing ... this will be the new digital infrastructure."