Singapore's Marina Bay, virtually

Digital urban planning: twins help make sense of smart cities

Image credit: Dassault Systemes

In an age of rapid urban growth and expansion, planning is crucial to a city’s ability to be competitive while supporting the wellbeing of its citizens. This is where digital twins come in handy.

Would the perfect city have open spaces and plenty of natural light? Would travel between any two parts be simple and fast? Would development be structured and sympathetic to the rest of the city? These issues and many more could be resolved by generating a digital replica – a virtual city that becomes the basis for all future change and growth.

Planners and policy-makers can use such a ‘digital twin’, fed with live data via the Internet of Things (IoT), to implement a Smart City. It can help them to manage resources, enhance economic development, reduce ecological footprints and improve the overall quality of citizens’ lives.

Insights provided by real-time data from the various sensor networks and intelligent systems can offer ways to optimise operations and maintenance of physical assets, systems and processes of the city’s day-to-day routine, from traffic to the impact construction would have on inhabitants.

Around the world, several projects are under way that use digital twins to help cities become more innovative.

In Singapore, where the government is driving the world’s first Smart Nation initiative, a digital-twin project is already in full swing. Known as Virtual Singapore, the project is a 3D city model and collaborative data platform. When complete, it is intended for use by the public, research sectors and private organisations alike, enabling users from different sectors to develop sophisticated tools and applications for test-bedding concepts and services, planning and decision-making, and research on technologies to solve emerging and complex challenges for Singapore.

Singapore Marina Bay real

Image credit: Dassault Systemes

Overseen by Dassault Systèmes using its ‘3DExperience’ design platform, the model offers four main capabilities; virtual experimentation, test-bedding to validate the provision of services, decision-making and research & development.

Scott Hawken, a lecturer in urban development and design at the University of New South Wales in Australia, says that Virtual Singapore is among “the most advanced and comprehensive” 3D mapping projects and is seen as a model by other countries.

Visual Singapore integrates various data sources including data from government agencies, 3D models, information from the internet, and real-time dynamic data from IoT devices, and serves as a convenient platform for citizens to visualise changes to their environment. With an accurate representation of the landscape, it will also help to improve accessibility. For example, it can be used to identify and show barrier-free routes for disabled and elderly people as well as finding the most convenient routes for drivers.

Among its other uses are the ability to analyse the potential for solar energy production, and it can also provide an insight into how ambient temperatures and sunlight vary throughout the day, enabling urban planners to visualise the effects of constructing new buildings and installations in a given area.

Singapore Marina Bay digital

Image credit: Dassault Systemes

In June 2018, the city of Amsterdam, together with its leading geographic information and communication technology company (geo-ICT) Geodan, unveiled its own digital twin of the Dutch football stadium Johan Cruijff Arena and its surrounding areas. The Amsterdam Southeast model enables both city planners and the public to experience what various scenarios will look like and see the consequences of different processes.

Geodan describes data as omnipresent and wide ranging. Using it to create a virtual copy of reality would help in building future cities to meet challenges such as climate change, housing and transport needs.

Huib Pasman, tech strategist for the Amsterdam Arena Innovation Centre, says: “We will use the digital twin to allow for optimal design and to test certain scenarios before we start building systems and to make sure we make the right decisions. This will also be a tool which we will put behind an intelligent operation centre, as this represents all the actual data as well as future developments and new services, which will also be able to provide this data in real-time during a live situation.”

ICT solutions provider Huawei Technologies, which is in partnership with the city, aims to provide the largest open-access wireless local area network  infrastructure at the Amsterdam Arena. Richard Budel, chief innovation officer at Huawei, links back to the work of Geodan and the advantages a digital-twin process has on smart city planning. “We are already hearing cases from clients who want to use digital modelling techniques to start pricing apartments,” he says. “If you’re going to grant planning permission to a new apartment building, how is that going to impact the apartment value of existing buildings that suddenly lose their view of the sea, or they lose their early morning and afternoon sunshine, for example.”

Agreeing with Geodan’s aims to let city planners and the public experience various scenarios through the digital-twin model, Budel says: “What I think the digital twin is going to do is to give them the ability to start answering some of those questions on smart city planning. What could happen, what should happen, and what will happen.”

This digital twin of Amsterdam helps the residents and those with decision-making authority to assess and understand the different processes more easily. For example, what the impact of redirecting a road on the throughflow of traffic would do.

‘What I think the digital twin is going to do is to give them the ability to start answering some of those questions on smart city planning. What could happen, what should happen, and what will happen.’

Richard Budel, Huawei Technologies

In France, engineering software company Dassault Systèmes is planning to apply its manufacturing-based product lifecycle management (PLM) approach to the Smart City concept. In 2013, the company set up its ‘3DExperiencity’ platform after acquiring software company Archividéo, which specialises in 3D modelling of land areas.

Gérard Le Bihan is head of Images et Réseaux, a competitiveness hub representing companies and laboratories in Brittany and the Loire Valley in western France. Le Bihan explains: “Dassault Systèmes’ aim was to combine the ability to manage land areas in 3D with project management using the PLM technique. Combining these two fields has given a rise to a platform designed to host a digital twin of the land area.”

In addition to town planning and decision-making support, the platform is also intended to serve as a tool for communicating with local people. When the United Nations was looking for ‘industrial demonstration projects for a sustainable city’, Rennes delivered by presenting the city’s digital twin as part of the Rennes 2030 urban project.

A lot of data is required to model an entire city, which is proving to be a challenge in creating digital twins of large cities. Budel accepts this and adds another concern: “The digital twin may become a replacement for the physical world, and then we start using that digital twin as our only means of evaluating, assessing and making decisions. And then the purpose of the digital twin ultimately is going to start automating decisions in support of efficiency or effectiveness, whether that’s cost, time or human behaviour.”

Budel uses the analogy that “if you need to turn a piece of data into information you do that by adding context. This information becomes knowledge when you start to apply it and this knowledge then becomes wisdom over time, and such applications will make you knowledgeable and wise through your own experiences”. However in the digital world, he points out, “algorithms are going to determine what your experiences are. So, your knowledge and your wisdom are no longer naturally derived.”

Although huge amounts of data are required to model an entire city, the use of technology such as satellite and aerial photography, including the deployment of drones, can make it somewhat easier to capture this data.

The Paris authorities aim to have a digital twin of the French capital running this year, but the entire modelling project is scheduled to last until 2024, according to David Jonglez, director of business development at ESRI France, a company that provides mapping and analytics software for geographic information systems.

Across the Atlantic, Canada’s largest city, Toronto, also has an ongoing smart-city project, known as Sidewalk Toronto. This is a collaborative project between Waterfront Toronto, a public advocate of waterfront revitalisation, and urban innovation organisation Sidewalk Labs. It aims to combine urban design with the latest in digital technology to address the challenges that cities face, such as housing affordability, transportation and energy use.

However, Budel also highlights the challenges engineers, city planners and councillors have when applying the digital twin model. Waterfront Toronto, for example, has appointed a Digital Strategy Advisory Panel to provide expert advice on issues related to privacy and data ownership.

Budel is convinced that everyone involved in city planning needs to understand the intersection between the physical and digital worlds.

Many digital tools already exist to build the foundation of smart city planning using such models as digital twins. Sidewalk has developed an urban planning tool called Replica that can help public agencies, land developers and the community to identify patterns in city movements. Replica does this by collating anonymous mobile location data within a certain area to give planning agencies a comprehensive report on how, when, and why people travel in urban areas, to guide their future decisions regarding land use, for example.

Foremost, observing the right of privacy, Replica uses the de-identified location data to generate a travel behaviour model: a set of rules to represent who’s moving where, when, why, and how. However, rather than looking at the movements of an individual, the software is designed to collate data on the collective movement of an area. Separately, the collective demographic information is used to create what planners like to call a ‘synthetic population’ – a virtual population statistically representative of the real population. This is where the digital twin model can be deployed. Finally, using computer simulation, the virtual population and travel behaviour models are combined to create a week’s-worth of activity, replicating trip patterns across a city or a specific area.

There are many other cities that want to follow in the footsteps of forerunners such as Amsterdam, Rennes and Toronto, and even the smart nation of Singapore, with Italy aspiring to become the first smart nation in Europe. Leandro Aglieri, coordinator of the Smart City Forum Innovation in Rome as part of the Italy’s Smart City Association, expresses the capital’s “dream of technology in creating a smart city”. The use of technology such as the digital twin model in planning may be the tool that binds all the resources together, in order to create an innovative smart city.

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