Virtualising urban environments, smart cities with digital twins

Digital twins are now firmly established in supporting urban management. The city state of Singapore is working on a digital twin of its entire nation. In 2011, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) began developing three-dimensional maps of the nation.

GPS Lands Singapore, which provides services to create content for digital twins, approached SLA, proposing working on a digital twin of the entire nation: “The digital twin displays all of Singapore in a highly detailed 3D representation…to help with asset management and decision-making, including detailed tree and green space management.”

Because of the country’s limited size, urban areas are at a premium, and therefore many infrastructure networks and assets have been moved underground. For that reason, “the SLA is now working on the next stage of the project, a national subsurface digital twin of Singapore”. The benefits of such a digital representation extend to safety improvements and minimising service disruptions when maintaining, repairing, or constructing assets underground.

Meanwhile, Virtual Singapore is “a 3D digital replica of Singapore built on topographical as well as real-time, dynamic data. It will be the country’s authoritative platform that can be used in simulations and virtual tests of new solutions to urban planning problems.”

The country’s National Research Foundation, the Singapore Land Authority, and the Government Technology Agency are partnering on this effort. Virtual Singapore will be a crucial building block for the Singaporean government’s work on its Smart Nation project. Smart Nation is the country’s initiative to create a digital government, economy and society.

Singapore is not alone in its efforts. In 2020, researchers at the High-Performance Computing Center Stuttgart, HLRS, of the University of Stuttgart, Germany, started working with collaborators from the Fraunhofer Society on developing a digital twin of the German city of Herrenberg. The researchers want to gain a better understanding of the urban dynamics and interactions with the goal to improve city planning and design.

HLRS researchers add: “Visual representations can quickly and intuitively reveal patterns in simulation data and make it easier to understand how they represent phenomena that are impossible to see in the physical world.” The researchers look at support tools for earth and atmospheric sciences including preparedness planning for natural disasters.

The city of Stuttgart in Germany partnered with Hexagon and Fujitsu to create a digital twin of the city. Jens Schumacher, head of IT at Stuttgart’s Civil Engineering Office, outlines the benefits of the project: “Stuttgart’s Urban Digital Twin project will provide our office with a vast amount of mobility and environmental data, and the IoT [internet of things] analysis platform from Hexagon and Fujitsu will give us the ability to use that data to make smarter decisions for the good of our city.”

Efforts to create digital twins of urban environments

Many cities are considering digital twins to support their urban-management needs. Barcelona, Spain, is using the supercomputer MareNostrum to process urban data for the city’s planning processes. The Spanish city has an agreement with the Italian city of Bologna to collaborate on digital twins for both cities, as both cities intend “to become leaders in the sphere of digital urban governance”.

In the UK, the Digital Twin Hub aims to leverage digital twins that companies and organisations are building in the nation. The programme is creating the building blocks to allow currently isolated twins to connect and form an ecosystem of interconnected digital twins.

University of Cambridge is hosting the effort after it completed its Centre for Digital Built Britain partnership with the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. The partnership investigated how digital approaches could support and improve construction and infrastructure development.

The developers created the demonstration for the fictional locale Sunford City. They populated the platform with data for energy, water and telecommunications networks to illustrate the impact extreme weather might cause.

Not surprisingly, digital twins are seeing particular use in the Nordics. Finland intends to become a carbon-neutral country by 2035 and fully recycle waste by 2050. Digital twins are regarded as being able to support decision-makers by simulating outcomes and dynamics of various policies to reach these goals – trade offs among approaches can be visualised.

In Gothenburg, Sweden, Digital Twin City Centre is working on many puzzle pieces that will make future digital twins of urban environments more powerful. One project, for example, looks at the ways movement of people can be affected to then understand the impact various movements of crowds will have on urban environments and commercial activities.

In the US, there are projects in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Las Vegas, Nevada; New York, New York; Orlando, Florida; and Phoenix, Arizona are working on their versions of digital twins for a wide range of purposes.

In Australia, developers are creating digital twins for entire states. Victoria – including the city of Melbourne – New South Wales, and Queensland are developing digital representations of their territories. The city of Adelaide in South Australia and Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory are also working on digital twins.

Digitisation of features for smart cities

Digital twins open commercial opportunities for developers and providers as well as partners and users. The range of information that is considered for visualisation is practically limitless.

Google’s Sidewalk Labs offers solutions that support city planners and developers. Delve is a visual design tool to enable real estate teams to collaborate on projects, and Mesa is a platform for energy management in buildings.

Tree Canopy Lab is part of Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer platform, which aims to help cities address air pollution and climate change. Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE) is a tool “to help cities and regions measure emissions sources, run analyses, and identify strategies to reduce emissions”.

Researchers from Stanford University have been using satellite imagery and advanced algorithms to identify areas at risk for wildfires. The researchers use Earth-surface imagery from European Space Agency satellites and foliage-water-content data from the US Forest Service. The model then can correlate the images with the data to make predictions about risk levels of forest areas for coming wildfire seasons.

In Brazil, researchers at the University of Pernambuco used a machine-learning algorithm to synthesise historic maps of Recife, Brazil, into visuals that look like modern satellite images. This approach could provide insights about land use in urban environments over time.

The British Geological Survey features Project Iceberg to fill in information about underground urban features and to enable more effective approaches to managing subterranean spaces “to help increase the viability of land for development and de-risk future investment through better management of subsurface data.”

Toms River Municipal Utilities Authority in New Jersey is using a visualisation platform developed by mixed-reality-software provider Meemim. City employees and construction workers can use this platform in combination with Microsoft’s HoloLens headset to highlight pipes, conduits, and other parts of underground utility infrastructure in an augmented-reality environment.

Applications for smart management proliferate

Government organisations are also looking at a wide range of use cases that encompass virtually every aspect of urban life. Transport for London (TfL) is responsible for most of the transportation network of London, England, including the Tube, London’s subway system. TfL is working on a digital twin to monitor underground rails and tunnels and to gather information on carbon emissions, heat and noise.

Seoul in South Korea and Shanghai in China are developing comprehensive virtual twins for traffic and logistics management to run urban services more effectively and efficiently.

A team of researchers from ETH Zurich, Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, National University of Singapore, Technical University of Munich, and others is developing a climate twin – the Digital Urban Climate Twin – to investigate sustainability and liveability. It will aim to address urban heat issues in the city state.

In China, Shanghai’s Huangpu River, ports, airports, ports, and construction sites have been incorporated into the digital twin of the city’s transportation system.

Interoperability challenges and security concerns exist

As they evolve, interoperability between initially siloed digital twins will become the crucial aspect to create systems where the whole is more than the sum of its parts – interoperability will also be the challenge that requires judicial considerations early on. Manufacturing, utilities, transportation, logistics, urban management and many other industries will create digital twins for their respective needs.

Expanding such digital twins across supply chains or infrastructure types (water, gas, communications, for instance) will require careful planning. Ensuring interoperability of such diverse digital twins will be an issue, but other concerns exist too.

On the one hand, sharing will enable symbiotic and holistic approaches to commercial and societal challenges. On the other hand, data security and intellectual property will require sophisticated management of access to information and provision of data.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small data, big disruptions: How to spot signals of change and manage uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior adviser of strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace. 

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