Jun 14 2022

Digital Twins Help Cities Study Operations of Infrastructure Systems

Some municipalities are preparing to use the modeling platform to assess their approach to operations.

To assist with city management and planning, a growing number of local governments may eventually turn to digital twins — virtual models that replicate the performance of real-world systems, structures and processes.

Digital twins take the concept of a computer simulation to the next level by incorporating information about how an existing item is functioning, collected via Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, to provide a more in-depth, accurate projection.

While digital twin platforms are still an emerging technology, they have a number of potential applications in municipal environments.

A digital twin could help city leaders quickly address an unfolding sewer system issue, for example, by allowing them to obtain a more detailed, three-dimensional view of what was happening — and what effect any proposed solutions would have. The technology could also be used to examine how a new element, such as an expanded public transit line, would interact with other city systems.

Recent research suggests digital twin use could help cities improve operational and maintenance efficiency — and boost space utilization. Digital twin use in urban planning, according to one report, could achieve a $280 billion cost savings by 2030.

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Vendors Support Significant Digital Twin Applications

Digital twin system architecture can involve a variety of components, including sensors that utilize IoT connectivity, routers and other network devices, and artificial intelligence (AI) technology and machine learning models that help provide performance prediction and assessment information.

A limited amount of digital twin solutions have become widely available in recent years, primarily through companies such as Microsoft — whose Azure Digital Twins Platform as a Service option lets users create knowledge graphs based on digital models of environments — and products such as the IBM Engineering Systems Design Rhapsody modeling and design tool and Maximo Application Suite enterprise asset management solution.

EXPLORE: How smart city leaders are breaking down data silos.

Arizona State University’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center (CIC) is leveraging storage, AI and other Amazon Web Services capabilities in the digital twin it’s developing based on Phoenix’s downtown. The publicly accessible, cloud-based platform will feature data layers that relate to transportation, land use, economic development and other factors.

By moving data to the digital twin that’s traditionally been housed in static files only individual city departments could access, policymakers and other parties will be able to view a 3D representation of the information to make more informed, data-driven decisions, according to a representative from the tech company that’s helping the CIC build the model.

Cities Are Starting to Explore the Technology’s Value

Other cities are also preparing to launch digital twins. Initial work on a Las Vegas-based platform — involving data culled from a 7-square-kilometer portion of its downtown area, using sensors and the city’s 5G network — was completed earlier this year.

The model, part of an effort to help building owners eventually achieve net-zero carbon emissions, may also be used to help gauge potential traffic, energy use, emergency management, parking and noise improvements in the city.

In Florida, the Orlando Economic Partnership, a not-for-profit public and private community development organization, is working with a gaming software developer to create a digital twin platform that represents an 800-square-mile area encompassing three central Florida counties.

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Local governments, private companies and nonprofits will reportedly be able to use the model to map how their plans would be affected by elements such as climate change or available real estate in the area.

Los Angeles’ Better Buildings Challenge, a sustainability initiative funded by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and SoCalGas, recently announced plans to deploy a digital twin that will help building owners in L.A.’s Bunker Hill neighborhood investigate different ways to achieve net zero emissions.

In New York City, a similar effort is underway in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where a digital twin will be produced for a group a buildings and other infrastructure elements to help monitor performance and identify energy sustainability projects.

Digital Twin Growth May Be Slow Yet Steady

Four years ago, a Gartner survey found only 13 percent of business organizations were using digital twins; 62 percent, however, said they were in the process of establishing one or planned to, leading Gartner to theorize the technology was becoming more mainstream.

While digital twin adoption has, to date, been most frequent in the business world, separate research suggests up to 93 percent of all IoT platforms could contain some digital twin capabilities by 2027 — and the smart city digital twin-supported solution market may reach $4.8 billion within the next five years.

Cost can be a deterrent. In addition to the expense required to implement an additional platform, digital twin integration can require cities to have skilled IT talent resources on hand, since the technology is fairly new and some aspects may need to be customized.

REVIEW: How agencies can retain talent by dealing with technical debt.

Cities’ infrastructure also needs to include connectivity capabilities that will support the associated IoT sensor use; digital twins’ visualization aspect may also require additional training and resources to ensure end users can maximize the data’s value.

But cities may be able to begin taking advantage of digital twin technology’s benefits by starting small.

Focusing first on a singular system — adding a digital twin interface that showcases water pump components, for instance, and highlights any areas that need maintenance — can allow employees to gradually become familiar with using the technology. Once it’s clearly producing results, officials may find expanding the city’s digital twin use into other areas is an even easier — and increasingly beneficial — process.

This article is part of StateTech’s CITizen blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #StateLocalIT hashtag.

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