Sep 05 2023
Data Analytics

How Smart Cities Can Leverage the Power of Digital Twins

Agencies can share data through virtual replicas and demonstrate the inner workings of municipal systems.

Municipalities generate vast volumes of data, and digitally enabled smart cities go even further. They leverage the Internet of Things to gather information about traffic flows, population trends, water, sanitation and a range of other indicators.

What if you could pull all that together to make a virtual model of the whole city, with its many interconnected parts and pieces?

Known as a digital twin, this approach is gaining traction as compute and storage capabilities increase. A recent report from market advisory firm ABI Research says cities could save over $280 billion annually by 2030 through the use of digital twins for urban planning.

Overall, “a digital twin transforms the lives of citizens and businesses by providing optimal decision-making by the stakeholders,” says Dell Distinguished Engineer Said Tabet.

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What Is a Digital Twin?

A digital twin is “a digital replica of your city, with multiple levels and scales depending on how detailed you need it to be and how much data you have available,” says Petra Hurtado, research and foresight director at the American Planning Association.

Such a model offers the means to try new ideas without disrupting daily life.

“With the data on all of these systems and flows, you can really start experimenting — because that’s something right now that we as planners can’t really do much. We always have real people in the real world, and we don’t want to harm people,” Hurtado says. “With a digital version of your city, you could just try and see. If I change this, how will it affect other places? How will it affect other systems?”

READ MORE: Digital twins help cities study operations of infrastructure systems.

Smart cities in particular need digital models in order to effectively consider large amounts of data from varied sources.

“The data generated from all of the people and cars and infrastructure in cities is becoming more complex, and the data is larger and happening at a faster rate. It’s hard to build actionable consensus if there isn’t a shared version of the truth,” says Ruthbea Yesner, vice president of government insights at IDC.

A digital twin offers “a way to have organizational cohesiveness across departments for cities,” she says. “As they deal with growing data volumes and data that is coming into systems faster, digital twins can enable collaboration in real time.”

How Can Smart City Infrastructure Benefit from Digital Twins?

Experts point to several potential use cases for digital twins that support key elements of smart city infrastructure.

For example, cities could leverage digital twins to make better choices on healthcare infrastructure, deciding where to position hospitals, emergency services and other resources.

“You can’t do that blindly. We’ve done that in the past: There’s a location, with all of your ambulances staying in one place,” Tabet says. “Now, there’s this concept of being dynamic, moving things around so you can actually facilitate how you would help the citizens and get them the help as fast as possible.”

LEARN MORE: More cities are embracing digital twins.

In terms of smart city operations, the same strategy could help inform the emergency management infrastructure.

“If you close a road, what happens? Where’s the flow of traffic going? You want to see if you make a change in one area, how are other places and systems affected by it?” Hurtado says. A digital twin is “a perfect tool to create different scenarios and see how you need to prepare for them.”

She pointed to zoning as another likely area of interest. “From a planner’s perspective, you can experiment with the potential outcomes, for example, of a policy decision,” she says.

“If you say an area is all going to be residential from now on, then you can see how the different flows and movements in your city would change based on that,” and organize infrastructure accordingly, she says. “You want to know how transportation would change, how certain flows of goods and services would change, as well as the need for water, electricity, anything that flows and moves around your city.”

For economic development, “you can get pretty granular information in terms of leasing or renting space, or building new areas or building new homes,” Yesner says. “You can see passing cars, and you can see the actual representations of the people in the foot traffic. You can see the census tracts in real time.”

Petra Hurtado
With a digital version of your city, you could just try and see. If I change this, how will it affect other places? How will it affect other systems?”

Petra Hurtado Research and Foresight Director, American Planning Association

As climate impacts ramp up and cities look to adapt their infrastructures, digital twins will play a key role.

“Maybe I want to cut down on carbon footprint, or I want to have this many people living in this area. How is this going to impact the life of my citizens, and what type of policies would I apply? All of those questions can be asked to a digital twin before we apply them operationally in the real world,” Tabet says.

Also in the climate category: water management.

“We have seen cities run out of water. We’ve seen a lot of low water,” Yesner says. “This becomes something that needs to be managed very carefully, either because there’s too much too fast and there’s flooding, or because there’s a lack of water and you need to monitor what’s being used and how.”

A virtual model could help optimize management of the water infrastructure.

How Does a City Create a Successful Digital Twin?

To implement and use a digital twin effectively, cities must consider a range of technology investments. Data feeds the digital twin, and cities will need tools to make use of all that data.

“You need a platform that can integrate all sorts of sensor data, edge data, the back-end applications, with the ability to layer analytics and 3D modeling on top of that,” Yesner says.

“The vendors are calling this a digital twin platform. They’re taking what used to be an Internet of Things platform or another sort of data integration platform, and they’re building that visualization on top of it,” Yesner says.

DIVE DEEPER: Coral Gables spurs smart city growth with a digital twin.

A platform would be especially helpful in bringing to bear robust data management tools via a smart city dashboard. That’s particularly important to municipal IT systems, where data across legacy solutions may not always be readily usable and shareable.

“Having the right data management is crucial. In many cities and municipalities, every department has their own data,” Hurtado says, and planners need access to key information from waterworks, transportation and others. Ideally, a city would deploy a solution that allows “the different departments within the city to talk to each other and share their data — one platform that everyone can access.”

City IT leaders will need to consider not just the back-end technology that supports the digital twin but also the front-end interfaces.

“Whether it’s the mayor or the city planner or the engineer, there are users interacting with these digital twins to generate reports, to provide insights and help with decision-making. They need to have tools there,” such as augmented and virtual reality, visualization tools, and natural language processing, Tabet says.

“With NLP integrated with digital twins, instead of querying a system by following a certain kind of method, you could just ask it a question,” he says. By posing human language questions to a data-driven virtual model, city leaders will be able to make the most of their smart city investments, driving improved outcomes for citizens and businesses.

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