Digital Urban Twins: Panacea to urban problems?

This article reflects the opinion of the author.

The first thought that might come to mind when you think of the word “twins” could be The Parent Trap, The Shining, or even Schwarzenegger and DeVito in the hit movie Twins. But twins are now becoming an essential tool in managing our cities too. How will these new digital twins change our cities – and our lives?

Digitally enhanced cities

Digital Urban Twins (DUTs) are data-driven digital models of our cities. These models can draw on newly available data from a range of sources to simulate the behaviour of urban buildings, transport and energy networks and the connections between them. In doing so, they can help optimise planning, infrastructure and public services in ways that would have been impossible only a few years ago.

For example, the German city of Munich is using a digital twin to model the impact of building projects on air quality, noise and traffic. These results can then be communicated to residents, for example through a new Construction Sites Service Map, enabling citizens to understand how they will be affected. The twin can also be used to model the different building options to optimise their impact on energy efficiency and their broader environment.

Munich’s Construction Sites Map, powered by its digital twin

Digital twins can inform and empower citizens. Too often the digital world can seem like a black box to the public, generating outputs that are difficult to communicate and understand. Digital twins however can boost public engagement and involvement in key decisions. Rather than inviting residents to pore over dusty and detailed planning papers, digital twins can show them the impacts of changes to local infrastructure – how it will look and influence their broader environment, including traffic and services – enabling citizens to discuss and shape plans, improving openness and trust.

Digging out the data

However, digital twins are only as good as the data they are built on, data which is often difficult to generate, use, share and protect. Generating and using data nowadays is like the global hunt for gold in the past. It is therefore vital that governments establish the right rules and guidelines covering data ownership, usage rights, and public access to data generated by private individuals and enterprises, as well as measures to ensure data protection, security, and privacy to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data.

That data – emerging from different sources – also needs to be standardised to enable it to be combined in different ways to create usable simulations and to add functionality as new sources become available. Standardisation also helps cities to migrate their data to new suppliers and avoid lock-in to single vendor.

The German Institute for Standardisation (DIN) has seized the initiative, driving consistent standards, including through “Municipalities and digital transformation – overview of fields of action”, which identifies areas for action on smart city standardisation and “Open Urban Data Platform” which provides a model municipal data platform often used as a basis for tenders.

Beyond cities

The next “step of evolution” is to set up digital twins for regions. Yet combining several Digital Urban Twins into a Digital Regional Twin will require inter-municipal co-operation and interoperability. This ambition needs to be built in from the start before digital infrastructure, systems and business models are set in stone.

On one level, these models may be more complex, as the socio-economic development of a region is much more diverse than a single city, resulting in different scenarios and impacts. However, on the other hand, these models tend to be more limited in functionality, due to the more limited data availability in rural areas. Yet modelling these interactions – even in a limited way – can bring huge benefits by promoting stronger urban-rural linkages and more efficient services.

Informing the debate

These are thorny issues for local governments to resolve. This is why the German federal ministry for Housing has launched a project “Connected Urban Twins” as part of the funding program Model Projects Smart Cities, which aims to build capacity, and share knowledge and experiences of setting up DUTs across municipalities. International efforts are growing to support cities, including through the International Smart Cities Network and the OECD Programme on Smart Cities and Inclusive Growth.

Digital twins are the future. However, they need to be built on the right foundations, with sound governance if they are to improve our cities and how the public engage with them. To do so, cities must work together to develop a sound and shared framework on the generation and usage of data, so that models can be expanded and achieve their full potential over time. And hopefully, like Schwarzenegger and DeVito, they will become a force to be reckoned with.

Head of International Smart Cities Network project with GIZ | + posts

Peter Sailer is head of International Smart Cities Network project with GIZ, supporting the German Federal Ministry of Housing, Urban Development and Building, promoting the integration of digital solutions into citizen-centred urban development processes and the exchange of good practices and experiences worldwide. He has worked globally for different international organisations. He has proven records of effectively managing and leading multiple international projects relating to urban development, energy efficiency, and renewable energy.

He holds a Master of Business Administration in International Real Estate Management as well as an engineering degree in Urban and Regional Planning.