Responsive government

Virtual twins help cities respond quickly to unexpected situations

Rebecca Gibson
16 November 2020

7 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic underlined the need for fast, intelligent and sophisticated decision-making in government. Now, as cities, states, regions and nations look to the future, they are harnessing the power of interactive 3D virtual twins to help them plan, develop and test strategies to support their recovery and build resilience for meeting future crises.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, companies around the world quickly reimagined their business models and adopted digital technologies to help their operations continue. But companies weren’t alone in changing the way they operate. COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way governments and other stakeholders approach planning and operating cities as well, says Dominique Bonte, managing director and vice president of end markets research at technology research firm ABI Research. Regional and national governments, too, he said, are considering how data consolidated from many cities could improve their responses on larger scales.

“We’ve been talking about the need to develop smart cities for several years, but it’s almost as if we needed a crisis like COVID-19 to shock leaders into realizing the importance of making them a reality,” Bonte said. “Most national and local governments were woefully underprepared to deal with a pandemic, and their disorganized and improvised approach has caused socioeconomic, health and other ramifications.

“Unfortunately, we’re likely to face many more crises in the future, so building resilience should be top of mind whenever cities invest in anything, whether it be new technologies, developing citizen services, designing transportation networks, constructing public buildings and residential properties, or something else. Everything should be connected, flexible, scalable and designed with multiple use cases in mind so that it can be quickly repurposed to keep the city running reliably in an emergency.”

The power of a virtual twin

Even without a pandemic, running a city requires collaboration among multiple stakeholders to overcome challenges that include urbanization, mobility, climate change, sustainability, emergency response management and much more. But how can anyone make sense of millions of data points distributed across dozens of governmental agencies? And how can that information be shared with everyone who has an interest in the decisions being made, when different functions report and view information in such different ways?

“We’ve been talking about the need to develop smart cities for several years, but it’s almost as if we needed a crisis like COVID-19 to shock leaders into realizing the importance of making them a reality.”

Dominique Bonte
Managing Director and Vice President, End Markets Research at ABI Research

Increasingly, those challenges are leading cities to harness the power of virtual twins, also known as digital twins, which leverage technologies that include big data, the internet of things, artificial intelligence and cloud computing to analyze and display information in a unified way. Virtual twins are most effective when the data is displayed visually, in the context of dynamic, scientifically accurate 3D models that all stakeholders can easily understand.

In France, for example, a 3D virtual twin of the city of Rennes is being developed to help metropolitan public institution Rennes Métropole drive the city’s sustainable transformation and improve quality of life for almost half a million residents. The model, which synthesizes geometric, topographical, demographic, mobility, health and other data in a unified, visual model, allows the city’s internal and external stakeholders to plan and manage infrastructure development, transportation systems, utility networks, environmental initiatives and socio-economic development in a transversal and collaborative way.

The colored lines in a virtual twin created by international architecture and engineering firm Arup Group represent a walkability study, with each color indicating access by foot, bike, wheel chairs and more. (Image © Arup Group)

“Today in the city domain, unfortunately, we tend to think in silos, but the city doesn’t work that way,” said Alexis Mariani, director of urban planning and housing for Rennes Métropole. “We need a more systemic approach for all stakeholders to work better together and collaborate around a common referential that allows them to simulate the evolutions of the city. Our platform on the cloud, called Virtual Rennes, will enable all city stakeholders to remotely share data that will allow them to simulate and better observe urban phenomena.”

Arup, a global firm headquartered in London that provides engineering, architecture, design, planning, project management and consulting services for all aspects of the built environment, has developed a virtual twin to demonstrate how cities that are considering the technology could benefit from it. The demonstration virtual twin simulates walkability and urban design; engineering and infrastructure, including the ability to visualize underground spaces and utilities; and environment and conservation, all integrated with a plan to facilitate work processes.

"The success of this built environment application test case demonstrates that this would be a very useful tool for government, the private sector and academia to collaborate in implementing the city as a smart city,” said Wilfred Lau, a director and fellow at Arup.

Forward planning

Since the pandemic, government officials have begun to focus on the ability of virtual twins to play a critical role in empowering them to experiment with various emergency response operations and processes so they can better prepare for any future crisis.

“Urban planners, emergency management, transportation agencies, and executive leadership must be able to share and process information quickly to respond to events,” global market intelligence firm IDC reports in its executive brief “Smart City Technology: Collaboration and the Digital Twin.” “This requires information to be presented in a way that is immediately understandable and actionable. Digital twin technologies represent piece of the next step in the evolution of complex information presentation.

“For cities to be more resilient, they should consider the power that virtual twin simulations offer to see and ultimately transform the future,” the brief continues. “‘What if’ scenario planning can be a key difference in preparedness levels; using virtual and augmented reality to enable robust ‘what if’ planning makes it possible to see multiple potential futures, test their consequences and implications, and then work to build the best possible future.”

The ability to simulate different emergencies and visualize the impact they could have on both citizens and the city’s operations is vital, Bonte said, and could have been a game-changer in the pandemic’s most chaotic, early days.

“Using the digital twin, leaders can map out where all their resources and assets are located to determine the most effective response procedures so that whenever an incident occurs, they can optimize the delivery of emergency services and continue to keep the rest of the city functioning well,” he said.

For example, Arup has worked with a government health authority in Australia to create a spatial visualization tool that helps to track the availability of patient beds across a region with more than 50 hospitals, said Sankar Villupuram, Arup’s lead for Digital Services & Projects in East Asia. The tool tracks the availability of inpatient and intensive care beds, then helps planners identify where additional beds are needed and what type of care they should support.

“We also can model altered pedestrian flows in cities as we begin to see how many people actually return to the office,” Villupuram said. “It seems that many, many people do not want to return, but prefer to work at least partly from home. So, extrapolating this across the city, we can see if the infrastructure still needs to accommodate the pre-COVID commuter numbers. Reduced numbers and greater separation for social distancing go hand-in-hand, but what will this look like? Only myriad simulations can provide that insight, and a virtual twin provides the platform to undertake these studies.”

Improving decision-making

Virtual twins also provide an easy way for people from very different backgrounds to understand sophisticated data intuitively and in context, said Takuya Murakami, Urban Development Division, Project Development Department, at Taisei Corporation, which is creating a virtual twin of Nishi-Shinjuku, an historic neighborhood in Tokyo, Japan.

A virtual twin displays historical and real-time city data in context of a 3D model. This visualization helps city planners test the affects of proposed projects on traffic flow, walkability, wind currents and other measures. (Image © Arup Group)

Because a virtual twin interprets and displays all data visually, “the 3D model of a smart city improves your decision-making abilities, because it allows you to easily understand the overall picture of the city and the characteristics of each area,” Murakami said.

As needed, decision-makers also can peel back the visual layers of a virtual twin to understand details of the data that drives it.

“The method of pointing out specific places and problem areas and discussing them with all parties concerned is very effective in promoting decision making,” Murakami said. “Information aggregation and visualization in 3D play a major role in human-centered decision making.”

Giving citizens a voice

Because they can be shared online via the cloud, virtual twins also give citizens better access to city services and help them to easily visualize how an infrastructure development project or a new service would directly impact daily life.

“In conventional urban development, a limited number of experts make drafts and information is released to the public through a step-by-step process,” Murakami said.

“By creating and sharing virtual twins in the early stages, even citizens who do not have the skills to read specialized drawings can understand the draft and join in discussions.”

Takuya Murakami
Taisei Corporation

“However, it’s hard to capture the views of the residents at an early stage and encourage them to actively participate in the process because they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or skills to read the drawings. By creating and sharing virtual twins in the early stages, even citizens who do not have the skills to read specialized drawings can understand the draft and join in discussions.”

Making information readily available to and understandable by citizens also is a key factor to ensuring the success of emergency response management, Bonte said.

“Governments and city leaders have struggled to find effective ways to share information and communicate with people in real time during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “People around the world have demonstrated against the new laws and policies that have been implemented to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and that’s partly because they feel like they have no understanding or control over what is happening. If city leaders used digital twins to give people access to relevant data – such as a visual map showing the number of infected citizens and a simulation of how the cases could multiply – they would be much more inclined to follow these rules.

“Involving citizens in making important decisions about the way their city is built and managed is a reliable way to improve their quality of life and ensure they are willing to play their part in helping their city to prepare for, and overcome, any future challenges.”

In a virtual twin, users can see the underground utilities and structures that lie beneath streets and other surface features. (Image © Arup Group)

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