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Digital Twins: A New Era in Urban Management

The Connective is constantly exploring ways to expand smart region projects and improve connection, collaboration, and education for those interested in digitally transforming cities. We recently hosted a “Digital Twin Workshop: Unlocking the Potential of Municipal Data” at Paradise Valley Community College in Phoenix, designed in partnership with digital twin provider Siradel and the Illinois Smart Cities and Regions Association (ISCRA). In this event recap, learn more about how digital twins work, how they can be applied in city planning efforts, and how they can benefit urban settings in Arizona and beyond.


Why Digital Twins?

The workshop featured keynote speakers, panels, and group sessions that covered how this innovative way of virtually representing entities, objects, behaviors, and systems through data modeling can lay the foundation for smarter decision making in our cities.

In our experience, city leaders want to collaborate with other cities, and this is especially true in Greater Phoenix where the resident and visitor experience is a regional experience. More than 20 cities and towns make up Greater Phoenix, and although each city has its own character, the cities and residents recognize themselves as part of a connected region.

As we move deeper into the age of technology-supported, human-centric design, Digital Twin is a powerful technology that can help us visualize the connections that move within and between cities.

The Power & Potential of Digital Twins

What are digital twins, exactly? In short, a digital twin is a living virtual model. A digital twin brings several datasets together in a virtual environment and uses 3D modeling to create a map of a process, system, place, or environment.

Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities help create an accurate representation by providing the data needed to inform real-time data that can inform a living model—one that is constantly changing to reflect the model’s physical counterpart. Users can then modify the environment, impose situations, and simulate different scenarios, allowing them to visualize the outcomes without the capital costs of physically changing the subject of the twin.

The real-time interface of a digital twin learns as it gathers data. It enables the correlation of data sets and the development of predictions to inform city planning and decision-making. The deployment of digital twin technology can start at any time, using current data sources as a starting-off point to model simulations and make predictions.

How to Use Digital Twins for City Planning

At our workshop, Joe Gallo, Mayor of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, pointed out the similarities of two seemingly contradictory worlds: government and technology. Where technology evolves at an increasingly rapid pace, government maintains a methodical, thoughtful approach to delivering the quality of life that its constituents need and want. While they may seem vastly different, both areas require problem-solving, optimism and critical thinking.

Local government policymakers, city leaders, urban planners and other smart city development professionals can use digital twin technology to plan for success. As Gallo stated, in city and urban planning, any digital transformation should always center on improving quality of life for constituents.

Digital twin technology can help address a variety of problems that impact quality of life, such as:

  • The placement of cell towers: Digital twins can help visualize the impact of cell tower placements. This could help stakeholders understand where vendors should install/deploy towers for optimal coverage and minimal aesthetic or signal disruption.

  • Wi-Fi gap analysis: Digital twin technology can also help facilitate a data gap analysis of interoperability and pockets of missing data, such as areas with low Wi-Fi signals. This could help inform strategies for improving data coverage and quality.

  • LED deployment: Digital twins can assist a transition to LED lighting by helping stakeholders understand the implication of deploying LED lights, such as lighting coverage, the impact on homes, neighborhoods, public safety and energy efficiency.

  • Air quality sensor deployment: Digital twin technology can help urban leaders understand where pollution is highest, to help inform where to install more air quality sensors. This can help improve air quality monitoring and response.

  • Public safety camera placement: Digital twins can be used to visualize the coverage of public safety cameras, to identify blind spots and predict optimal placement.

  • Tree planting: Using digital twin technology, urban planners can assess potential locations for tree planting and visualize the impact on cooling and pollution reduction. This could help inform urban greening strategies and climate adaptation efforts.

  • City building updates: Digital twins can simulate the impact of updating city buildings, such as by adding solar panels or green roofs. This could help stakeholders understand the potential benefits in terms of energy generation and environmental impact.

  • Modernizing infrastructure: Digital twins can help visualize the impact of modernizing legacy machines and infrastructure. This could help stakeholders understand the benefits and challenges of modernization and inform strategies for implementation.

  • Heat impact analysis: Digital twin technology can enable a comprehensive assessment of challenges arising in hot climates. This includes visualizing the effects of heat stress on infrastructure, ecosystems, and human well-being. Stakeholders can use this analysis to understand the potential risks to urban planning, energy consumption, public health, and water resources, ultimately guiding adaptive strategies to mitigate the adverse impacts of intense heat waves.

The effectiveness of a digital twin depends on the quality of the data it uses. That’s why proper digital twin planning is paramount to the success of digital twin results. Digital twins can help city leaders improve equity and inclusion by gathering data that enables faster improvements for constituents.

They can also allow constituents to see and experience the data in ways that make plans accessible and understandable. An accurate 3D model of a city can be published online or presented in person, allowing the public to view and experience proposed changes in urban planning and policy. This allows for easier dissemination and transparency to the public before putting these decisions into practice.

Examples of Digital Twin Technology in Action

At the workshop, we broke into group sessions to talk about how digital twin technology could transform various areas of city life. Starting with the end goal, groups worked backward to analyze how digital twin technology could impact key areas for residents in their cities. The process involved the following questions:

  1. Why use a digital twin?

  2. How can it help us address the challenge?

  3. What do our outputs need to demonstrate?

  4. What should we visualize and simulate?

  5. What data do we need, and what data do we have?

  6. Where can we get the required data we don’t have?

  7. What expertise do we need?

  8. Who needs to be involved, and at what point?

  9. What and when should we communicate with the public?

  10. What other challenges do we need to overcome?

The participants brainstormed how digital twin technology could be used in a city, and walked through the following use cases:

Digital Equity Mapping

Digital twin technology can be used as a tool to represent the status and availability of digital resources, such as broadband internet, in real time. Digital twins can help city leaders prioritize areas with the largest digital divide and simulate the impact of bringing digital resources to underserved areas and residents.

Further data can examine the impact of digital inequity and equity on areas such as school test scores and income levels. Before implementing a digital twin project like this, data gathered on the existing population would include broadband availability, household income, and education levels.

Water and Sustainability

In Arizona, water access protects life and livelihoods. At the workshop, participants considered how to use digital twin technology to understand water demand, quality and conversation. Digital twins can be used to support allocation of water resources, to improve maintenance planning and to provide real-time awareness of demand and consumption.

To create a digital twin for water planning purposes, data gathering would include data on water mains, flows, treatment plants, wells, and historical trends from water meters.

Public Transit/Car-Free Mobility

Workshop participants also considered digital twin technology as a way to model and visualize real transportation situations to manage and anticipate risks. Digital twins can help develop better routing, improve asset management and enhance the customer experience on public transit. It can also be used to analyze data related to cars and people, to help reduce traffic and congestion, and to visualize the impact of car-free zones or policies.

To create a digital twin for transportation purposes, needed data relates to traffic, parking, vehicle, crime, agency, and land use.

Affordable Housing/Homelessness

The group also thought about using digital twin technology to identify available properties for affordable housing and to identify and map the locations of homeless/transient individuals in a city. Digital twin technology can be used to map out conditions contributing to homelessness, including access to resources, to better connect individuals with the services they need.

For a digital twin project related to affordable housing and homelessness, helpful data includes census, demographic, zoning, residential, commercial Section 8, current social services, and data from shelters showing constituents served.

What’s Next?

After the workshop, the Greater Phoenix Connective identified three main objectives to pursue for our region in 2023. These include:

  1. Develop a roadmap/maturity model for digital twin readiness. This step includes developing a data governance framework or strategy to ensure data quality, manage data privacy concerns and address issues related to legacy machines and infrastructure, interoperability and pockets of missing data. A maturity model will help cities identify their current readiness, track progress and measure success.

  2. Explore digital twin applications based on the challenges we discussed. Issues related to constituent equity, like sustainability, affordable housing, water access, air quality and public transportation, are all priorities for Arizona urban planners. The Connective is focusing on issues like these to drive innovation in city planning initiatives.

  3. Organize educational content and workforce development opportunities. The success of this workshop reinforces the need for greater awareness, education and workforce development opportunities related to technology like digital twins. We’re working on educating more key stakeholders on how they can use digital twins and other technology to improve the quality of life for their constituents.

Do you want to learn more about city innovations like digital twin technology? Learn how to join The Connective as an industry or community partner.

Siradel helping cities build climate-based simulations. Learn more about their efforts and successful projects.


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