The introduction of digital twin technology has been the most path-breaking innovation of the 21st century. The technology has found immediate application in every economy sector, especially in manufacturing, healthcare, and distribution. In recent times, the AEC industry has also shown an inclination toward creating digital twins to address the unorganized nature of business.
The adoption of this futuristic technology has enabled us to go from building one brick at a time to building one blockchain at a time. Architects, urban designers, and urban planners are using the technology to create a virtual world replica of the built environment to understand the feasibility of their work in the long run.
History of Digital Twins
The first account of the digital twin technology can be traced back to David Gelernter’s 1991 book “Mirror Worlds,” where he explores the impact of computational technology on the future world. The concept and model of the digital twin were, however, first publicly introduced by Michael Grieves in 2002 at a Society of Manufacturing Engineers conference held in Troy, Michigan. He proposed the concept of the digital twins as a study model for product lifecycle management. The term “digital twins” was formally invented by John Vickers of NASA in a “2010 Roadmap Report”.
How Does Digital Twinning Work?
The digital twin technology is data-driven. A network of sensors fetches the data for creating the virtual sibling of a physical world. The framework of digital twins consists of three parts:
- The physical object – the real product
- The virtual object – the digitally cloned product
- The connection between the physical and the virtual object – the data that flows from physical to virtual product and the information that is supplied from the virtual to physical product
The digital twin so created can be used to understand the peculiarities of the built and unbuilt environment through their complete life cycle. Analyzing the data in combination with other sources of information helps in understanding the subject of study at its origin and making predictions for its future.
Very often, parallels are drawn between digital twins and 3D modeling based on their user interface and visualization. However, what distinguishes them is the factor of data. While 3D modeling is limited to providing a view of an object, digital twinning provides a view and real-time data of the object. Digital twins go a step further in exploring how various environmental conditions will impact the object over a period of time.
How Can Digital Twins Improve Urban Planning?
The world is fast urbanizing. It is anticipated that 56% of the world’s population will live in cities. Hence, cities need to be resourcefully prepared for a massive population influx. But, given the haphazard growth of most urban areas in the world, digital twins can help streamline urban developments with the help of data analytics. By creating digital twins of cities, one can virtually test and enact policies, design principles, and construction methods in the real world. The adoption of digital twins can revolutionize how cities are designed, operated, maintained, and sustained to enhance the quality of life of their citizens.
Effective Policy Making
Municipal authorities and other local governing bodies can benefit from the digital twin technology by using the data for planning, finalizing investment strategies, and identifying opportunities. They can run simulations of proposed policies in the virtual world and study their impact before implementing them in the real world. Globally, cities such as Singapore, Helsinki, and United Arab Emirates are investing in digital twin technology for various goals ranging from sustainability to transit-oriented development, building retrofitting projects, and scope for virtual tourism.
Environmental Risk Mitigation
With the alarming increase in global warming and climate change, digital twin technology can help in mapping the future environment and its impact on cities. Data such as the rise in sea levels and the movement of tectonic plates in the virtual city can be used to direct the development of the physical city. By assessing the risk, cities can be better prepared to abate natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and cyclones.
Audit Structural Stability
Owing to low-quality construction, the collapse of buildings has become an everyday affair in cities leading to the loss of life and resources. Creating a digital twin before beginning the physical process of construction can help determine the suitability of the construction materials and practices. This will help in the creation of secure and healthy neighborhoods that help urban communities to thrive. Civic authorities can use the data for auditing the structural strength of old buildings, thereby vacating the neighborhood on time to prevent any physical damage.
Save Energy and Operational Costs
The data availed from digital twins can be used to optimize the building services system, which will help in reducing the structure’s energy consumption and operational costs. Urban planners can also identify the potential of building rooftops for solar gain to power buildings. The gamut of renewable energy can be invariably explored in the digital twin city to help reduce the urban heat island effect and improve buildings’ self-sufficiency.
Improve Infrastructure Network
With the data available from digital twin cities, transport planners, in association with urban planners, can identify the possibility of bottlenecks and traffic congestion in the physical city. The requirement of flyovers and road expansions can be pre-determined by identifying the growth of on-road automobiles. The potency of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) for enhancing public transportation in cities can be optimally tested and devised to suit urban sprawl.
The possibilities with digital twinning do not stop at the technicalities of urban planning but go further to explore revenue generation from virtual tourism. While 360-degree views of streets and buildings have already been available in the market. Digital twinning takes this technology a step further. In digital twins, people can do more than just view a place. They can shop, play, learn, and even be a citizen of the virtual city.
For instance, Virtual Helsinki is a digital twin of the Helsinki City center, created by Zoan in high-quality 3D for VR, where people can virtually visit and do activities. Virtual tourism promotes a sustainable way of living by allowing people to experience the world from the comfort of their homes.
Case in Point
While many countries are yet to explore the potential of digital twin technology, Singapore has already created a live test case for its virtual look-alike. The city-state model comprises 3 million images captured at street level along with 160,000 images captured aerially. More than a billion data points have been plotted in 3D, which amounts to 100 terabytes+ of data. The model’s foundation will rely on 14 core datasets encompassing land use, tree cover, and underground utilities. The entire island will be continuously mapped with aerial and street mapping tools to keep the digital twin relevant and on par with Singapore’s evolution.
With its digital twin in place, Singapore envisions addressing its long-standing issue of the urban heat island effect. The virtual city will be used to study the feasibility of new building developments in the city and their impact on immediate surroundings. The policymakers will also study the model for identifying potential infrastructure pitfalls and propose appropriate solutions for future Singapore. In the future, Singapore also aims to use digital twins to reconstruct scenes of accidents through digital forensics and scenario planning for autonomous vehicles and robots.
The benefits of digital twin technology have encouraged global IT leaders to work towards advancing digital twin software. Leading IT giants, namely Microsoft, GE Digital, Siemens, and Dassault Systemes, have already created digital twin software. Innovators in the AEC industry, such as Cityzenith, have launched a digital twin software program specifically for the built environment. Another leading digital twin software is SmartWorldPro which facilitates the design and management of buildings and other real estate forms.
Using digital twin technology in urban planning improves the decision-making ability of its stakeholders. It establishes the hope for a future city that is more sustainable, people-centric, organized, and desirable.