Smart Data

Digital twins in urban planning: scalable solutions for complex structures

Twins are as alike as two peas in a pod. This also applies to so-called digital twins. They are viewed in a positive light in the industrial and manufacturing sector, as well as in urban planning and development, precisely because they are so similar. 

More and more data is being recorded and collected in and about our urban living environments. This can be of great benefit for the development of our towns and cities, particularly when the information obtained is used to translate the data into a dynamic digital map. To create these digital twins, the status quo first needs to be recorded on many different levels and in different areas of a city. This is needed to enable informed correlations for future urban planning decisions to be made. Of course, this information was also combined in pre-digital times. But never before has it been so easy or possible to map it in a kind of integrated system, visualise it and then scale it up. 

The possibility of visualising towns and cities also plays a role on another level that is not to be underestimated: a political level. The arguments in favour of a new supply system or a switch to smart technologies – possibly relating to a town’s lighting system – can be substantiated more clearly if they are presented visually and, literally, become visible. In view of the complex correlations in urban planning, any town or city wishing to become more sustainable and climate-friendly can no longer avoid designing it on a digital drawing board. 

How does the digital map work?

The aim of digital twins is to optimise urban situations and processes based on detailed, and preferably current, data. Future plans, solutions or technical applications are visualised by digital technicians, and their function is simulated in the overall infrastructure of the city. Achieving this first needs all the available data about a town – either in the form of physical or digital maps. This information is then transferred to a three-dimensional model, either by 3D printing or 3D simulation. The spatially relevant data from the existing “data silos” of the various urban areas is then networked together. In essence, the digital twins thus create the basis for the construction and development of smart cities. They help to apprise the different stakeholders of the integrative data situation and any associated problems. And they also show specific perspectives. The inhabitants of a town or city can also become better informed and involved in advance about possible developments. Or at least, that is the theory. 

The Fraunhofer ‘Morgenstadt’ Initiative

The Morgenstadt Initiative: this is a German network that has been dealing with the issue of the “city of the future” for some years and is regarded as one of the pioneers in the use of “digital twins in urban planning”. It is an innovation network of various Fraunhofer Institutes, local authorities and companies. It was founded in 2012 and has implemented a three-phase program up to 2020. In Phase 1, the initial aim was to obtain an understanding of urban systems by defining key sectors for the “city of the future” and identifying concepts and innovations currently being tested around the world. In Phase 2, the knowledge and expertise gained up to that point was incorporated in the development of urban pilot districts and cities. The project was then to progress to specific implementation for innovative urban projects. The launch of the Digital City Program this summer will use the content and results of the initiative in a regional and local environment using digital twins and VR applications. The Dutch city of Eindhoven is the first of the trial projects.

German lighthouse projects

Munich City Council launched its Connected Digital Twins pilot project at the start of 2019. Its declared aim was “the development of new and innovative applications for urban development and forms of participation.” The focus of Munich City Council’s endeavours to use digital twins is to achieve better air quality and thus promote climate protection in the long term through data-based measures. The buzz word is climate-neutral mobility. Virtual mapping is used to analyse the distribution and actual use of mobility-sharing services. The information obtained is then used to achieve optimum capacity utilisation in urban areas with the aim of reducing air pollution. An extremely detailed insight into the current state of the developments was provided at the end of last year at the #OGTM20.

Digitaler Zwilling der Stadt München #OGTM20 (only in German)


Alongside Munich, both Leipzig and Hamburg are already working on a data-driven platform with digital cloning to future-proof their cities within the scope of federal government-funded projects. 

The example of Singapore 

The island and city state of Singapore is considered to be one of the flagship models when it comes to setting up and using digital twins. The entire city has now been captured in a 3D model with detailed static, dynamic and real-time information. In the event of a crisis, scenarios can be tested using the digital map to better assess an acute situation, such as a storm, and respond accordingly. The digital map can also help to make optimum use of the city's tight living space and incorporate the city’s unique climatic conditions in further building development. Urban planners are developing possible solutions to reduce the build-up of heat, which can be debilitating to the inhabitants of the city as part of the “Cooling Singapore” project. Construction scenarios, the use of materials or even concepts for the “greening” of buildings and their possible impact are tested in the twin. Deep- learning technologies, AI and an established cloud infrastructure provide the basis that makes this all possible. It is obvious that a project, such as this, comes at a price. The construction of the digitally cloned city is said to have cost around €45 million.  

Diverse use scenarios and long-term cost efficiency 

The last few weeks have given us an idea of the role that urban planning can play when faced with the climate crisis, if we are to intelligently design the urban environment and protect the people, their buildings and infrastructure from the possible effects of the climate crisis. Although the investment costs initially seem immense, it is rapidly becoming clear that this investment is needed to future-proof many different aspects of our towns and cities. In the long term, this should save costs. At least the “Digital Twins and Urban Infrastructure Planning application analysis” survey conducted by ABI Research concludes that cities could save US$280 billion by 2030 by using digital twins in urban planning. But in addition to a good digital infrastructure, this also requires increasingly good management tools and trained specialists. 

Text: Alexa Brandt