Smart cities: A tale of twin cities

What will the cities of the future look like? Robert Mankowski, Senior Vice President of Digital Cities at Bentley Systems takes Tech for Good for a tour of Porto, London, Shaoxing and Kalasatama and reveals how digital twin technology can be used to design smarter, resilient and more sustainable cities

Cities are living systems, and they are growing at a lightning pace. While 2007 was the year when, for the first time in history, over 50% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, this number is predicted to rise to 68% by 2050, according to the United Nations. In less than 30 years’ time, cities all over the world will have to accommodate seven billion people and therefore see significant change.

Over the last century, cities have adapted to the modern world. They have become more and more complex to accommodate innovations such as cars, public transport, streetlights, and water and sewage systems. However, although technological advancements are a huge reason why cities change, they have also become a fundamental tool for managing that growing complexity. Digital twin technology is one of the tools that public bodies are leveraging in order to design and construct the smart, resilient and more sustainable cities of the future.

A digital twin is a virtual replica of a process, system or asset. It combines information and operation technologies to provide a holistic and up-to-date view of that asset in the virtual world. NASA was one of the first ones to use this technology, and it was only thanks to Apollo 13’s digital twin, that engineers on Earth could identify the failure on the spacecraft’s oxygen tank and rescue the mission. However, digital twins are not static reproductions.

“The virtual replica is connected to the physical process or system or assets, and so those data flows go both ways,” says Robert Mankowski, Senior Vice President of the Digital Cities Business at Bentley Systems. “You have the virtual world, that you are using to evaluate scenarios and make decisions but, ultimately, those decisions result in actions in the real world. And then, since you’re sensing what’s happening in the physical world, that data becomes part of the virtual twin, creating a cycle.”

Bentley Systems is a company that provides innovative software solutions to advance the world’s infrastructure, and generates annual revenues of over $800 million in the process. Its Digital Cities business focuses on helping public bodies and urban ecosystems leverage digital twin technology to improve the design, construction, and operations of its roads, bridges, railways, water, wastewater and utility systems, among many others. The goal is to enhance the quality of life of citizens.

“A city is a collection of systems, and they are all connected,” Mankowski says. “You have electricity providers, telecommunications, transportation, safety, health services; cities have all these different departments that are each running their systems, and a digital twin can help bring all of these information systems together into a more holistic view of the city.”

Digital twins have endless use cases. In city planning, they can simulate the movement of people for emergency evacuations, monitor and predict air quality, analyse cyber threats and model road traffic, flooding risks, energy management and smart building design. By 2025, it is expected that over 5,000 cities will have a digital twin, according to ABI Research.

The Nordic countries have long past embraced cities’ digital future and are using digital twin technology to realise it. The best example of this is in Finland, with Helsinki 3D Plus.

Robert Mankowski

“Helsinki has been using Bentley technology to build 3D models of the city for decades,” Mankowski says. “The most recent version of this is what they call Helsinki 3D Plus, which brings together a couple of models of the city. One of them is based on Bentley technology called ContextCapture. ContextCapture uses automated photogrammetry; it takes photographs and laser scans to reconstruct the geometry of the city. And they’re bringing this 3D model together with a model based on CityGML, which an open standard from the Open Geospatial Consortium, which contains more information and semantics about what’s going on with the objects in the city.”

ContextCapture provides cities with a 3D reality mesh, a model of real-world conditions in which each digital component can be automatically recognised and geospatially referenced. These models are particularly useful in the making of design, construction, and operations decisions. Helsinki is leveraging this technology alongside Bentley’s OpenCities Planner platform to create a digital twin of its city, but also specifically in the Kalasatama district, which has become an “experimental district for smart city technologies”.

Kalasatama has been designed as a pilot project, a living experiment to test innovative solutions that will drive Finland’s vision of achieving a carbon-neutral Helsinki by 2035. All its buildings are connected to a smart grid, which enables real-time smart metering, an electric vehicles network and new storage solutions for electricity. A solar power plant provides green energy for the district, which is connected to a common heating and cooling grid.

Moreover, the entire community is connected to an underground air-tube system for waste management. All of these innovative systems that run through Kalasatama could not be designed and managed without a clear understanding of how the district looks and behaves, and that is what Bentley’s digital twin technology allows.

Nonetheless, the key to Kalasatama’s success is not technical, but cultural.

“When we talk about change, there’s obviously the technology side of it, but there’s also the people and process side,” Mankowski says. “I think Helsinki is a really good example of that. They made the culture to be much more oriented around having your decisions informed by data. They wanted to change the culture so that, when a city department or someone in the city ecosystems — whether it is an engineering firm, a survey firm, a university or an architect — wants to understand a part of the city, they go to the digital twin and they can access the data. And that’s a cultural change that needed to take place before you can really take full advantage of the technology.”

This cultural change permeates all levels of Kalasamata’s design, from decision-makers down to citizens. The city was planned in close co-operation with over 200 stakeholders including residents, companies, city officials and researchers. Through Bentley’s OpenCities Planner platform, the district’s digital twin and its design plans have been made available to the public, allowing stakeholders and citizens to actively participate in the urban planning process.

“Kalasatama really opens up the urban planning process to all stakeholders, so that they can participate in a more inclusive way,” Mankowski says. “The OpenCities Planner application has a way of being configured so that you can create forms that people can interact with and crowdsource ideas about what can be improved in the city. That can be something as simple as someone noting that there’s a pothole in the street at a certain location, or something as big as a solar power plant.”

But how do you start this cultural change?

Rome wasn’t built in one day, and neither was Kalasatama. Helsinki’s smart city initiative is still only a pilot, and its design and construction will take many years. This is one of the reasons that public bodies struggle when taking the step to create a digital twin. Large-scale smart modernisation projects such as Helsinki 3D Plus often require large amounts of funding and enthusiasm that are difficult to find, although not impossible.

“Some of the advice that I provide is that you don’t have to tackle everything at once,” Mankowski says. “We see that even with a water system. A water system, although it’s one big system, can often be thought of as a set of connected systems: potable water distribution, sanitary sewage collection and disposal and treatment, stormwater management. You can start with one of those systems and use 3D models to make predictions and determine the benefits of bringing this information together. You can work it out on a smaller scale, which is faster to get value from, and learn the lessons for the challenges you’ll face scaling it out to the whole city or water system.”

A great example of using digital twin technology to monitor and manage a water system is Bentley’s project in the city of Porto, in Portugal. There, the development of a digital twin for the water system led to improvements in citizens’ quality of life, as it ensured a more sustainable water supply. For example, the technology led to a reduction in the amount of non-revenue water as well as the number of burst pipes, and the time it took to repair them.

“Many of the challenges that cities face are also faced by some parts of the city, like a university campus or an airport, or a seaport,” Mankowski says. “Any complex system of systems that has buildings, utilities, transport systems, etc coming together in one environment can benefit from using digital twins to have a better understanding of how that environment works and behaves.”

In this sense, universities are like small cities. Mankowski’s team has supported and overseen the development of a digital twin of the Royal Holloway University of London campus. The university used mobile scanning, which includes both photogrammetry and lidar technology and brought it together alongside their bin data and metadata in Bentley’s Orbit GT environment. Orbit GT allows stakeholders to view all the data in one single place, without the need for specialised software, allowing them to make better-informed decisions.

Another situation where digital twin technology is extremely useful is in the design of underground transportation networks, particularly in cities with rich historical heritage or difficult geographical locations. This is the case of Shaoxing’s new Urban Rail Transit Line 1, the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history. With more than 2,500 years of history, Shaoxing is one of the oldest cities in China. Protecting the remains of Shaoxing’s ancient buildings, and constructing in a 21-square-kilometre area known for abundant rainfall and with numerous lakes and rivers, cannot be approached without careful planning.

“The China project used a broad array of products from Bentley as well as some of their own products that they developed for doing the engineering of the whole project,” Mankowski says. “They used Bentley’s ContextCapture to create that reality mesh and they used OpenRoads, our sub-surface utility engineering projects, to create the 3D bin models of the sub-surface utilities that are along the railway route. Then they also used our iTwin technology to bring all of this together into a digital twin and have a unified view of everything.”

All of these projects rest upon the importance of data for informed decision making. They leverage information about a city’s buildings but also the behaviour of its citizens, and how each of the city’s systems are used, to understand how to improve them. However, when one has access to this rich pool of data, concerns arise regarding its protection.

“Public bodies should be concerned,” Mankowski says. “They have a responsibility to the citizens and to the city to keep that data safe and to make sure that it’s only used for the right purposes. They should ask their providers what they are doing for security and privacy, what platforms they use to manage all this information and whether they comply with standards and have certifications. And their vendors, like Bentley Systems, should have good answers to that. But I don’t want to be misconstrued and suggest that that means that they shouldn’t embark on a digital twin opportunity, because I obviously don’t think that.

“Another important aspect is the balance between being private and secure but also being open. Using Helsinki as an example, they have a culture of open data. It’s about keeping the data that should be private private, but also making data available so that organisations can use it to provide services that improve the lives of citizens. One of the things that Bentley is doing on the openness front is making a core part of our digital twin platform open-source so that the data is not locked into a specific vendor and others can use it to build applications.”

Openness and information sharing will be one of the key drivers of smart cities, according to Mankowski. Digital twin technologies provide an understanding of how citizens behave around cities, allow public authorities to improve energy efficiency, emergency management and overall better quality of life for all. Citizen engagement and collaboration will be key in the design of smarter, safer and more sustainable cities.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen, but the one thing we can predict is that things are going to change,” Mankowski says. “As for me, there are enough examples now of how digital twins can help deal with, manage and understand change, and help those decision-makers plan for change and even plant for the unexpected.”

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