The Virtual Singapore replica is not only a three-dimensional model of the city, it is also a collaborative data platform with all kinds of information collected in real time. Credit: Dassault Systèmes.

Digital twins to design the city of the future

Virtual copies are already being used in construction projects to prevent design errors, to simulate the operation of buildings and to achieve energy savings of up to 40%. This technology is now being brought into urban planning. Cities such as Singapore have already implemented projects that allow for experimentation on these virtual duplicates in pursuit of more holistic urban developments.

Video Credit: The Virtual Singapore platform is open to the public and private sector, researchers and civil society, to develop applications and perform tests. (National Research Foundation Singapore)




With nearly 6 million inhabitants and one of the highest population densities in the world, Singapore has become a benchmark in the integration of the most innovative technologies for urban planning and management. Its Virtual Singapore project, a digital replica of the city, is an example of the advantages of establishing a "bridge" between the real world and its virtual counterparts. It is one of the most advanced so-called digital twins, a kind of virtual laboratory for monitoring cities and predicting possible incidents affecting their infrastructure and services.

This virtual replication system is not new. Although the technology was introduced in the early 1970s with the use of the first simulators in the launch of Apollo XIII, the term "digital twin" was coined by Michael Grieves, a computer engineer, and John Vickers, NASA's director of technology, to refer to these digital replicas of a physical space in virtual space. In this way they created the first virtual environment for carrying out simulations, seeking ways to represent and diagnose problems in orbits.

Beyond the aerospace environment, this technology has already been used in industry, in construction and even to safeguard heritage, in most cases to test out designs in a virtual world before implementing them in the physical one. In doing so, costs are reduced and the risk of failure can be detected.


The benchmark: Virtual Singapore


Thanks to technologies such as the Internet of Things, big data and cloud computing, accurate data is collected that generates layers of information from buildings, public services, businesses and the movements of people and vehicles, which are useful for urban planners to experiment with a priori. In a city like Singapore, with one of the highest population densities in the world, the system enables the creation of a dynamic three-dimensional model and a collaborative data platform with all kinds of information, including data on demographics, weather or traffic in real time, which will be essential for making decisions previously tested on the virtual replica.

The aim is that both public and private agents and the research community can use the system for planning, management and research into technologies to solve emerging challenges in the city. For example, this digital twin could be utilised to simulate emergency situations in stadiums or shopping centres and to establish evacuation protocols or to adjust transport systems according to needs after taking into account patterns of movement.

Behind the development of the software is the French company Dassault Systemes. "With images and data collected from various public agencies, as well as legacy and real-time data, Virtual Singapore allows all users to visualize in 3D how the city will be developed and evolve with time in response to population growth, new construction and other major events," the company says.

Other cities are already following in Singapore's footsteps. Yingtan in China is building the first digital-twin city equipped with 5G+ NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things) networks. The consulting firm ABI Research expects that by 2025 some 500 cities will be using digital twins. Dominique Bonte, the company's vice-president of end markets, indicates that there will probably not be a single digital twin for an entire city. Rather, she foresees that there will be an integration of different specific digital twins of smart buildings, traffic infrastructure, power grids and water management systems.



Kubik is the first European building with a digital twin. Its virtual replica makes it possible to prevent facility failures, simulate activity and save up to 40% energy. Credit: Tecnalia.

From planning to optimised city management

In fact, these virtual models have become indispensable tools for measuring the pulse of cities in real time. The virtual copying of buildings makes it possible, for example, to avoid mistakes in the installation of equipment and facilities, to simulate the operation of the building and to achieve energy savings of up to 40%. This is what is happening with the Kubik building, which is located in the Bizkaia Science and Technology Park and has a total of 3,400 sensors that continuously monitor what is happening inside. Tecnalia, the company that developed this digital twin, can know, for example, which spaces are most used, whether a lift has failed or whether there are problems with the cooling or heating system.

This constant monitoring, together with the use of digital twins, can be useful in very different contexts. Sacyr, in collaboration with the startup Talent Swarm, creates digital twins to optimise the management of its industrial water plants. Desalination plants, according to the company, are very delicate and require constant monitoring and maintenance to ensure the quality of the filtered water. With the use of virtual twins, the aim is to reduce maintenance and operating costs, predict breakdowns and minimise costs associated with the travel of expert personnel.

On the other hand, there are companies whose services enable the monitoring of everything that happens in an office to optimise space and reduce costs. Digital twins can also be very useful in airports to help manage operations and avoid congestion. For example, they can display aircraft movements, the length of the entrance and security queue, the status of escalators, foot-traffic patterns in the passenger area and even passenger satisfaction levels with the bathrooms. The data collected, together with artificial intelligence systems, can help to decide how to manage runways or even predict when an aircraft will land.

There are, therefore, many different companies interested in this technology. 13% of organisations implementing Internet of Things projects already use digital twinsaccording to the consultancy firm Gartner, and some 62% of firms plan to do so soon. Benoit Lheureux, Vice President of Research at Gartner, predicts that by 2022, over two-thirds of companies that have implemented IoT will have deployed at least one digital twin, a practice that will become increasingly common in the cities of the future.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog. 

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