Project Management Institute

A Model City

Virtual Replicas Might Reshape City Projects of the Future

Cities are dynamic—and even the simplest of projects can have unknown ripple effects. But what if there was a way to see exactly how a change will affect all aspects of a city?

A city's “digital twin” is a virtual replica that pulls information from government agencies, 3D models, internet of things technology, real-time data and other sources. Armed with this data, for instance, city officials can analyze the impact of construction work on traffic or the noise pollution from new rail lines; urban planners can look at sun patterns to optimize a new solar energy project; and public stakeholders can visualize and comprehend the implications of proposals. Several cities, including Singapore and Paris, France, are pursuing technology development projects to build such virtual city models.

The five-year, SG$73 million Virtual Singapore project is slated to launch later this year. Live video feeds from security cameras, satellite imagery or archival photos gathered by artificial intelligence will elevate the model from 3D representation to true virtual replica. Virtual Singapore is a public-private partnership among French software company Dassault Systèmes, which built the digital platform, private companies and a variety of Singaporean state organizations.

“The Singapore 3D model will be useful in anticipating challenges that may arise as a result of future decisions,” says Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, PhD, senior lecturer in urban planning at the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia. “It also provides a clear underpinning for making informed policy changes within cities and is a good tool to better engage with communities by visualizing their needs and wants.”

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—Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, PhD, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

The possibilities for digital twins extend to cities that haven't been built yet. The Indian government is sponsoring the development of a new administrative capital, Amaravati, in Andhra Pradesh, which is set for completion in 2025. Amaravati's digital twin will serve as a command and control platform during the city's construction. The technology will model how planned infrastructure will behave in a physical environment before the project team breaks ground and will give the team the ability to monitor results in real time once construction begins. For example, Amaravati's digital twin will simulate how buildings and materials will stand up to the heat—temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in Andhra Pradesh.

Virtual Sandbox

In Singapore, state officials have recognized the potential benefits of making such a model available: Businesses can use the data to better optimize their offerings for their demographics, and researchers can use the model to experiment with how to integrate new technologies and services into the cityscape.

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Singapore was a ripe candidate for such a project. The city-state both embraces cutting-edge technology and has limited physical capacity for municipal experimentation. “Virtual Singapore eliminates the necessity of trying these plans out in actual, physical environments in which we have very little space,” Singapore Land Authority official Ng Siau Yong said in a promotional video last year.

While the technology being developed in this project is groundbreaking, the challenges faced by the project team won't be unfamiliar, Dr. Mateo-Babiano says. “Common roadblocks include data availability, technical capability and financial constraints—especially if the project is not a priority for the city.” As a result, she says successful execution relies in large part on cooperation among multiple stakeholders, project leaders and developers.—CJ Waity

Above, the Virtual Singapore project helps predict wind patterns. Here, a virtual replica of the city

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