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How cities use Digital Twins

A new technology that creates virtual models of cities and simulates various scenarios can significantly impact the development of urban planning.

An urban area of Orlando, state Florida, with an area of 100 square kilometers may soon actually be inside the offices of the Orlando Economic Partnership (OEP). The group collaborates with the Unity gaming company to develop a three-dimensional model of the area. 

The planned showcase in Orlando is one of the most striking applications of the new technology, which is being praised as a potential opportunity to change urban planning. Digital twins allow cities not only to create virtual models, but also to run simulations of new city rules or infrastructure projects and pre-evaluate their potential impact before making a decision in the real world.

They may also be one of the most tangible opportunities for cities in the race for the metaverse, an immersive network of virtual worlds that some consider the future of urban life. Using three-dimensional mapping and analysis of static and real-time data, municipalities and enterprises are increasingly introducing digital twin technology.

Orlando expects to use its digital twin technology not only for virtual tours. He also hopes to pre-evaluate how various investments, such as the modernization of the public transport system can influence the built environment and its residents. 

Several other U.S. cities are building replicas to simulate strategies to combat traffic congestion and achieve basic environmental goals. 

Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York and Phoenix are creating digital counterparts to reduce emissions in buildings as part of the Clean Cities - Clean Future campaign from software developer Cityzenith. Cities around the world from Singapore to Helsinki and Dubai are also investing in this technology, pursuing a variety of goals: from sustainability to the development of virtual tourism. 

This technology can help officials reduce operating costs and carbon dioxide emissions during new construction, as well as avoid costly modifications after the project is completed. With the ever-looming climate crisis facing urban areas, this could allow cities to test the effectiveness of various measures against sea level rise and urban heat.  

According to some estimates by 2030, digital twins can save cities about 280 billion dollars.

Proof of concept

While most cities are in the early stages of creating their own digital counterparts, virtual Singapore is a real experience of what the technology is capable of. The model of the island nation includes more than 3 million images taken at road level and 160,000 images taken from the air, as well as billions of data points built in 3D, which is more than 100 terabytes of raw data. The basis of the model will be based on 14 main data sets on everything from land use to forest cover and underground utilities.

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This model is considered the key to the goal of sustainable construction. Since almost 6 million people live in an area of only 720 square kilometers, there is almost no chance of error. 

"We needed a smart, accurate, reliable and consistent digital twin," says Khu, head of Singapore's national 3D mapping campaign. Khu says that the model is smart in that it distinguishes buildings from trees, roads from sidewalks, etc., which makes it easier to check the reaction of individual elements in various simulations. Windows, roofs and facades of buildings are also considered as separate assets. 

In a recent experiment, researchers wanted to calculate the amount of solar energy a city can use from its vertical structures by studying how much sunlight each part of the building receives. "Scientists can look at every square meter of the roof, and they will understand that if I put a solar panel on the right [and not on the left], I can get more energy," says Khoo, adding that they can also optimize the number of panels that can be placed to maximize the benefits. 

Struggling to reduce temperatures, Singapore is also carefully studying how new developments can affect the environment. When developers propose a new building, the model is used to analyze how it can affect the flow of wind, shade and solar heat. 

In the future, it is planned to use the digital twin for other purposes, from the reconstruction of accident sites using "digital criminalistics" to the planning of scenarios for autonomous vehicles and robots.