Digital twins can help cities around the world to prepare for and recover from future shocks including pandemics, a leader in engineering technology says.

Speaking at the recent Year in Infrastructure (YII) event held by engineering and construction software provider Bentley Systems, Robert Mankowski, SVP of Digital Cities at Bentley, said digital twins can help cities to plan for and recover from future shocks and events including future pandemics.\

Whilst the current COVID-19 situation is unprecedented, Mankowski says global pandemics are not unforeseeable and had been talked about in Hollywood for some time – albeit with the real one not necessarily having played out the way that might have been anticipated.

He says digital twins – digital representations of real-world cities, precincts or assets along with data which sits behind important operations – can help cities to prepare.

“The idea of a digital twin – which really represents a virtual replica of your city – could really be used as a platform for planning for different types of events including a pandemic and the post-pandemic world,” Mankowski said.

“How do we reopen our cities? How do we modify the way we deliver services as a city to deal with the post pandemic world?

“I think for city infrastructure that is affected by the pandemic and other types of events, the city digital twin is a great platform for that planning.”

Makowski’s comments come as several examples of cities using digital twins to improve operations and outcomes were highlighted during the event.

Whilst his comments refer to resilience and recovery from shocks, the technology is being used for a range of applications.

In Helsinki, the city has built two different but complementary 3D models of its city. In one model, it has used laser scanning, point clouds and ariel images taken every two to three years to produce a reality mesh model with semi-automated modelling processes which delivers an accurate photographic model of the real environment throughout the city. The other model stores data and 3D information which is critical to the city and its operations.

Using this, the city aims to develop new digital services as well as to pioneer solutions to help it achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

In one application, the model can be used to produce heat maps showing solar radiation levels across different parts of the city during various months of the year. Areas where radiation is particularly intense are highlighted in red.

In project planning and community consultation, meanwhile, Bentley software known as OpenCities Planner allows Helsinki to showcase the 3D model the city, search for and add information about current and planned projects and demonstrate how the area will look after certain projects are constructed.

Whilst out and about, citizens can use their mobile to show how their location will look in the future including how dense the environment will look and how high particular buildings will be.

The city model is also used to plan and evaluate all new projects.

All of this is being provided in an open data environment. This will enable private businesses and others to devise applications beyond those which the city itself has foreseen.

Products used to create this include ContextCapture, various 3D reality modelling applications and ProjectWise.

The Energy and Climate Atlas produced as part of the digital twin in Helsinki contains both rwak and calculated analysis and can be used for analysis and simulation as well as to assess the energy performance of specific buildings. Areas marked red are areas of high energy output.

In Dublin, meanwhile, the city is creating a digital twin using a combination of Azure IoT Digital Twins and Azure Maps from Microsoft along with the iTwins platform from Bentley as part of broader moves to become a smart city.

One area in which the city believes this will be useful is citizen engagement.

Using its digital twin, the city hopes to move away from a ‘town hall’ approach to community consultation and to enable residents to access a more intuitive appreciation of how planned developments will impact their area.

This will help to reach a wider audience and transition the city toward a model of co-innovation and co-design.

Speaking of pandemics and other events, Mankowski said the value of digital twins should not be underestimated.

“Situations do not unfold the way you expect them to,” Mankowski said.

“Although the pandemic was not unforeseeable and people have made movies about it, I’m sure it didn’t happen exactly the way that people may have anticipated.

“Using the city infrastructure digital twin for planning lets you explore different scenarios and understand how things operate and work. It’s about integrating the data sources that you have including the real time data.

“Even though it (a given situation) doesn’t unfold the way people anticipated, that planning process takes data into the digital twin and creates actionable intelligence. It can also be used to share that data with different stakeholders.

“That really helps people prepare for, respond to and even recover from a pandemic.”