Technology such as digital twins and the Internet of Things (IoT) will improve how cities are designed and operated, a senior executive at a leading multi-national software company says.

During a recent interview following his company’s online Year in Infrastructure conference, Phil Christensen, Vice President – Digital Cities, Reality + Spatial Modeling at engineering software provider Bentley Systems, told Sourceable that opportunities for cities to leverage technology to improve outcomes should not be underestimated.

According to Christensen, the past decade has seen a divergence in urban development.

Across the developed world, places such as Brooklyn in the US and Sydney and Melbourne in Australia have undergone a regeneration which has seen young people move into city centres, reduced reliance on private vehicle ownership and greater vibrancy around CBDs.

In developing countries, however, cities such as Jakarta, Lagos and Mumbai are expanding at a rapid pace – a phenomenon which poses difficulties regarding infrastructure.

Going forward, Christensen sees challenges in two areas.

Amid a changing climate, cities need to both reduce emissions within their boundaries and adapt their built form to improve resilience to climate impacts. He says action can be seen through initiatives such as the 100 Resilient Cities program.

Second, there is a need to balance competing demands and considerations. Demands for technology and security, for example, need to be offset against those for privacy and civil liberties. The need to foster economic growth and promote investment must be balanced with that to provide green space and quality of life.

On this last point, Christensen says technology can help to improve citizen engagement (see below).

According to Christensen, technology presents opportunities across strategic planning, technical planning, community consultation and municipal operations.

Across each of these areas, opportunities arise through creation of a city-scale digital twin. This combines layers of data from geospatial sources, reality sources, BIM representations of proposed developments, IoT and historical data on rental and operational information to deliver a city-scale digital representation of the entire city.

During strategic planning, this can be used to pitch for funding and investment from state or federal governments or to work with developers on different parcels of land.

For technical planning on individual projects, the city-wide digital twin can bring together contextual information such as the location of utilities, terrain modelling and flooding information into a single source. This provides an intuitive and easily understood context surrounding the site which can be used to inform design decisions, better understand project opportunities and risk and to communicate this information to external stakeholders such as investors or lenders.

On citizen engagement, Christensen says a city-wide digital twin can promote greater openness and transparency. Take, for example, a proposed new development on industrial land. Instead of having people rely on (easily manipulated) artistic impressions, a digital twin could enable residents to analyse impacts upon views from their apartment window or shadowing on different days of the year.

Finally, technology is helping cities to operate more effectively. Parties such as transport and utility operators can leverage information from a common digital twin to execute operational decisions. Here, connected sensors, the Internet of Things and cloud processing can help to deliver automated, real-time data which can be processed and used for applications such as street lighting and to determine levels of air and water quality. In Amsterdam, Bentley is working with the government on a project through which sensors attached to a fleet of mobile vehicles are being used for parking management. The same data will simultaneously form the basis for a digital model of the city’s streetscape.

Asked how Bentley was responding, Christensen said the company’s offerings served cities themselves, asset owners such as public utilities or private developers and design and construction professionals such as engineers, architects and others.

For cities themselves, Bentley’s OpenCities Planner can facilitate strategic decision making and community consultation as per examples above.

For asset owners, the iTwin platform helps to better understand the condition of existing assets.

For engineers, the iTwin platform facilitates collaboration in design review and better design insights when assets are renewed, renovated and operated. Automatic processing of the data in the models can facilitate greater understanding of the future performance of the asset. Other offerings such as SYNCHRO are being used for planning construction whilst ProjectWise helps to deliver effective work sharing and collaboration during project delivery.

Finally, Christensen makes two other points.

As workers return to city centres, applications such as Bentley’s LEGION passenger simulation software are being used to plan how this can be done in a COVID safe manner whilst avoiding excessive crowding at stations.

In general technology, offerings such as Microsoft’s Azure Cloud can be used to process and distribute information from robots, drones, aircraft or mobile phones. With the latest iPhones now including in-built laser scanners, opportunities for people to add data via their phones are proliferating.

Overall, however, Christensen says the most powerful thing Bentley is doing is fostering collaboration.

“I really like the way it (Bentley’s iTwin cloud platform) is bringing organisations together,” Christensen says.

“There are some powerful applications within organisations within BIM teams and construction teams.

“But for me, the magic is when you see the cities and the owners and the engineering firms working together.

“That’s a massive step forward.”