Article: How to kick-start the development of an urban digital twin

Digital twins have been used in several industries for many years. Their adoption to support urban development though – particularly as a cornerstone of smart cities – has been rather slow. Most cities have not even started thinking about it as a solution for their challenges, and those who have are only scratching the surface connecting data and offering visualizations.

Things get complicated from the moment two people start discussing a digital twin. It seems everyone has a different picture of what it means in the urban context. For the sake of an inclusive discussion, I will take the high road and accept that any representation of a city, either as perceived (e.g. reality models), as design or constructed (e.g. BIM or 3D city models), or as a functional system (e.g. transport models), or any combination of those representations, can be called an urban digital twin. As a bare minimum we should agree that a digital twin connects the physical and the digital worlds to enable stakeholders to make data-driven decisions.

The bottom line is that an urban digital twin should solve at least one urban problem. In that sense there are many frequent topics such as energy, mobility, and many others, but every city has its own challenges and intricacies. There is little chance that the problems and solutions of one city are the same, with the same actors, and the same restrictions of another city, even a neighbouring one. Before you start looking for solutions, ask around: do we know which are the problems we want to solve?

If not, it is important to build a joint vision for the digital twin with the participation of every relevant stakeholder. It does not mean that everyone should agree on one vision, because that is not going to happen, but rather redefine the participation processes, building up competencies and communicating effectively back and forth across relevant actors and even citizens. When talking about digital twins, it only makes sense to leverage every bit of technology to do so. Data visualizations and social media can help to bring everyone around the table.

The wide scope of participation aims at setting the basis for a collaborative way to manage and scope the future digital twin. This is not only applicable to digital twins but is a skill that is becoming more and more relevant to act locally and tackle global challenges.

Acting technocratically and pushing technology without a proper process is a recipe for failure. Not even large economic forces have managed to overcome the due and concerted process. All one needs to do is surf the internet to read what happened when pushing a “smart” vision of an urban development along 50,000 square meters of waterfront land in Toronto. Not only did the social and economic concerns create enough scepticism around the technology “juggernaut” and its plans, it was also clear that the technology they were set to use was not ready either.

When urban digital twins are deployed, they need to solve a problem and bring value to cities, organisations, and citizens. But how can we gauge their value when most cities in the world have not even started discussing Digital Twins? This is a chicken and egg problem, and many municipalities have not the slightest motivation to risk one of their baskets.

As with many innovative technologies, pilot projects might be the answer. And to lower the risks, intervention from the top can help. For instance, the Ministry for Digitalization in the German state of Bavaria has identified this problem and recently wrapped-up a round of funding to test digital twin implementations in 18 municipalities to solve their unique problems, which range from mobility and smart grids, to getting buy-in from real estate investors. I hope these municipalities can collect good data and defend down the road, with city councils, further investments due to positive cost-benefit figures and ROI for organizations. This has to be the primary objective for such pilots, and funding institutions should make this paramount this as part of their funding programs.

By narrowing down what the issues are, you have already thought about what the solution might be, but more importantly you have identified some information to solve it. That is your starting point, and you should try to capitalize on those datasets as much as possible. Do not force unnecessary data requirements or a maturity model from a provider to solve your problems. You know where you stand and where to go. Stick to it and look for a solution fitting to it.

Your budget will always be a constraint. Find a solution that fits your wallet, and a solution that allows you to grow modularly. You don’t want your urban digital twin to underperform and then run out of political and financial support. Look for solutions that allow you to start small and help you to scale with modular components. Give yourself time to discover new problems that are “low-hanging fruits” with the addition of a couple of capabilities to your existing technology stack. Take advantage of the learning curve to realize and communicate its value. Steer away from customized solutions. They might be a good fit at first, but they will be expensive over time. Modularity is key to success, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, take Bent Flyvbjerg’s. His book How Big Things Get Done will convince you of it.

Your choice will be around for some time with the city, and it is likely that it will outlive the problem you wanted it for in the first place. Actions taken will have a lifecycle and new challenges will arise. Complex planning processes will evolve into collaborative design processes, tendering, construction, and eventually balancing supply and demand in operations. Modularity should also help you to reinvent and renew your digital twins for your current problems, and from day one you should be able to capitalize on all the knowledge and data connected and generated. The worst investment in the digital twin space is one that you drop after few years because your projects have moved to the next stage of their lifecycle.

Openness is a catchword. Be sure you know what that means for each offering. Every city has grown its own ecosystem of systems and data formats and you must make sure that your urban digital twin can connect and consume data without conversions. Imports and exports are not going to cut it for the level of automation expected from efficient administration. Also, be careful with solutions requiring restructuring or relocating your data. This might be feasible for delimited projects, but this is a tall order for ecosystems that have evolved organically over time.

Another dimension of openness is the capability to be independent from the solution you are going to acquire. As much as you want to remain in the modular space, you want to be able to customize without being dependent on your technology provider.

The phrase urban digital twins was coined about 10 years ago. Urban digital twins were expected to fix every problem in cities. The expectations have become more realistic these days, and it is a great time to start thinking seriously and ask: what they can do for your city?


Helber Lopez is an experienced consultant with a demonstrated track record in the fields of transport and mobility. As a planning strategist and communicator with skills in policy analysis, transport planning, modeling, and GIS, he ran projects in several countries all over the world. Today he works as a solution manager at Bentley Systems, where he is responsible for the public sector offering in the urban environment. Helber has successfully led projects and teams in South, Central and North America, as well as in several European cities.