What is an urban digital twin?

Artikkelikuva: What is an urban digital twin?

The urban digital twin is a model of a living Helsinki that facilitates planning, development and maintenance. We listed four ways in which the digital twin is transforming Helsinki.

The term ‘digital twin’ is borrowed from industry. There, in its simplest form, it means making a digital model of a piece of equipment for use in simulations. The model shows what happens when a part is replaced or more power is added to the device, for example.

In the case of a city, a digital twin is not a single system but a combination of open data sources and constantly updated information. It is a digital, evolving package of open interfaces and data that can be applied to many use cases. In most cases, the digital twin of a city is based on a 3D city model. Therefore, city planning and individual construction projects are among the first professional applications of a digital twin. As it develops, the urban digital twin will eventually be visible to the city’s residents as well.

Digital twin: both physical and social aspects

The urban digital twin involves both physical and social aspects. Because a lot goes on in a city, the twin also includes many elements at its broadest: streets, roads, green areas and buildings, but also weather conditions, services, condition data, frequency of use and traffic data. 

The urban digital twin does not reflect everything about the physical world but contains information that draws an adequate situational picture of Helsinki to support maintenance and development. The contents of different systems are combined, mimicking the physical world, to build usable wholes that support planning. Having information on the locations of lamps and roads in one place, together with the experiences of city residents, makes it easier to maintain and improve lighting. 

The City of Helsinki has been developing the digital twin for a long time and was one of the first cities in the world to do so. Right now, the work is at the stage of collecting and searching for different types of data and opening them up in a digital format. Indeed, implementing the digital twin is currently very much about crossing organisational boundaries and making information available to others. 

In the near future, the aim is that digital modelling of the city will streamline traffic, help target maintenance work and support the planning of a more pleasant city. The digital twin can improve residents’ opportunities for participation and provide a basis for new services. 

We listed four ways in which the urban digital twin is shaping Helsinki and the lives of its residents.

1. Maintenance works, keeping the city in good condition

In addition to streets and buildings, the digital Helsinki requires a lot of information about the condition of structures, green areas and roads, as well as the city’s weather and conditions. With sensors monitoring the microclimates in parks, park workers can time their work correctly and plants receive the care they need. 

Much of the data that makes the city work better can seem disconnected on its own. However, when combined with a map or a number of users, the data becomes useful. When the sensors at an exercise facility count the number of uses, the City’s maintenance department can assess which areas to focus on. If people suddenly stop using a popular piece of equipment, it is worth checking whether the equipment is still in working order. At the same time, the information collected supports planning: a low utilisation rate can be a sign of the wrong type of equipment and a high rate may indicate the need for expansion.

The measurements do not collect data on individuals, and often not even on people. Vehicles can be used for measurement in many ways. For example, trams are already monitoring air quality. Robot buses and other public transport can use machine vision to map bus stops and street environments, giving the City information on areas with accessibility problems. If a street sweeper could take measurements as it moved, it could tell the City where the road surface is in good condition and where it needs to be resurfaced. 

2. Traffic flows smoothly

The data collected on traffic improves the comfort of the city and, when made available to everyone, benefits both planning and traffic management. For example, more detailed information on traffic flows, congestion and popular routes will facilitate planning and traffic control. Data collected on snow conditions, slipperiness and road damage can, in turn, enhance maintenance. Prediction and simulation models can also be used to more accurately predict the impact of planned measures. 

Taking different modes of transport into account is important for the development of a comfortable and functional city. The amount of traffic data is increasing at a tremendous rate in today’s world. New radar, sensor and machine vision solutions provide cost-effective data on the number of cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Newcomers to the streetscape, such as electric scooters and robotic vehicles, in turn, generate traffic data as they move. Indeed, often the challenge is not the lack of information, but how to use it. The urban digital twin opens up new opportunities for this. 

The digital twin provides tools for managing traffic disruption during construction. In the future, the digital Helsinki can be used to experiment with how the temporary traffic control on construction sites should be implemented and where the traffic related to construction work would cause as little disruption as possible to residents. This will make living environments more pleasant and allow the traffic and pedestrians to flow smoothly even as the city changes.

3. New data enables new services

New services and business ideas will benefit from the urban digital twin. When information is openly available, it can be used by a wide range of businesses and entrepreneurs. Currently, the urban digital twin is visible to residents through new apps, such as the Green Kalasatama app for green infrastructure planning or the Helsinki section of Open Street Map. 

However, the urban digital twin does not mean that services will only be provided digitally in the future. The twin provides new opportunities for the development of many services and environments in the physical world, such as the examination of accessibility. Although the planning is carried out in the digital world, the results will ultimately be seen by residents as accessible structures in the street space. 

In the transport sector, the development of new services requires data in today’s world. When data on transport, the traffic environment and traffic conditions is made widely available, businesses can use it to develop innovations. Opportunities can be found in areas such as the development of new mobility services, new AI applications and the development of simulations for logistics and commerce.

The more the urban digital twin is used, the more valuable the model becomes. Nobody knows all the possible applications for it yet, so as the digital twin develops, there may be business opportunities that cannot yet be imagined. 

4. City residents can get involved in the development process

Free access to city information allows more and more people to get involved in city planning. When up-to-date data about a city can be easily collected and shared, the plans for its renewal and development can also be shared with more people. City residents can comment on ideas and proposals from an early stage. 

Providing access to information on the city’s green areas has already made it possible to plan a park together with residents. In 2022, the plan is to launch an app that will allow people to comment on their environment by suggesting places for bins or benches, for example. 

The City already has several systems in place to involve residents in planning. Now these are being brought together, so that people can see each other’s comments and feedback on the environment in which they live. Combining the responses to the separate surveys gives a broader picture of the needs and desires in the neighbourhood.

The aim is also to provide residents with information about future changes in the city in as clear a form as possible. When the city’s residents are involved in the planning process, the results are more in line with their needs. 

At Forum Virium Helsinki, digitalisation has been promoted in several projects over the past decade. Now, a dedicated team of experts has been assembled for the digital twin, bringing together the work done in the projects. 

The City of Helsinki, in turn, has been using 3D models for planning and resident engagement since the 1980s. Now, the urban digital twin brings together the work done in the projects. In the 2020s, the technology is finally ripe for comprehensive digital city modelling.

Work related to the digital twin is being carried out in projects including these: Mobility Lab Helsinki, ACUMEN, SEDIMARK, LiiDi2, Fiksu Kaupunki – Helsinki Innovation Districts, Logistics Accessibility Data, URBANAGE, B.Green, Urbanite, LIDO-tiku, Spotted and FinEST Twins

Additional information

Technical Specialist Juho-Pekka Virtanen

Juho-Pekka Virtanen
Technical Specialist
+358 40 635 1212

Technical Specialist Jukka Alander

Jukka Alander
Technical Specialist
+358 40 617 5353

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