Digital twins for cities promising, yet problematic
Complex systems like digital twins pose both technical and adaptive challenges, so communities must ensure they have both the right technology and the people with skills to use and maintain them, a new IDC report advises.
While more cities and communities expect to use digital twins to help plan for growth and sustainability, adoption is still at an early stage, a new report finds.
“By our assessment, digital twins are going to have one of the largest growth factors in next five years,” said Nikola Ristivojevich, senior research analyst for IDC’s Government and Health Insights and coauthor of a new IDC TechBrief titled “Digital Twins in Cities and Communities” (#US49260723). It states that the expected compound annual growth rate for digital twins is 40%.
That’s because digital twins, which the report defines as “a virtual and dynamic representation of physical assets, processes and systems that offers a digital model of the properties, conditions and attributes of their real-world counterparts,” hold many benefits for cities. For instance, they can do real-time monitoring, integrate diverse datasets and model outcomes before policies or physical infrastructure are put into place.
“What a digital twin would allow is testing some of those policies and decisions in the virtual system, thus, saving time and eliminating some of the potential mistakes that could be made,” Ristivojevich said.
All of these are particularly important as urban areas grow—89% of the U.S. population will live in cities by 2050—and sustainability increases, but several factors are hindering adoption.
Cost is a big one, Ristivojevich said, although funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help.
That’s because digital twins work hand in hand with many technologies, such as cloud and artificial intelligence—solutions that many municipalities are still struggling to find financial and business models for, he said. One reason is that most governments still rely on capital expenditures for annual budgets and planning, whereas digital twin technology falls under operational expenditures. It’s “really asking them to change not just the business model, but the whole thinking,” Ristivojevich said.
Other emerging technologies that support successful use of digital twins include location-based tools and services, machine learning and augmented and virtual reality, according to the report. Another it calls out is the metaverse, which is like a next-level digital twin in that it allows for a fully immersive experience. Santa Monica, California, is the first U.S. city to look at how interactions in the metaverse can translate into real-world improvements in its shopping district.
Another challenge, Ristivojevich said, is security, because digital twins require data inputs from multiple sources, such as internet-of-things sensors and video cameras, and many stakeholders need to have access to those devices. “There are multiple layers of data structures, and all those pieces have to be governed accordingly,” he said. “The other thing is that data can be routed in different directions and reused by people that don’t need to have the access.”
But potential benefits outweigh risks, especially because those can be mitigated. For instance, to defray costs, the report recommends that municipalities work with industry ecosystems and use public/private partnership models.
Ristivojevich pointed to several projects happening already. Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood is working with Cityzenith, a digital twin platform, on a model to study carbon emissions reduction and building management.
That company also worked with Las Vegas to make a digital twin of a 2.7-square-mile section of the downtown area to model ways to address energy use, emissions and traffic management, and with New York City’s Brooklyn Navy Yard on sustainable buildings.
Those smaller projects are great ways to prove the technology’s usefulness and inspire more businesses and cities to enter the market, Ristivojevich said, but small isn’t necessarily always the best starting place.
“Start with the biggest pain point,” he said. The report lists issues with the biggest return on investment or greatest services improvements as good first options.
For many places, water infrastructure is a huge problem that would benefit from digital twin modeling, Ristivojevich added. Some places, such as Jackson, Mississippi, and Livonia, Michigan, are using Autodesk’s InfoWater Pro modeling software to recover from past water crises and prevent future ones, for instance. And by 2027, 40% of large cities will have digital twins of their water resources to manage water supply, quality, resilience and behavioral change, the report states.
Wherever communities choose to start, they must first consider organizational readiness, or their capacity and capability to adopt digital twin technology, he said. Part of that is ensuring that they have not just the right technology, but people with the right skills to use and maintain it.
“Designing complex systems creates technical and adaptive challenges,” the report states. “In these long-term, transformational initiatives, the role of leadership and stakeholders becomes crucial.”
In entering into such partnerships, Ristivojevich cautions agencies about platform dependency. “Sometimes single vendors offer a lot of solutions, but then in the long run, the organization can become platform-dependent,” he said. And that could hinder maturation.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.