Over half the world’s population (about 4.4 billion people) now live in cities, a number set to double by 2050, making urbanization a predominant global trend. However, cities face mounting challenges including inflation, climate change, natural disasters and migration.
Some cities are turning to urban digital twins to address these issues. An urban digital twin serves as an integral tool, allowing cities to swiftly detect problems; simulate, analyze and predict solutions; and implement cost-effective measures in the real world. The outcome? Empowered city administrators equipped to make informed decisions, enhance residents’ quality of life and boost overall sustainability and resilience.
So how can a digital twin influence the urban design of a city to achieve these goals?
City officials worldwide have announced plans to digitally transform their urban areas into smart cities, but Singapore proudly leads as the first to share concrete plans of evolving into a Smart Nation. During the Smart Nation launch in 2014, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong invited the audience to imagine a world where residents could collectively share their local knowledge of city life including wildlife sightings, traffic incidents and even where to find culinary gems. Then he announced his vision for the Virtual Singapore project, which aims to design “an integrated 3D map of Singapore enriched with layers of data about buildings, land and the environment.”
Exploring the influence of digital twins on urban planning: Singapore vs. Belgium
To better understand Singapore’s urban design progression, we interviewed Hexagon’s Wim Symens, who has lived in Belgium and Singapore.
Singapore has been at the forefront of developing urban digital twins. Could you explain what an urban digital twin is and how it’s being used to inform urban design decisions in the city?
Wim Symens: A digital twin is more than just a 3D mesh; it evolves from a digital replica of the physical world into an integrated platform with additional data and analytic capabilities to create meaningful applications. Tools like this have the potential to disrupt industries and impact lives. With insights provided by things like IoT, the analysis extends to many subjects, like identifying behavioral patterns in a large city with lots of vehicles and pedestrians or how a building’s structure can influence the city by the heat trapped within it. Urban digital twins simplify these through digital visualization and are supported by software tools.
A good example is how Hexagon’s M.App Enterprise platform can empower urban planners and policymakers to craft applications that display the digital twin within a 3D environment. This creates valuable analytical insight and also presents graphs and charts that are easy to digest and enhance the decision-making process.
What were some of the most noticeable differences in urban design between Belgium and Singapore upon your initial arrival in Singapore?
WS: That’s an easy one. Although Singapore is a large city with limited space, there’s still a lot of greenery. That’s probably what I noticed the most. The government carefully plans and maintains the parks extremely well, which is nice to find in such a densely populated city.
Another noticeable aspect is accessibility. While studying in Belgium, I helped a person with physical impairments, and I vividly recall the challenges he encountered while using a wheelchair while there. On the other end of the spectrum, when my grandmother visited me in Singapore, it was so easy to get around in her wheelchair. We traveled around Singapore by train and found every station and building easily accessible. This isn’t something I think about too often, but it highlighted the importance of thoughtful planning and consideration for people with mobility challenges when designing town centers and buildings.
Singapore is known for its efficient public transportation system. How does it impact the overall urban design and lifestyle in the city, especially compared to your experiences in Belgium?
WS: Well, Singapore taxes cars heavily but offers great public transportation. Trains and buses are easy to use, accessible and run frequently – even on the weekends. In Belgium, everyone needs a car to get somewhere. If you want to use public transportation, it usually takes much longer to get there, and it’s more expensive compared to Singapore. So using public transportation in Belgium can be challenging unless you have a car or a reliable and direct connection without the need for multiple modes of public transport.
What role do you think urban digital twins play in creating more efficient and sustainable urban environments, and how has Singapore leveraged this technology for these purposes?
WS: I think leveraging an urban digital twin for analysis, operations and even public utility has helped with the widespread adoption of its applications nationwide. An urban digital twin allows statutory boards and ministries to make informed, data-driven decisions around city planning, ultimately improving their residents’ lives.
Over the years, Singapore has built several digital twins, each serving a distinct purpose with specific functions, including OneMap3D by the Singapore Land Authority and the Open Digital Platform by JTC and GovTech.
The Open Digital Platform manages the Punggol Digital District and has revolutionized district planning. The district’s digital twin incorporates plenty of sensor data, empowering the JTC to be a testbed for innovative ideas like simulations to enhance district operations or addressing factors like cooling and lighting requirements at different times of the day.
It’s also integrated with initiatives such as “barrier-free access,” so it considers users who have difficulty using stairs and provides them with the most accessible route, for example. Initiatives like these have contributed to Singapore’s progress in fostering sustainability and inclusivity through innovative urban practices.
Could you share your thoughts on the long-term impact of urban digital twins on the evolution of Singapore’s urban landscape, and how it might influence the city’s future design and development?
WS: Sure. Urban redevelopment planners adopting digital twins helps create a city that’s optimized for sustainability and enhanced livability. Cities will benefit from reduced heat retention, better management of local issues like dengue fever and maybe even decreased traffic congestion.
Singapore’s transformation led to buildings covered in lots of greenery and turning concrete canals into rivers to reintroduce wildlife. They’re trying to create their vision of having a city within a garden, and they’re doing a good job along the way.
Another impact in Singapore is that their reliance on manual labor will be significantly reduced because technology will replace the need for on-site field research. Automating data collection and analysis will bring more efficiency in areas such as waste management and energy usage. And because the city is so densely populated, the limited space above ground has led to the construction of deeper infrastructures, making it difficult to map out underground spaces. Identifying assets like utility pipes, train tracks and empty spaces is certainly challenging. To help, there are ongoing initiatives aimed at creating a digital twin for this specific purpose.
Bottom line: Implementing digital twins has helped Singapore take a step to tackle some of its biggest challenges in a smart way.
Modern cities have ambitious urban design goals, and the right technologies can get them closer to achieving them.