Growing cities struggle with the necessity of combining these three dimensions as part of complex projects, operating at the overlap of both physical and digital worlds. This is part of why the ‘digital twin’ concept was introduced: a dynamic digital replica of the city’s physical assets, systems, and processes. These projects often involve the use of advanced technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and data analytics, and can be used to support digital transformation.
Building an accurate digital twin empowers data-driven planning, analysis, and decision-making.
The digital twin can then be instrumental in creating a city platform driven by actual use cases, addressing real urban challenges, and experimenting with solutions in a virtual setting.
But increasingly we find that digital twin cities are only the beginning of a wider transformation.
Compounding the complexity of the issue, we find that urban digital transformation also presents a related dilemma: should cities upgrade their existing infrastructure (a ‘brownfield’ metaphor) or start anew with innovative technologies (‘greenfield’) when they need to build the tech capability that will help prepare them for a future of successful growth?
Additionally, we’ve seen that historic attempts to integrate technology into city planning and operations have met with varied levels of success. Many of these initiatives enjoyed mixed or limited success primarily because of a siloed approach, where a shifting mass of stakeholders — typically to be found in any city’s population and governance — could not effectively communicate or collaborate.
Another misstep can be the tendency to evangelise technology solutions without first identifying tangible use cases: these tech-first strategies lacked the user-centred design principles that we use today, which might have made them more effective and widely adopted.
While we can expect a digital twin to be successful at solving a set of issues on a common topic — for example, a digital twin focused on mobility — the danger is that this approach will mirror existing organisational silos. It may not be possible to design a fully-realised digital twin to anticipate all challenges, as every city is different, and we may face a tunnel effect which cannot deliver short-term value.
Beyond digital twins: the emergence of the City Operating System
An approach that goes beyond digital twinning is to drive projects by creating a City Operating System (City-OS). The success of such an approach requires the continuous combination of three key success factors, and all must be grounded within the city administration:
The City-OS is defined as a system of systems, providing digital representations that work together as one unified entity to enable insight, testing and monitoring of key business metrics in a data-driven manner. It functions as an aggregator of data, extracting the value from multiple heterogenous digital twin models. Geo-information systems are made uniform across the multiple systems, leading the emergence of a ‘city brain’ — with AI capabilities, including model management, adapted data sharing and advanced simulations.
Another benefit is the boost to cybersecurity that is a natural offshoot of aligning stakeholders.
A City-OS ensures the robust security of critical infrastructure, safeguarding against cyberattacks that could disrupt essential services.
This aspect of urban governance can also help maintain public trust. Its resilience, and scalability of its architecture, must be sustainable and includes ‘green IT’ principles.
Predictive models and genAI can simulate risks and mitigate the impact of major changes.
The City OS must be built to last, with the initial integration seen as only a first step. By design it requires strong scalability over time, and interoperability among multiple partners or standards. It is designed democratically, is driven by use cases, and centred on humans and their needs. As each city is different, the solution must provide a smooth integration experience, using rapid initial and a high level of personalisation. The systems should be based on open source technology and utilise standard formats.
Finally, the city that is equipped with a digital twin-driven operating system will encourage sustainability by harnessing technology to foster eco-friendly practices. This means optimising resources, reducing waste, and minimising environmental impact. By integrating sustainable solutions into the urban fabric, cities can strive towards a greener and more environmentally conscious future.
City planning and governance stakeholders should prioritise this integrated, human centred tech-powered approach to ensure future city growth is both sustainable and resilient.