Journey Toward Better Decision-Making Using Digital Twins

Digital twins are having a moment — becoming more and more part of the built environment zeitgeist as planners look for ways to visualize and better design their communities.

Adam Beck, cofounder and director of the TEMPO Institute and head of digital urbanism at Indara, who describes himself as a "planner at heart" with a love for the profession, believes planners have and will continue to play a critical role in how cities are shaped into the future.

Beck gave an overview of digital twins during a March 2024 webinar as part of the American Planning Association's Upskilling Initiative. The course — "Digital Twins 101" — is available on Passport and offers CM credit to those who complete it.

More Than Just a Copy

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) developed an international standard — ISO/IEC 30173 — on digital twins last year. It defined a digital twin as, a "digital representation of a target entity with data connections that enable convergence between the physical and digital states at an appropriate rate of synchronization." Further, the organization categorized an entity as a person, object, event, idea, process, or anything physical or nonphysical that has a "distinct existence."

So, essentially, a digital twin will take a replica of something and use the data that is collected from the real-life version to test or shape interventions on the twin.

"Contrary to what many think, a digital twin is not a piece of technology," Beck said during the "Digital Twin 101" webinar. "You don't go and buy a digital twin. It's a journey."

In that vein, however, it can be at times less of a technical process and more of a political one that factors in other areas, such as strategy, finances, and management. He said what powers a digital twin is a "master data management system," and the data itself can come from a variety of sources — like site photos, costs, building information, risks, environmental factors, social media, or existing documentation.

"While a digital twin is by no means a 100 percent solution, it does augment planners' understanding of spatial issues."
—Adam Beck

"With a digital twin, we need to express, embrace, and practice being data leaders, which means we need a clear purpose," Beck said. "We need to embrace security and privacy, have a strong data ethics policy and context, [and] good data governance."

Ultimately, that data is used and presented back in a way to learn and make better decisions.

Tools Are Available

The ISO/EIC standard states that a digital twin may be used by planners for, among other things, optimizing city construction using simulation modeling. During the webinar, Beck referenced Orlando, Florida's use of a regional digital twin that recreated 40 square miles to help identify opportunities for infrastructure and development, see traffic patterns, and assist in the decision-making process.

"Digital twin is being used as an opportunity to boost and enhance economic development ... and also respond to the challenges that we [currently] have," he said.

Meanwhile, as part of Planning's "Tech Tools" series, APA's Technology Division highlighted some datasets that planners can use to help build their city's digital twin.

"This technology can expand planning practice through integrating diverse datasets — geospatial data, detailed 3D models, and physical world captures — to depict both the built environment and the communities that inhabit them," wrote authors Andrew Buck, AICP, and David J. Wasserman, AICP. "While a digital twin is by no means a 100 percent solution, it does augment planners' understanding of spatial issues."

Learn more about digital twins

Digital Twins 101 — Passport

Smart City Digital Twins — PAS QuickNotes 89

Smart Tech to Help Build Your City's Digital TwinPlanning

Digital Twins: Immersive Technology to Enhance Decision-Making — Blog

Digital Twins and Planning — Research KnowledgeBase Collection

Top image: Digital twins can be used by planners to not only respond to their cities' challenges but also opportunities for enhancing economic development. Photo by innni/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Jonathan DePaolis is APA's senior communications editor.

May 6, 2024

By Jon DePaolis