Harnessing digital twin and BIM technologies for smarter cities - The EE

Harnessing digital twin and BIM technologies for smarter cities

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly altered the way we as humans experience the cities we live in, says Sebastien Paris, CEO of ONHYS, accelerating multiple macro trends. Populations are set to continue to rise until at least 2050, and hedging against operational risk in an urban context has become mission-critical for many public servants and city operators.

User experience as it relates to quality of life for city dwellers is also becoming vital to attract people and companies to locations like never before as shown by the vitality of the London Underground relative to other transport networks.

All of the above means that, to effectively adapt to the changing needs of city-dwellers in the near future, city planners and public leaders will be compelled like never before to take rational, optimised, and virtuous decisions that deliver a better urban life for their citizens.

Fortunately, new technologies like building information modelling (BIM) and artificial intelligence (AI) are reaching maturity at the very moment they are needed to help decision makers address these new challenges. For this new era, a pedestrian-centred approach in the urban environment is key, and digital twins can help provide the answers.

Upstream: digital twins, BIM, and informed decisions

A digital twin is a virtual mock-up of real-world assets, within which real-world activities and potential crowd flow scenarios can be simulated to optimise decision making. Often mock-ups of buildings, digital twins are commonly used to manage smart cities and other urban structures, whilst the BIM framework is used to simplify workflows and enhance collaboration amongst stakeholders.

Such optimisations can help identify key issues affecting the pedestrian experience with construction projects. For example, carrying out an AI driven simulation within a BIM model for a proposed high school construction project showed how the potential plan could prove incompatible with the desired aim of ensuring students are on time for lessons.

Other examples of effective use of BIM, AI and crowd flow simulators to make the best decisions for citizens include reducing pedestrian annoyance during the works phase, optimising pedestrian traffic in city centres or large events, facilitating disability accesses or to lessen the operational friction that is often seen on urban transportation networks.

In the flow: live pedestrian traffic

Once structures are put up however, the job is far from over. Again, new technologies are widening horizons where the problem of optimising building usage and crowd flows as they function together crops up. 

Many of us who drive are fully aware of apps such as Google Maps or Waze given we use them all the time to help us find our way, reduce total driving time and to enjoy a smooth driving experience. Similar motivations apply for pedestrians as many of us strongly desire to lessen the time we spend waiting on public transport or to access a venue or stadium more quickly, to choose alternative ways to get to a point where there is more mobility and less density, and beyond.

Being able to visualise pedestrian flows in real time in a digital twin and to take action is an essential aspect to improve the pedestrian experience and address the new challenges of mobility that our cities will inevitably face in the coming years. Certain benefits are obvious: improved mobility and safety, smoother flows and operations, whilst others are broader and less obvious: experience, resilience, and sustainability.

Downstream, and beyond: experience, resilience, sustainability

COVID-19 has brought the rumblings of pedestrian centricity as an important urban planning consideration into sharp relief, and has exposed the need for more coordination between stakeholders. It’s clear that public leaders and key decision makers across government and the construction industry must anticipate the ability of a city to adapt and thrive under stress of all kinds before it’s needed. The pedestrian experience is a key part of this, and that job can not be done without sustainability in mind.

Sebastien Paris

3D BIM modelling and digital twin technology are viable options that are being examined in many cities across the world as a way to ensure that urban spaces are best-optimised for increased passenger flows while gaining critical insights into how effective the structures are at facilitating crowd flows.

The city of Grimsby in Northeast Lincolnshire, UK, for example, has incorporated a digital twin connected to a hypervisor displaying in real time custom metrics related to energy consumption, traffic, mobility, speed, density, or CO2 emissions all of which contribute to improving the citizen experience in the city while making the city more resilient and sustainable.

The last 18 months have made it abundantly clear that future urban spaces must centre pedestrians at the core of urban planning for our cities to thrive now and in the future. It’s high time we begin to use the power of artificial intelligence and digital twins to bolster efforts to develop the next generation of urban centres.

The author is Sebastien Paris, CEO of ONHYS.

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