Digital twins can optimize urban planning

Virtual city

Researchers from the High Performance Computing Center at the University of Stuttgart (HLRS) and the Fraunhofer Institute have crafted a digitalized doppelgänger of Herrenberg, a city in Germany, to improve urban planning. The latest digital twins technology will take industry 4.0, which refers to the fourth industrial revolution, a step further. 

Based in the Böblingen district of Baden-Württemberg, Herrenberg has 31,000 inhabitants. According to Fabian Dembski, who works at the cross-section of architecture, urban planning and computer science, cities are more places to live. They are living, breathing organisms that grow and evolve. Urban planning has the potential to affect the health of cities and the people who inhabit them. 

With cities growing larger and more complex, technology has evolved too, finding ways to analyse and simulate their ever-changing processes. On their side, researchers have attempted to optimize city planning. Digital replicas can predict the real-life effects of any alterations in urban design. 

Using supercomputing and virtual reality, the researchers modeled Herrenberg. Their model reflected patterns that replicate city planning and traffic management by utilizing the idea of a “digital twin.” With the help of high-performance computing technologies, they were able to probe, envision, and integrate information reflective of urban situations and render important urban planning issues. Herrenberg’s digital twin is already helping city planners and officials from the area, while also improving the technology itself with the inclusion of other critical data. 

Urban areas involve the interplay of numerous factors. New sensors and digital tools can aid in coalescing data on air quality, the flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, as well as other features. Supercomputers and virtual reality can help in visualizing these interactions. For instance, how might differences in traffic patterns or new buildings alter the air quality in an area? 

To integrate varied data, a 2D spatial grid called spatial syntax is overlaid with geographic information system data and traffic control system data to better evaluate the area’s topography, road geometry and flow of traffic. 

Also, the team created an application for Herrenberg locals to report their emotional responses to various parts of the city. So, the residents would tune in with the app to state whether a particular location incited a feeling of comfort or that of danger. “Emotions such as joy and fear, the aesthetic experience of green spaces and architecture, and other emotion-driven factors play an important role in the success of urban design, but are very difficult to represent in architectural models or simulations. Our approach is an early attempt to gather and incorporate these complicated data sets,” says Dembski. 

The researchers used a 3D laser scanner to create a visualization of the city centre. This information could then be integrated into a virtual reality model. For Dembski and his colleagues, this feature helps one evoke an urban area in a more believable fashion. 

“Cities are not one-dimensional, so it doesn't make sense to design them on a sheet of paper,” says Dembski. “The third dimension helps us understand cities and their spatiality. Especially in the context of conventional urban planning and development, which often forgets the 'view' or perception of space on a human scale. Many people cannot imagine abstract planning on the scale of 1: 1,000 or 1: 10,000,” adds Dembski. 

In the future, the team might include artificial intelligence to better mimic the multitude of factors that feature in an emotional response to an urban space. 

Reference: Urban Digital Twins for Smart Cities and Citizens: The Case Study of Herrenberg, Germany. Fabian Dembski et al. Sustainability 2020, 12(6), 2307. DOI:

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