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Planning for “Digital Twins” Can Elevate Decision-Making for Smart Cities

Data integration, 3D mapping and orchestration are helping cities advance data-driven initiatives.


City leaders may know they need a smart city strategy to attract and grow business, and to connect and serve citizens. But often, achieving the desired outcomes is harder than it sounds. These initiatives vary widely, with some struggling to get off the ground, while others achieve significant successes, such as aligning disparate, siloed systems.

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To help establish the kind of success that drives further investment, I often suggest focusing on the development of the smart city “nervous system” platforms — the place where humans and data intersect for the purpose of better decision-making.

The OODA Loop and the Digital Twin

Whether the decision-making is automated or handled by humans, it requires data to increase the likelihood of reaching the most effective outcome. Looking at decision-making through a model developed by the U.S. military, the OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act) is a great place to start. For cities, “digital twins” — the digital representation of physical aspects of a city, such as transportation systems or planned green space — are emerging tools that support this loop.

Existing mapping programs, those 2D depictions that integrate everything from video camera feeds to service call data, are what we might call the first generation of digital twins. Newer simulations are closer to a 3D experience that incorporates augmented and virtual reality. Digital representations and digital twins can become a smart city’s nervous system, bringing data streams together and, more important, presenting them in a way that is extremely useful for decision-makers.

Live Earth Platform Centralizes City Data Streams

One project that exemplifies the use of sophisticated mapping typifying the digital representation approach is underway in Calgary, Alberta. There, city staff use Live Earth, a Milestone Technology partner whose visualization platform lets users synchronize multiple data sources within an interactive map. The Calgary team is mapping out roadways, transportation and utility systems, and other areas. Eventually, they’ll include additional business units, data systems and sensors. Ultimately, the goal is to leverage Live Earth for a wide variety of operational and security purposes.

At its heart, a digital twin requires both the observe and orient quadrants of the OODA decision loop, and that means creators need expanded observation of a city’s static and fluid aspects. Qualitative and quantitative shifts will drive changes in how the associated data is oriented. It won’t be long before 2D models are obsolete, replaced by 3D depictions that are capable of these dynamic shifts.

Orchestration Should Guide Smart City Strategies

Bjorn Skou Eilertson, the CTO of Milestone Systems, identified related trends in his presentation at the 2021 Milestone Integration Platform Symposium. First, he pointed to formative artificial intelligence — a type of AI that adapts to changing conditions — as a solution that will usher in new capabilities to aggregate, automate and augment observed data.

Eilertson also highlighted “digital boundaries,” the establishment of which raises complex questions about digital privacy. While developments in formative AI march on, a robust public conversation is now taking place about how cities can balance technological advances with privacy protection for individuals. Clarifying these boundaries will be necessary to move capabilities forward in ways that make sense for both cities and citizens.

Smart city technologists are also realizing that multicloud and hybrid cloud architectures are unavoidable. You’d be hard pressed to find premises-based solutions that include AI. Solutions for parking, public safety and other systems now typically reside in separate cloud environments. They may also need to integrate with state data centers and private cloud environments. The need to navigate among multiple cloud environments makes orchestration an essential centerpiece of any smart city strategy.

With orchestration guiding from above, and integrated data analysis platforms as the foundation, more cities will be positioned to derive some of the richest benefits of smart city technologies: data-driven decision-making that is timely and holistic.