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Virtual cities enable city planners to test ideas and solutions

Europe’s cities create vast amounts of data, most of which isn’t used by urban planners and policymakers in their decision-making. The EU-funded DUET project created computer replicas of city systems to harness this information and transform cities for the better. The work will help with urban management and the evolution of ‘Smart Cities’ across Europe.

©monsitj #293494193 source: 2022

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Europe’s cities are getting smarter. With the arrival of new technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), sensors are spread increasingly throughout urban areas, collecting and sharing data about how things are running.

Yet most of this data still goes unused, presenting a huge opportunity for policymakers and city planners to gain insights and work more efficiently. This includes finding optimal solutions to problems faster, cheaper and more safely.

“Cities may want to understand how a bridge closure will affect traffic in nearby streets, what will happen to air pollution, and so on,” explains Lieven Raes, an advisor at Digital Flanders in Belgium, and DUET project coordinator. “Our virtual cities can also effectively communicate the impact of decisions among policymakers, politicians, social groups and citizens,” he says.

Creating digital twins of Europe’s cities

The concept of virtual cities has been around for decades, though the underlying technology hasn’t been quite advanced enough to capture overall urban dynamics. Now there are enough smart sensors to paint a representative picture of a city’s systems, such as transport, energy, environment and infrastructure.

Building on these advances, the EU-funded DUET project has created   (‘local digital twins’[LDT]), virtual representations of a city’s infrastructure and systems, and how they relate to the local environment. DUET’s pilot cities – Flanders, Pilsen and Athens – are among the first cities in Europe to adopt this pioneering technology. DUET’s LDTs enable city planners to input proposed urban changes or solutions to problems such as congestion, and visualise the potential fallout from their decisions.

In the DUET project, an ​​international consortium of 15 partners and technology providers worked alongside city and regional administrations to find transferable solutions based on the context of each city.

“We learned a lot from this experience and believe others will too, so we proudly shared our lessons to help others on their LDT journey,” adds Raes.

LDTs are not a single technology, but a collection of technologies, including some that only matured in recent years. This includes advanced 3D modelling, IoT infrastructures that generate vast amounts of data through widespread sensor networks, open data portals, high-performance cloud computing, and complex visualisation tools able to present data in more insightful ways than ever before. Improved and interacting simulation models also better predict the effect in different policy domains such as the impact of mobility measures on air quality or noise thanks to linked air quality and noise models.

“Some of these technologies made data more abundant, some easier to handle and understand, and some made data a key determinant of the behaviour of smart city systems themselves such as smart traffic lights, smart lamp posts, and smart road blockers,” explains Raes. In the future, he says, LDT technology will support more and more ‘on terrain behaviour’: the actions and reactions of citizens within the urban system.

LDTs are not only about technology however, notes Raes. “They are not about producing fancy visualisations. LDTs are first and foremost a change management tool. They provide a holistic approach to transformation that all cities need to complete in order to become sustainable,” he says.

From pilot projects to smart cities

The DUET team ran successful pilot ‘digital twin’ projects in Belgium, Czechia and Greece.

“Based on the results of local testing and dissemination activities, we received highly positive feedback,” says Dimitra Tsakanika, head of Projects Management Sector at DAEM in Athens, one of the project participants.

DUET is an example on how research and innovation projects are key to achieving concrete solutions and making our cities smarter and greener. This is in line with the goals of the EU Mission: Climate-neutral and smart cities, which aims to deliver 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030, as well as ensure that these cities act as experimentation and innovation hubs to enable all European cities to follow suit by 2050.

“DUET’s vision is that an LDT can support co-creative cities with planning and management. An LDT has the potential to go beyond an organisation’s internal planning and simulation tool. It contributes to greater transparency, and the DUET LDT already offers tools for policy scenario comparison and storytelling,” concludes Raes.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator: Belgium
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 4 544 458
EU Contribution
€ 3 995 533
Project duration

See also

More information about project Duet

All success stories