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Digital Twins of Cities and Evasive Futures

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Abstract

New forms of urban governance are emerging with the onset of digital twins and a changing relationship between digital cities and designers. (Digital twins were developed by NASA for technology roadmaps and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for computational simulation of material complexity and failures of systems on aerospace vehicles. Digital twins refer to digital replicas of existing and proposed assets to improve management, virtualize testing and maintenance, and maximize efficiency gains. The term was coined by Michael Grieves in 2001. As networks of emerging digital twins are drawn together in a national model for the United Kingdom, it is worth exploring the implications of each digital twin and its sensor systems and ICT framework in relation to physical places. This model resulted from the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, Infrastructure and Projects Authority, National Infrastructure Commission's Data for the Public Good (2017), and the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG). The Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) is developing the digital twin information management group along with ICE. City digital twins are an evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart city concepts, where advanced information modeling and networking are leveraged to facilitate complex urban management. The fundamental driver is to unlock built environment data for improved decision-making, operation, and testing of scenarios.
Digital twins, as an integral part of a smart city and smart nation digital ecosystem, may have captured the imagination in terms of urban futures, but their relation to the specifics of place warrants critical analysis. There remain many urgent and important questions on the “frictionless futures” the smart city paradigm presents as a seamless entity of large-scale digital infrastructure and physical cities and what it inadvertently excludes. Ambitions for city digital twins would ideally need to avoid the ambiguity and intangible nature of the smart city. The absurdity of the pursuit is rendered by Michael Batty (2018, p.178), “Thus the question ‘what and where is the smartest city?’ not only has no answer, it is also ill-defined, largely because smartness or intelligence is a process, not an artefact or product.” In practice, as with many technologically driven impulses, city digital twins may never achieve the potential they are conceived to be capable of. City digital twins in their current form are GIS and BIM fusions, providing useful test and semantic models of places released as open data on web and mobile platforms. These city information models (CIMs) are useful for urban designers as they provide a level of digital detail for placemaking, which also function as a platform for consultation. However, while considerable attention has been given to their seemingly unfettered capacity to address complex urban issues, in this chapter, we examine the limits of their capability to frame why the future cities they supposedly shape are always out of reach.