Operational Intelligence and Digital Twins for Smart City Planning

By Ignasi Vilajosana

Ignasi Vilajosana, CEO & Co-Founder of Worldsensing, holds a PhD in Physics and is ranked among the top leaders of tomorrow in Spain by the prestigious foundation Choiseul.

Jun 5, 2018 | Society, Technology | 0 comments

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Growing awareness of the devastating impacts of climate change is adding a new angle to urban infrastructure and resource-management; urban authorities are facing pressure from both the bottom and the top – from both their citizens and supranational bodies – to make their operations greener and comply with international climate action treaties such as the 2016 Paris Agreement. Globalization, unpredictable geopolitics, and increased freedom of movement through improved transport and wireless technologies, is forcing cities to develop their economies and optimize city-management if they want to become hubs for global talent and investment.

Through preparing for the problems of the future, cities have the chance to optimize their services in the present, improving urban quality of life for citizens in the here and now. The real question is how, exactly, do national, regional and local governments manage and respond to increasing urban complexity and changing stakeholder expectations? Transforming our cities to be both resilient and responsive in the face of rapid population changes such as global economic competition and climate change will not be easy.

Many urban authorities are integrating the smart city concept into their long-term urban planning vision, or trying to digitize urban planning processes. One concrete example of this is in mobility planning, where technologies offering real-time data aggregation and analysis capabilities are changing how authorities traditionally think about transport planning. These new IoT-based technologies are allowing transport operators to make both make short and long-term changes to the city’s transport systems according to user’s real needs, monitoring the constantly changing situation on the ground, and using the data collected and insights produced to more effectively plan out the city’s future transportation systems.

Connected Tools for Digitized Cities

Implementing projects with a range of stakeholders involved, as is increasingly the case with private-public partnerships and participative forms of planning, requires excellent coordination. In order to be able to successfully work across municipal departments, and with both community and private-sector leaders, cities need tools. New technologies, such as Operational Intelligence (OI) and Digital Twins, can provide these tools, as we will explore more below:


What is Operational Intelligence (OI)?

OI can be defined as a form of real-time business analytics that delivers actionable visibility and insight into business and governmental operations. The insights produced by real-time intelligence enable operators, such as city mobility operators, to understand the performance of distributed infrastructure, make predictions, improve efficiency and even prevent disasters. This gives them greater capacity to make the right operational decisions and engage important stakeholders, like citizens. Importantly, OI software learns from past actions through AI (specifically, machine learning) and can therefore improve its own decision-making processes.


How can OI be used to make cities more livable?

OI can help in both the short and the long-term. For example, cities often try to put long-term projects into action, but are unable to control all external factors. OI can help with this, helping city operators to digitize parts or all of the project’s operations in order to gather real-time insights and make sure the project is running smoothly and in accordance with pre-proposed deadlines. Many public infrastructure projects become delayed and massively overspend. The Glories urban regeneration project in Barcelona is one example of this.

The spatial expansion of Barcelona over recent years led the council to make the decision to abolish the highway around Glories and rebuild the area in order to make space for more housing and services. The project has been delayed by 19 months, meaning extra time and money (millions of euros) going into construction time and widespread citizen dissatisfaction with the ongoing roadworks and construction eyesore. With a technology like OI, this project might have stood a better chance at being finished on time and under-budget.

While total control cannot and perhaps should not be the aim, OI also allows city authorities to more comprehensively and effectively manage urban transformation complexity in a long-term way. Through employing OI, city authorities can optimize their operations, begin to make data-driven decisions, better comply with regulations and more effectively engage with all community stakeholders, notably citizens. They can thus be more flexible, more engaged with a multitude of urban stakeholders, and better equipped to deal with future needs at the same time as optimizing services to improve urban life in the present.

Following are some example areas where OI can help cities to face current and future challenges.

OI for Construction Projects

OI allows construction companies to digitize dynamic assets like workers, trucks, target assets which are being constructed such as metro tunnels in a city, and static critical assets such as existing monuments and building etc. Sensors embedded in these assets relay a real-time, constant data stream to the OI software solution that visualizes the assets’ behavior, aggregates this information and generates recommendations based on historical and real-time insights.

This is particularly useful for monitoring the real-time stability of the soil on which a building is being constructed, for instance, or carrying out real-time vibration and crack monitoring of surrounding buildings, or even predicting potential accidents. It can also help construction teams to enhance the effectiveness of their communication methods, such as through workforce-tracking mobile apps and hand-held devices, simultaneously improving productivity and workforce safety.


OI for Urban Mobility

OI can also be employed to optimize mobility services. For example, through digitizing static street assets, such as traffic lights, tunnels, and street lights, city operators can plug into a whole network of devices that can simultaneously and collectively measure mobility across the city. This allows city operators to better measure traffic flow (congestion monitoring) and implement actions accordingly; manage incidents (enabled also through connecting the police, security and emergency services to the OI system); control parking availability in adjacent areas; connect metro and tram and bus APIs; and offer citizen apps for parking, public transport and real-time traffic information.


OI for Environmental Management

OI can also be used to help cities to become more environmentally-friendly and in turn to comply with national and international environmental regulations and charters.

For example, sensors embedded in street lights, which are primarily used to monitor traffic flow, can also be used to measure air-pollution levels and carry out noise monitoring. Being able to collect data on levels of nitrogen dioxide, for instance, across different neighborhoods allows local authorities to implement solutions according to the reality on the ground. Environmental managers can thus instigate an citywide strategy that targets areas where pollution levels are at their worst.

Introducing location-dependent traffic restrictions tackles specific factors that are having a major negative impact on pollution, and increases driver compliance with environmental regulations. In Barcelona, for instance, the city council uses a letter-graded system to categorize cars from A-D according to their emissions. This system is used to bar certain cars (i.e. those in the worst-polluting categories) from entering the city when pollution levels are high.

Operational Intelligence, with the help of CCTV cameras and the police, allows the council to track and identify those who are not allowed to enter the city during periods of high-pollution. It can also help to coordinate efforts between the police on the ground and the sensing systems being used to measure air quality across the city.

Crucially, OI allows operators to continuously change their strategy according to constant, real-time data-readings. OI also offers cities the possibility of creating an interface that can update citizens in real-time about noise or pollution levels, or even allow them to relay information about the situation on the streets, for example giving councils information about incidents like overflowing bins. This can be in the form of a website and/or a mobile app.


Digital Twins

A Digital Twin is essentially a digital replica of physical assets, processes and systems within a limited area, such as a warehouse, a city, or a mine. The twin provides a representation of both the core elements and the dynamics of IoT devices used within the space and system depicted. Digital twins use AI (artificial intelligence), machine-learning (a subset of artificial intelligence) and software analytics with data to render real-time (otherwise known as ‘living’) digital simulation models that can update and change as their real, physical counterparts, or ‘twins’ change. To make it simpler, a digital twin applied to a city would look like a real-time ‘video game’ version of the urban space.


How Digital Twins Make Cities More Livable

Digital Twins digitize various systems (e.g. transportation, power lines, telecommunications, health care, logistics etc.). As a virtual, ‘living’ equivalent of the city’s many systems, a Digital Twin thus allows city operators to model possible strategies to deal with problems before and as they occur, allowing them to implement the best possible solution with “established” knowledge of the different ways in which it could play out.

While cities are currently far away from this concept – it will probably become more mainstream in five to ten years’ time – digital twins offer an amazing way to optimize the operations and maintenance of physical assets, systems, and processes in real-time. Moreover, the world of IoT, of which OI is one element, is increasingly providing the needed connection between a city and its digital twin.



New technologies do not provide the magic bullet solution to the complex challenges that cities face now and will face in the future. However, they should certainly play a major part in any city’s long-term resilience strategy. New technologies are increasingly providing innovative ways to optimize and manage city operations, allowing authorities to save precious time and money that can then be invested in other areas – such as social welfare – that are often underfunded and overlooked.

Integrating innovations like OI and, in the future, Digital Twins into smart city visions thus enables city operators to make life better for everybody in the city on two levels. It renders city services, such as mobility, much easier – and in the long-run cheaper – to use; it also allows city authorities to recuperate public funds wasted on inefficient systems, that can then be invested elsewhere in the city.

We have witnessed this firsthand. As an IoT pioneer and front runner for OI, we work with cities, construction companies, and parking/traffic/transport operators in over 50 countries worldwide. Through our work, we have seen how new technologies, notably OI, can help cities to deal with pressing urban challenges quicker and more effectively than ever before. The result of optimizing city services through OI is almost always greater quality of life for citizens. This is crucial: new technologies should not be used gratuitously but because they actually bring concrete results for both city operators and the urban population. OI and Digital Twins have already shown that they can do this; now, we must wait for local councils to be brave enough to invest.


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