Digital Twins and Smart City Impact on Design, Build, and Manage

How will Digital Twins and Smart City programs change the way projects are designed, built, and managed?  That’s a big question that has more than one answer.  Smart Cities have been discussed for many years now.  The concept of connecting IoT, sensor data, cameras, and other edge devices to a physical structure, campus, city, or town has a lot of promise.  Managing assets remotely while capturing analytics and leveraging that information to make predictive decisions suggests efficiency and sustainability at levels not otherwise realized. 

The Digit Group (TDG), led by Paul Doherty, has been at the forefront of evangelizing the benefits of a Smart City approach.  Initially, they found less resistance in China where the state has far more control, and the cities are so large that the benefits will far outweigh the effort to deploy such a program.  This is a new way to design, build, and manage, so there must be buy-in at all levels.  Smart City programs can be dictated by the Chinese government, so it made for an excellent proving ground.  The goal, of course, is to leverage the power of smart buildings, smart cities, and IoT to address the challenges with integrating buildings and assets into the urban fabric of smart city initiatives.

The Digital Twin is essentially a virtual model of a Smart City or Smart Building that helps to visualize data, in real-time, to enable informed decision making.  Ultimately the volume of data retrieved from buildings, surrounding infrastructure, utilities, companies, personnel and vehicles becomes so enormous that it can only be made sense of by using machine learning and AI to process data and for predictive decision making.

These terms have been widely publicized, and most people are starting to really understand the potential for Digital Twins and Smart Cities.  There are numerous examples now of organizations taking next steps towards developing a successful path to implementing these types of programs.

The Digital Twin Consortium ( is one example where industry leading organizations are joining forces to build the foundation for successful Digital Twin development and standards.  Founding members include DELL, Microsoft, GE and Lendlease.  Membership has expanded widely and now includes the likes of Autodesk, Bentley, Association of Asset Management Professionals (AMP), Blockchain Engineering Council, and many others.  The purpose of the consortium is to develop Digital Twins that have the ability to see what happens as a result of your decision-making before it happens, while also recognizing that to obtain the desired results will require cross-industry collaboration. 

Similar initiatives are happening across industries as it relates to the adoption of BIM.  Early research and success have shown a strong correlation between Smart Cities and Buildings and 3D model data being applied from design through project handover.  A successful BIM project suggests a much smoother transition to the Digital Twin.  Foundational asset and location data are obtained through BIM design and construction processes.

In 2018, the Iowa DOT kicked off a Transportation Pooled Fund Project to advance open data standards for BIM for Bridges, also known as BrIM.  Since then the BIM for Bridges pooled fund is now supported by more than 20 DOT’s and includes research partners like University of Florida – College of Design, Construction and Planning, HDR and others.  DOT industry enthusiasm is growing.  The fund is also supported by leading software vendors that include Autodesk, Bentley, and Infotech, among others.  Leica and Trimble back the fund from a vendors’ perspective while industry partners including AASHTO and BuildingSmart® International ensure that the industry needs are addressed while standards are developed and maintained.  Establishing a standard foundation for BIM in infrastructure sets a defining path to Smart Cities and Digital Twins, so that these programs lead to success with government agencies and others. It does take a collaborative effort to develop a successful path forward. 

Digital Twin Consortium founding member Lendlease has developed a platform that integrates traditional project management steps into a digital project lifecycle solution. One Lendlease Interactive (OLi) provides a standard process that is used from business development to project delivery, asset management and potentially divestment.  In fact, many design and engineering firms are embracing standards that make delivering a Digital Twin much more efficient.  Leading contractors are not getting left behind either.  Quite a few of the ENR Top 400 are getting involved in program and portfolio management.  Advanced Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) efforts in many of these firms already have them embracing digital solutions for BIM and project management, inspections, verification with reality capture, and much more. Who better to manage the Twin but the firm that designed and built it?

Siemens has been a trailblazer with building automation and control systems technology being deployed around the world.  Digital Twins require data that is developed during design and construction phases, like in the examples already mentioned, and data acquired from assets, IoT devices, sensors, and cameras.  Siemens has the hardware and applications to automate the physical building while managing the digital assets.  Others like FM:Systems take the software approach by blending BIM data with real time sensor and IoT data points.  Their solutions are Mobile and provide the Business Intelligence (BI) front-end to all data within the system to help provide actionable Intelligence to support better decision making.

The early stages of Smart City and Digital Twin evangelizing have been replaced with industry interest and support.  Owners, like the DOT’s, are understanding the opportunity to establish standards and routines right now that will make a difference for the future.  The term “future proof” is probably used too often, but that is exactly what is required when considering the future of autonomous vehicles and a much wider adoption of predictive analytics in use on everything from traffic flow to emergency management. 

Roads, highways, and bridges are changing.  So are cities, towns, counties, and states.  A successful Smart City or Digital Twin program requires public and private support.  Private owners and developers are seizing this moment to enable building efficiencies that make a financial impact on their portfolios.  Everyone investing in these programs should see measurable results while discovering smarter ways to design, build, and manage our communities.

About the Author

Ron Perkins is the president of Jobsite Tech Group and has been an active member of the Associated General Contractors (AGC). His experience in the AEC industry goes back more than three decades and he has been highly involved in technology deployment at the construction site for many years. Ron has led sales and business development initiatives for firms such as Construction Market Data (CMD), Architects First Source and Autodesk; consulted for HP, SYNNEX, Infotech, Samsung, Dropbox, ARCOM, VIM™ and others; and spent many years in SaaS, EDM, BIM and VDC solutions. He has been a speaker or panelist at numerous industry events including Autodesk University, ENR FutureTech, CMAA, FTBA, TRB, Meridian, Oracle, AIA, ABC, AGC IT Forum, AGC BIM Forum, CSI, and others. He is an active member of several Transportation Research Board (TRB) committees and Advisory Board Member on National Science Foundation (NSF) funded technology research grants.


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