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How digital twins help cities prepare for the worst

Canadian startup RUNWITHIT Synthetic’s modelling platform can test everything from how well an evacuation plan will work to the impact of greenbelt preservation.

In a convention hall in Santa Clara, California, 1,000 people braced themselves for an earthquake. The lights flickered, they heard a massive rumble, and a screen at the front of the room showed exactly what was happening. Power was going out across the city, just as it had in 1989, when a devastating 6.9 magnitude quake upheaved the Bay Area and took 63 lives. But this time, the disaster — a simulation created by Edmonton-based tech company RUNWITHIT Synthetics — played out differently.

RWI had created a digital model of Santa Clara, a synthetic twin that showed the city’s streets in detail — houses, roads, pedestrian paths, power lines, even the local football stadium — and as the roomful of people watched, the model demonstrated how such an earthquake might unfold with new emergency measures in place. Graphics on the screen showed what would happen if motion sensors automatically shut down the power at felled transmission lines and sent emergency notifications to gas crews, who could handle methane leaks. Moving green dots, each one representing a resident, illustrated how people would respond if they received digital alerts outlining the emergency and directing them toward navigable streets. Instead of the gridlock that had paralyzed traffic during the 1989 disaster, cars were moving. Within 15 minutes, 87 percent of the people affected had moved to safety.

“Digital twin” models like RWI’s, which was featured at the 2019 Internet of Things World conference in Santa Clara, have become go-to tools for utility operators and city planners faced with making costly decisions in complex environments. RWI’s digital twins use machine learning and massive sets of publicly available data, such as census figures, municipal records and national surveys, to simulate cities, layering in layering in psychographic and behavioural modelling as well as demographic forecasts to predict how people are likely to respond in different situations. CEO Myrna Bittner refers to the models as digital “sandboxes” that can be used for a range of purposes, from exploring what-if disaster scenarios — how a punishing heat wave might affect a community, for instance — to playing out the consequences of planning decisions like densification, infrastructure investment and greenbelt preservation. They’re like SimCity, the once-popular virtual game, Bittner says, “but for real.”

Globally, the digital twin market is “booming,” according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum. In terms of market size, it’s expected to reach U.S.$48.2 billion by 2026. Pandemics and climate change are making it more challenging for regional governments and grid operators to plan ahead, Bittner notes. Digital twins can help “derisk and depoliticize” decisions by anticipating outcomes based on evidence, rather than guesswork. It’s estimated that technology like RWI’s could save cities around the world close to U.S.$280 billion by 2030.

Bittner co-founded RWI with her husband, Dean Bittner, in 2014. To date, the company has created more than 30 synthetic cities — dozens in Canada as well as others in the United States (Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.), Switzerland and Southeast Asia. Each new build takes less than a week and costs between $300,000 and $500,000 to generate. (Subsequent research and scenario modelling adds to the cost.)

A graduate of the University of Alberta with a degree in English and Sociology, Bittner doesn’t come from a stereotypical tech background. But she’s always been interested in human behaviour, and she enrolled in an MBA program with the idea of launching a business to explore how people act within complex systems. Bittner and her husband started their first venture in 1991, when the Internet was just coming online. They saw the potential for technology that brought people together virtually and launched software that facilitated real-time remote communication for such clients as NASA and the now-defunct telecom U.S. West. The Bittners’ next venture used artificial intelligence to integrate data and provide detail-rich visualizations for an Australian billionaire developing deep-sea submarines. After that, creating synthetic cities didn’t seem like a stretch. Their business credo was “let’s invent madly,” she says, “and see what problems we can solve for people.”

Karen Wichuk, CEO of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board, is already seeing the benefits of digital modelling. RWI completed a synthetic Edmonton region earlier this year, and the 14 municipalities involved are using it to test a growth plan developed in 2017. The goal of the plan is to help the region meet the needs of its growing population, which is expected to see an increase of one million by 2044. RWI’s model is like a “living lab” that enables staff to assess and update the region’s plans, Wichuk says. They’re already discovering room for improvement.

The board’s earlier projections had estimated a need for about 337,000 new homes. But RWI’s modelling, which incorporates the most recent publicly available data along with behavioural analytics and future forecasts, suggests that figure might fall short of the mark. A key data point is the average size of Canadian households, which is trending downward. It dropped from about 2.6 people per household in 2010 to 2.51 in 2021. Looking forward to 2044, RWI’s modelling anticipates an average of 2.46 residents per home, a shift that has massive implications for planners: The region now knows it needs to plan for an additional 47,665 housing units.

That number comes with a host of related questions that municipalities can explore using the digital twin, Wichuk says. “Not only do you have to think about dwellings, but you have to think about how these people are going to live. What does transit look like? Waste management? Built-out infrastructure? Are you going to need more land? What does that mean for servicing costs? You can go into this model and say, ‘Okay, if I make this decision, what does it mean?’”

Digital twins offer a powerful tool for city staff aiming to curb carbon emissions and develop responses to climate change. Jenn McArthur, leader of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Smart Buildings Group, helped build a twin designed to track energy consumption across Toronto as the city aims to meet its 2030 GHG-emission reduction targets and also adapt to a changing climate. The interactive platform, designed in partnership with the Canadian Urban Institute, enables users to click on individual city blocks and see the type of buildings located there and how they consume energy.

“You could look at it and say, ‘If we were to displace natural gas with electrification, how much electricity would we need for this block?’” McArthur says. “Or what if we want to help the neighbourhood of Jane and Finch with decarbonization and we can get some incentives, but also economies of scale with retrofits? We could figure out the energy impact that switching to heat pumps might have and make sure Toronto Hydro can take that additional load. That’s really the idea of this kind of tool.”

McArthur is hoping to develop a more comprehensive digital twin of Toronto with more detailed data. But, she adds, twinning is highly limited by its source material. “If it’s garbage data, that’s what comes out.” Privacy and security issues are also a concern. (RWI doesn’t use surveillance data.)

Bittner says digital twins help cities “get better at the future,” especially when it comes to evaluating the long-term impact of decisions. Vulnerable populations — low-income residents, people with mobility issues, senior citizens and others — may be affected in ways that planners can’t always anticipate. One twin RWI created for the Nashville area, for instance, revealed the need for more centres to assist vulnerable residents in the event of power failures caused by extreme cold weather.

“Twins can knit together issues in an explainable way,” Bittner says. “We can show what happens when the power goes out. Where are there clusters of vulnerability? Where are the people who rely on technology for breathing or mobility?”

Ultimately, Bittner hopes RWI’s digital twins will make urban environments more sustainable for all residents as city leaders grapple with problems like climate change, the opioid crisis and the lack of affordable housing. The decisions politicians and planners make now will deeply affect their communities’ resilience in the future, she says. “We very much believe people need to understand the generational impact of the choices they’re making today.”

RUNWITHIT Synthetics is one of seven companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions.

Illustration by Monica Guan; Image source: Unsplash

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