The UrbanTwin project brings together the energy, environmental and IT communities, as required for the achievement of its goals. Indeed, a multi-disciplinary approach is required in order to address the complexity of the multi-infrastructure modelling as well as the development of an energy efficient and highly performant IT-based digital twin too. These communities are equally represented in the project in terms of number of partners and activities and the project is co-led by representatives of the IT and energy communities, namely Prof. David Atienza and Prof. Francois Maréchal. We asked the co-leaders to provide us with their views on the project, in terms of aim, novelty and impact.

What’s the aim of the project?

David: The main goal of UrbanTwin is to develop the fundamental technologies (and ways to combine them) to create a multi-level abstraction tool to help decision-makers to optimize the management of cities to improve use of energy, water, mobility, etc. in a holistic way. 

François: We explore how the use of the digital twin concept will support decision making by testing and comparing urban development strategies. The computer aided and AI supported approach offers decision makers more robust and transparent perspectives for a more sustainable urban infrastructure development.

What’s the novelty?

David: The novelty is in multiple areas. On the technology side, it requires new smart embedded sensors running AI/ML algorithms that are able to execute algorithms (called as edge AI sensors) to communicate key sensing magnitudes from multiple sources (energy and water use in buildings, neighborhoods, streets, or pollution level on different parts of the city, etc.) and then send the necessary information to integrate them overall status of the system with new multi-scale models (at building level, city level, etc.) using cloud computing technologies. Then, also on the technology side, we need to deploy sustainable cloud computing technologies (based on the new experimental cloud computing facility at EPFL) that enables us to create these models in a sustainable way. Finally, at the same time, we need to conceive multi-scale models that are responsive and scalable to different types of real-time requirements regarding planning of cities..

François: Our research is not just yet another digital twin, our research explores the development and the use of digital twins concept for decision support of authorities and other urban system stakeholders. Our approach is by essence multi-dimensional, from the topics covered to the scales (geographic and temporal) concerned. Having a platform that serves as a basis for the different types of simulation models that can be interoperated and used for decision support is a major contribution. Having interoperable models tuned by experts at the appropriate level of granulometry with the ability to use this massive amount of information being processed to feed AI tools is a key innovation. We expect here to demonstrate how it can be realised with the perspective of offering a urban digital twin development methodology for research and application.

Who will be the final user and what’s the added value for him in using this tool?

David: The final users are different types of policy-making entities in cities, which deal with logistics and planning of the urban infrastructures. The point is that the final framework can provide an understanding of the situation of the city and enable forecasting of critical urban infrastructure factors for the well-being of the citizens, such as energy, water, buildings, and mobility planning. 

Also, this new digital twin tool can enable detailed simulation of the evolution of these interlinked infrastructure factors under different climate and population behavior scenarios. Therefore, it can enable the government to understand the effects of the city’s evolution and actions with respect to climate change actions.

François: authorities and the stakeholders of urban development are the main users. We have selected various application cases to validate our approaches. We discuss with our partners to identify the best applications of the digital twin concept. Their feedback allows us to adapt the tools to the needs to to open new horizons for the systemic analysis of the urban system. One of the important features of our approach is multi-disciplinarity not only between researchers but also between stakeholders with the aim of offering a consistent platform for multi-criteria decision making.

What are the diverse disciplines of the project and how are they intertwined? In particular, how will the interplay of three research centers namely CIS, CLIMACT and EcoCloud impact the project?

David: The project is clearly multidisciplinary in nature as it requires expertise in computing and electronic systems, cloud computing and IT, but also on modeling and control of complex systems (cities, buildings, etc. and energy distribution systems), as well the use of AI/ML techniques to try to enhance existing physics-driven models of real-life working environments. Moreover, it requires understanding of climate and social and environmental effects on the development of realistic digital twins for cities that can be used by the authorities and policy makers. As a result, this project must elaborate on the competences on multiple centers of EPFL (in particular, the EcoCloud center sustainable cloud computing, the Center of Intelligent Systems – CIS, the CLIMACT center for Climate Impact and Action, and the Energy center of EPFL) as well as integrate the expertise of the different ETH Domain institutions (ETHZ, EMPA, EAWAG, etc.). The integration of all these types of expertise is what creates the complete value and uniqueness of the project to deliver its full potential. It is challenging, but also a unique opportunity to do something that can change the way we plan and analyze urban environments in my opinion.  

François: multi-disciplinarity is the key of the project, having specialists “forced” to share their specific knowledge to propose a joined and common platform where they exchange models, calculation methods, various metrics and criteria is a challenge per say. Creating bridges between disciplines by the way of digital twins concept is original and we hope that partners will learn a lot from the interdisciplinarity, not only between researchers but also with the actors of the sustainable development. 

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