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Newcastle's 'twin cities'

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

Climate change is forcing cities to approach emergency situations differently – and Newcastle University, in partnership with Northumbrian Water, are looking at innovative methods to predict how a city will react in the future. Leading minds behind the project Chris Jones, Brett Cherry, and Professor Chris Kilsby tell more.

Cities are faced with numerous challenges from security to infrastructure, sustainability, and rapidly-increasing populations. Fifty four per cent of the world’s population live in urban areas, and this number is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Cities are confronted with emergencies that are complex at multiple levels, perhaps triggered by a natural hazard such as a flood or heatwave, or a fault such as a major power outage or pipe burst in the water network. 

The ways in which we manage, maintain, and govern cities is changing. We now have at our disposal technologies that help us see the city as a ‘whole system’ making it possible to integrate their multiple layers of functionality. How we visualise data is also changing rapidly that brings with it opportunities for cities never before possible.

Climate change for example will likely have a major impact on how cities must adapt to extreme weather such as floods, droughts, heatwaves and superstorms. Many of these events are inevitable but are difficult to predict, making preparation incredibly challenging. How could a city – no matter its level of infrastructure or wealth – prepare for two or more one-in-a-hundred-year floods over the span of a month, or even a week? If little is done to integrate water infrastructure with other infrastructures, major flood events could in some cases turn into disasters.

Cities are themselves vast urban networks: carefully engineered, managed, governed, and orchestrated to deliver resources, commodities, homes, and jobs to citizens. They are economic powerhouses with millions of people migrating to cities every day, which brings with it unique challenges – many of which have yet to be met.

As automotive traffic increases, how do you prevent road transportation from coming to a standstill, which lowers air quality and affects public health? At the same time, what if peak traffic congestion were to coincide with an extreme weather event, such as a flood? Could you ensure people’s safety in time? As of yet, cities do not have an emergency management system in place that provides enough comprehensive oversight to take on emergencies at this level of complexity, other than through mock-ups or ‘real-life’ models that are costly or are too limited in scope.   

One idea that is catching the attention of industry, academia and government alike is the ‘digital twin’ – a computer replica of an entire city in real-time to test potential future emergencies. While at the moment we don’t have an actual full-scale digital twin of a city, in some cases we already have different parts of its ‘body’ to make it possible.

Large urban sensor networks such as the Urban Observatory in Newcastle – a vast urban network with over 2,700 metrics freely available online – would be the eyes and ears of the digital twin. Visualisation of data and real-time modelling would be at its heart. The real-time information flows that come from the urban sensing network would be its lifeblood.

However, when you conceptualise the digital twin, the goal remains the same: to put together an accurate, intelligent, and interactive model of the actual city at scale for testing a wide range of different scenarios. This means connecting together models of different areas and infrastructures of cities that allows for understanding, analysing, adapting, and investing in the whole urban system in ways never before possible.

Similar to digital twins of jet engines or water infrastructure, a digital twin of a city could provide oversight at a high level of detail that could be used to understand how cities would manage emergencies that involve multiple vectors. Newcastle University and Northumbrian Water Group (NWG) are developing a digital twin called ‘Twincident’ that responds to incidents in the water network, such as a heavy rainfall event. The initial idea came about at the 2018 NWG Innovation Festival. The aim is to run simulations of an area during an incident to show what could happen over a 24-hour period in just 30 seconds. Twincident provides a new way forward for Northumbrian Water employees in the field to respond faster and more effectively to emerging issues.

So far, Newcastle University has developed the basic building blocks for the digital twin including modelling tools, spatial analysis tools and enabling simulation and decisions-support using different models working in concert.  

While it may not be possible to prepare for every incident, it is within cities’ grasp to adopt measures that could make them more resilient and sustainable in the long term. A city’s digital twin would help make this possible through integrated sophisticated computer models that provide a 1:1 correspondence with the city, allowing for real-time resilience testing. Whatever happens in the city also takes place in the model – one need not be a software engineer to work with a digital twin. So with advances in AI there is room for the possibility of an interface that responds in an intelligible way, making it accessible to the non-expert.

The digital twin could provide real-time modelling and simulation to produce response plans and dynamic decision support for nearly any incident. It would account for the location, conditions involved, and update as the incident evolves over time. While this may sound too good to be true already, we have the means to model systems to predict urban flooding in the context of infrastructure dependencies.

We have forecasting tools to understand how climate change will impact cities in the future. We are able to visualise urban surface water flooding at multiple scales. The purpose of much of this is to better inform decisions on infrastructure and maximise the use of data to make more effective emergency management in cities possible. These tools will likely be imperative to how cities adapt to a wide variety of incidents caused or exacerbated by climate change.

The digital twin could improve the ways cities are currently developed, managed, and monitored, and would essentially enhance and improve upon current systems in place. Integrate it with current advances in cloud computing, data science, urban sensing, and internet-of-things, and that makes the digital twin an exciting prospect for addressing incidents that affect cities as a whole, and the uncertainties surrounding environmental change.


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