Creating a new urban era with AI

Creating a new urban era with AI

Civic leaders are exploring how AI, the cloud and digital twins can transform how they manage traffic, pollution, water provision and more. Microsoft’s Jose Antonio Ondiviela and Jeremy M. Goldberg explain  

Rebecca Gibson |

Eighty per cent of cities face significant climate hazards – such as extreme heat, rainfall, drought or flooding, according to environmental data charity CDP. Its 2022 Protecting People and the Planet report also highlights that these issues are expected to threaten at least 70 per cent of the population in 28 per cent of these cities. Vital resources are also at risk from climate change, with water supply, agriculture and waste management considered among the greatest dangers.  

Nevertheless, the right action can lead to positive change. Eighty-five per cent of cities taking people-centred climate actions are driving public health, social and economic benefits, such as better air quality, greater physical and mental health for citizens, increased food and water security, reduced costs and more business innovation, according to the report. Also, 75 per cent achieve environmental benefits, including more green spaces and enhanced water and soil quality. At the root of these improvements is digital technology.  

“Various new technology tools can promote sustainability by optimising resource usage, monitoring environmental impacts, and facilitating renewable energy adoption,” says Jeremy M. Goldberg, worldwide director of critical infrastructure at Microsoft.   

Swedish city Helsingborg, for example, is using ClimateView’s Microsoft Azure cloud-based ClimateOS solution to help it reach net zero by 2035. The software-as-a-service platform aggregates climate-related data from multiple sources and analyses it to deliver insights into the largest sources of emissions in Helsingborg, enabling city leaders to collaborate with municipal organisations and other stakeholders to predict the impact of possible solutions and develop an effective carbon emissions abatement plan.   

Elsewhere, city leaders are “beginning to reorder their urban planning” to overcome issues caused by rising temperatures, says Jose Antonio Ondiviela, Western Europe government and smart cities director at Microsoft.   

He cites examples of projects to construct climatic shelters for vulnerable citizens, plant ‘forest crowns’ to lower the temperature of cities, develop asphalt alternatives to reduce heat radiated by roads and pavements, and use technologies to enable efficient temperature regulation in buildings. 

Meanwhile, other municipalities aim to become ‘sponge cities’ by upgrading their infrastructure to more easily absorb excess water to reduce the risk of severe flooding. Barcelona in Spain, for example, has built expansive underground spare tanks to capture excess water, while the Netherlands is designing green infrastructures that filter and drain the water to the subsoil. Some cities are also building new water storage and distribution systems to cope with summer droughts and wildfires. 

In Porto, Portugal, municipal water utility company Águas do Porto (AdP) has used Bentley Systems’ OpenFlows solutions – which run on the Microsoft Azure cloud – to build a federated digital twin. This helps it manage water supply, wastewater drainage and treatment, stormwater drainage, surface waters and coastal water quality for around 500,000 people in the city.   

AdP’s digital twin, which is a virtual representation of the physical water system, is integrated with its H2PORTO platform, which centralises near-real-time and historical data from 22 types of sources, including billing, meters, sensors, operations, weather stations and control systems. This enables AdP to track the status of each part of the water system, forecast the performance of the entire water system up to three days in advance, and respond instantly to automatic alerts about potential problems. It can also run virtual simulations of issues such as pipe breaks or valve closures to determine how the water system would react and develop solutions.   

Sensor data is now almost 99 per cent accurate, water supply service interruptions have fallen by 22 per cent, the number of sewer collapses has decreased by 54 per cent, and there has been an 8.3 per cent and 45.5 per cent increase in repairs being carried out on burst pipes and sewer and services connections, respectively. Technicians can now remotely access H2PORTO via a tablet in the field to register asset details and changes, producing operational gains of 23 per cent.   

“The efficient use and recycling of water is essential to achieve a self-sufficient city,” says Ondiviela. “Once again, the use of the latest technologies in digital twin simulation allows us to design cities that are resilient to climate change.”  

Porto is just one of many cities where digital twins are accelerating innovation and public service delivery. For example, digital twins are helping to improve energy management in Helsinki, Finland; water management and resiliency in Gothenburg, Sweden; city planning in Dublin, Ireland; traffic management, noise and pollution in Antwerp, Belgium; road safety in Alkmaar and urban planning in Amsterdam, both in the Netherlands.   

“Digital twins can be applied in the public sector to model and optimise urban planning, infrastructure management and disaster response,” says Goldberg.    

According to Ondiviela, urban digital twins can be used for three key purposes: data integration, simulation and innovation.  

“Cities can bring together data on traffic, weather, infrastructure, and other resources to innovate in areas such as urban mobility, emergency planning, and energy and water usage,” he explains. “As all areas in the city are intertwined, city managers can see the impact of one problem on another and establish interdependencies for additional analytics. Multiple data formats are integrated in the urban data platform to facilitate analytics and obtain insights for better decision-making.”  

He adds: “The latest urban digital twins are also including human behaviors and patterns, socioeconomic data and socio-demographic information with the aim to get to know their citizens better, evaluate potential risks and threats, then adapt the city to their needs and preferences.”  

However, says Ondiviela, one of the biggest advantages of a digital twin is that they can be used to rapidly develop solutions for overcoming challenges related to traffic, pollution, public transport infrastructure, utilities supply, security and more.    

“Instead of testing with expensive physical trials and then fixing the issue, we can run different ‘what if’ scenarios as simulations on the model, rapidly test solutions and make real-time adjustments before choosing the most convenient solution,” says Ondiviela. “This helps us to obtain massive savings in cost and time to implementation, while minimising disruptions to citizens. It represents an enormous advance in opportunities to improve the quality of urban life.”  

When combined with technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality, digital twins can be used for applications beyond engineering, urban planning and healthcare. 

“We can incorporate new technologies coming from metaverse, like Web3, to explore, visualise and experience the data model,” says Ondiviela. “New methodologies to incorporate real-time data can be put in place to increase the realism and accuracy of the model. This is leading to the concept of the MetaCity/Cityverse, which represents a revolution in the way of operating and offering public services in the city, in the social relations of its citizens and in their leisure activities.”  

Ondiviela cites Doha in Qatar, Seoul in South Korea, and Singapore as examples of cities already experimenting with metaverse technologies. “Like all human developments, however, the ability to generate new business models and new services for citizens will be the determinants of the speed with which the metaverse is consolidated in our lives,” he says. “Much remains to be done as it is still in its infancy and there are many alternatives and a range of possibilities to explore.”  

Ondiviela says the ability to make decisions on data is “pure gold” for city leaders. “They can show that decisions are made based on real data and facts, rather than other vague criteria, which increases citizens’ trust and perception of professionalism and efficiency in the city management,” he explains 

Securing citizens’ trust is vital when using their personal data to enhance public service delivery.   

“Modernising traditional services can be challenging due to concerns about data privacy, security, and the credibility of information,” says Goldberg. “Integrating legacy data into new systems can be complex and require data cleaning and transformation to ensure accuracy.”  

Ondiviela agrees. “Citizens must trust the city to manage their private and sensitive information,” he says. “This trust relationship is the basis for the provision of quality public services adapted to the peculiarities of citizens and anticipating their needs.”   

To build trust, cities must allow citizens to remain the exclusive owners of their digital identities. “The current situation where certain providers of information and internet services obtain all the citizens’ personal information by all means must cease,” says Ondiviela. “The new decentralised identity environments allow citizens to decide which part of their identity can be transferred to each public or private entity at all times. Obviously, this requires the use of the latest technologies.”  

With urban growth expected to continue over the next decade and beyond, Goldberg expects more cities to invest in smart city technologies to help them innovate citizen service delivery while overcoming financial, geopolitical, environmental and other challenges.  

“Economic downturns can strain public sector budgets and resources, leading to the need for more efficient operations,” he says. “Technology can help civic leaders do more with less by enabling automation, data-driven decision-making, and streamlining processes. For example, AI can add value by automating routine tasks, providing personalised services, and analysing large data sets for insights. However, organisations must consider ethics and ensure transparency and accountability in decision-making processes. 

“Microsoft offers various solutions for urban innovation, such as Azure IoT for smart city initiatives, Azure AI for data analysis and AI-driven services, and cloud-based platforms for collaboration and communication. Our partner ecosystem will also play a crucial role in delivering and customising these solutions to meet specific city needs.”  

Partner perspectives 

We asked selected partners to share how they are using Microsoft’s cloud, AI, digital twin or other technologies to help civic leaders drive urban innovation and move to citizen-centric operations 

“CrowdScan’s technology does not need cameras, wi-fi, Bluetooth or mobile devices. Instead, it uses the power of the Microsoft cloud to capture, process and analyse crowd data to deliver anonymised insights to city leaders,” said Ben Bellekens, chief technology officer at CrowdScan. 

“The Schneider Electric EcoStruxure DERMS (Distributed Energy Resource Management System) is the first cloud-native solution that optimises resources including solar, storage and electric vehicles. Collaborative solutions like this are essential for the energy transition, providing utilities with enhanced communication and coordination capabilities to unlock the value of distributed energy resources as flexible grid resources,” said Scott Harden, chief technology officer of innovation at Schneider Electric. 

“By integrating our data management software – Surveillance Bridge – with Microsoft’s cloud storage services, we help enterprises in highly regulated domains benefit both from unlimited capacity for their surveillance data and the fastest disaster recovery capabilities,” said Georgi Panchev, product manager at Tiger Surveillance. 

Read more from these partners as well as AVEVA, Itron, LinkedIn and Umojo in the latest issue of Technology Record 

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