The technology for resilient cities is here, says Bentley senior director Richard Vestner


Tackling urban carbon emissions that while securing resilience will require major investment in new practical solutions and practices. We talk with Bentley Systems’ senior director of cities, Richard Vestner (RV), about how digital innovation can help.  

IG: The global pandemic and more severe weather events caused by climate change have brought urban resilience into sharp focus. What is the role of technologies like digital twins in strengthening that resilience?

RV: “The foundation for building resilient and sustainable urban infrastructure is to have a solid understanding of the urban environment, the ability to perform impact analysis of events, and to possess an operational awareness with defined mitigation procedures.

“The digital twin supports all three of these areas, combining relevant data sources into a federated view — regardless of data types and formats— and the possibility to apply scenario simulations. Furthermore, the digital twin enables engineers to link real-time sensors for situational awareness of status and trends, supporting operational decisions.

“The digital twin is the place where you check and optimise the impact of infrastructure on social distancing, urban heat islands, or heavy rain falls for urban resilience.”

“The technology is here, and there is no reason to wait. We work with users in a phased approach based on agreed targeted use cases so that motivation stays high.”
Richard Vestner

IG: Comprehensive digital adoption – such as creating a whole-city digital twin – is a very long-term and potentially difficult undertaking. Are there relative ‘quick wins’ or ‘stepping-stones’ along the way that are taking place as urban planners gradually build up their capabilities?

RV: “We see many organisations struggling with defining their digital twin strategy. They don’t know how to start, how to organise, or whether they need new systems and skills.

“In our view, digital twins are about leveraging technology as an enabler for a digital transformation toward an agile, learning organisation. A digital twin provides the structure to simplify the implementation of use cases and workflows by using an up-to-date and trusted digital version of the physical infrastructure. Bentley provides an open digital twin architecture with excellent integration capabilities, which enables people to connect different data types and formats, as well as various systems from different suppliers.

“The technology is here, and there is no reason to wait. We work with users in a phased approach based on agreed targeted use cases so that motivation stays high. We help our users connect and visualise existing data from various silos and define a data policy, learn how to harvest low-hanging fruit from desired use cases and scale usage internally, and then increase complexity and granularity by connecting to more data sources and update more frequently. Lastly, we help ensure that they always take care that every step creates value for their organization and addresses needs.”

“embodied carbon emissions are locked in place as soon as a building is built. They can represent 40% to 70% of whole life carbon in a new building.”
Richard Vestner

IG: Which organisations are currently implementing an infrastructure digital twin and why?

RV: “There’s quite a remarkable number of early adopters from cities and campuses, but with changing starting points and focus. They all have an urgent need to aggregate information above the building level, covering bigger facilities or urban districts. We see proliferation of applications and systems for planning and design, for asset management or infrastructure operations. Hence, the value comes from consolidating this information and these data sources into a holistic view of the city or campus, making it accessible to as many stakeholders as possible.

“For example, an airport has the complexity of a small city, and the main drivers are efficiency in planning and operation. Sydney Airport (SYD) is one of our projects and has developed into a lighthouse account.

“Going digital with the aid of an airport digital twin solution has given the SYD staff the ability to mix and match data to create a comprehensive picture of the campus. It brings the thousands of drawings to life, with the added ability to access reality modelling and then enhanced with the integration of organisational software. One of the benefits is the improved collaboration between departments. From the onset of the rollout, the feedback has been positive, and there is growing interest and enthusiasm from SYD staff to integrate with other airport systems, enriching the data already published. The return on investment is the reduced time to search for and share information, increasing safety for operational staff.”

IG: Alongside resilience is the need for decarbonisation. How extensive is the potential for decarbonisation through the development of more comprehensive digital mapping for urban areas?

RV: “Decarbonisation is a big topic that involves many elements of the urban environment. As an example, the built environment consisting of buildings and infrastructure generates nearly 50% of annual global carbon dioxide emissions, according to Whole life carbon is formed of two key components: embodied carbon, which is related to the manufacturing of building materials and the construction phase, and operational carbon, which is related to operating this built environment.

“As buildings and infrastructure become more energy efficient, operational carbon emissions of new buildings has significantly reduced, whereas embodied carbon emissions are locked in place as soon as a building is built. Thus, embodied carbon has become significant and can represent 40% to 70% of whole life carbon in a new building.

“The digital twin consolidates all components of buildings and infrastructure and can provide an overview of the carbon footprint based on mass balances for a certain material mix and different design alternatives. This is specifically interesting for brownfield developments where CAD or BIM was used. It is a means to understand and benchmark the environmental impact of a project at an early stage of the development.

“Also, the digital twin is critical for a holistic operational view of the facilities based on sensors and real-time feeds, helping staff with informed decisions and automation related to occupancy that requires lighting, heating, or cooling, for example.”

IG: All of this leads to the creation of huge quantities of data. That can result in something of a ‘too much information’ challenge for decision-makers having to try to prioritise what actions to take. So, how important will the development of aligned technologies like AI or machine learning be to support them?

RV: “It is a major challenge, as many applications require accurate and updated data. We see many of our customers frequently collecting data accumulating to terra- or even petabytes. Managing data from different suppliers and collection methods is a challenge, especially over time with survey firms often contracted per project over a certain period. Data management for various types of data and efficient storage becomes critical to serve the organization with self-served access to data over time, including data from different sources and historical data.

“The digital twin acts as not only a common platform to view and search for data, but also to apply artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools to automate or improve workflows, such as inspection or maintenance procedures. As example, Bentley applies ML solutions for detecting and classifying defects on towers, bridges, and roads.

“However, even before you start applying AI/ML, a digital twin for urban development helps with structure, transparency, and an intuitive user experience that supports decision-making for as many roles as possible in a user organisation.”

Richard J. Vestner is senior director in the Industry Solutions Product Advancement Unit of Bentley Systems. He is responsible for software solutions addressing cities and campuses. Based in Munich, Germany, Richard holds a Dipl.-Ing. and a Dr.-Ing. degree in civil engineering. Richard will be speaking about these issues and more at the Global Infrastructure Conference in Geneva this September.