Digital Twins: Changing urban management

28 February 2023

Japanese version: 1 October 2022

Noriyuki Hayashi
Smart Region Division


  • Recent years have seen substantial progress in urban digital twins
  • They have been developed at the national and local government levels with many examples of their application
  • Convincing examples showing their effective use will be essential moving forward

Urban digital twins: a key to advancing local digital transformation

A digital twin is a three-dimensional virtual recreation of a space in the real world. Digital twins surfaced as a means to optimize processes, enhance quality, and anticipate risks mostly in the manufacturing sector. And they are now being put to work in more and more fields including medicine, health, and the environment.

Urban digital twins are the application of the concept to cities. Just like real cities, they are comprised of many elements and can become quite complex, but they can also be a crucial tool for pushing digital transformation (DX) forward in cities, local communities, and administrative entities. The technology promises to help optimize and extend the activities of businesses and private individuals alike. It can also prompt greater efficiencies and more advanced urban management by making possible 1) simulations and analyses that would be impossible to do in real spaces, 2) feedback on the planning and operation of real spaces, and 3) collaboration spanning real and virtual spaces.

3D urban models enable high-precision simulation

Japan’s national and more tech-savvy local governments offer urban digital twins across the country and over a broad-scope of fields—a feat unparalleled anywhere in the world*. They have been used in cases such as three dimensional visualization of how objects like buildings and roads interact in projected inundation areas during flood events. In this particular example, building data is being used to identify structures suitable for vertical evacuation, thus contributing to the safety of residents.

In other examples, urban digital twins are being used to estimate power generation potential when all structures in a given area are equipped with rooftop solar panels. These high-precision simulations consider roof orientation, panel angle, and shadows cast by other buildings. They also allows modelers to anticipate and verify the influence of reflected light on the vicinity. In this way, urban digital twinning is also likely to contribute to the community-based co-creation essential for carrying out carbon neutral policies.

*The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport's Project Plateau, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Tokyo Digital Twin Project, and other like projects have created and made available (or are in the process of doing so) over 100 3D urban models built on a set of standardized specifications nationwide. Over 80 examples have already seen, or are in the process of, development and testing based on the technology

Evacuating to the third floor or above in building or other structure

Building a new digital infrastructure

Urban digital twins are also a vital component of the metaverse, which aims to increase people’s actfulness* and facilitate new businesses and services in the virtual sphere. Urban digital twins are soon to amass historical data as they see more use in simulation, real-world planning and operations, and collaboration across the real and virtual realms; this new data will then facilitate new structures for its management.

However, there are some hurdles facing the technology as well. First, understanding of the technology must be improved among stakeholders spanning industry, government, academia, and residents. Consensus for its use must also be built among the same cohort. Inter-regional collaboration proves just as difficult. And the same goes for fostering organizations and people able to develop, manage, and utilize the technology. The 3D urban models at the core require constant updating, and legal frameworks need to be created to govern activity and features within virtual spaces. All related parties will have to work together to address these issues one at a time.

New technologies are becoming ever more important for matters of urban management, such as securing physical mobility for the elderly in depopulated areas. These include mobile communications, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and self-driving vehicles. Such innovations are delivering tangible results: finding solutions to challenges facing society like how to deal with aging, low birth rates, and depopulation; providing people means to improve their actfulness; and creating opportunities for new businesses and services. Digital twin technology too stands among these ranks—future work should hone in on the advantages found in its 3D aspects to create, test, and spread convincing examples of its tangible capabilities.

We believe endeavors like these will help build a digital infrastructure for a new era in the near future.

*An original concept from Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc., actfulness is the creating of opportunities for and increasing the value of individual’s activities

Objects covering a topography like buildings and trees