Building resilient cities with digital tools


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In a recent webinar, panellists discussed how the application of technology can address critical ecological and urban design issues, like adapting cities to climate change.

Modern city planning needs a great deal of data. Big problems like adapting our cities to the impacts of climate change require complex solutions.

Digital technologies help urban designers pool different sources of data and consider their problems using systems thinking, rather than approaching them one project at a time.

In our recent Infrastructure webinar Integrated Design for Resilient Urban Landscapes, four panellists in conversation with City of Melbourne’s Mark Allan discussed how the application of technology can address critical ecological and urban design issues.

Watch webinar

What is an urban digital twin?

Chief among the digital tools to tackle complex urban design issues are urban digital twins. A digital twin is a virtual representation of the built and natural environment of cities, the living entities with them, and the processes that make cities tick, like transport networks.

“There are three main components in an urban digital twin,” said panellist Dr Soheil Sabri, Senior Research Fellow in Urban Analytics at the University of Melbourne. Dr Sabri managed the Fishermans Bend Digital Twin project.

The first urban digital twin component is the real world. The second is the digital world, where real-world objects and processes are represented. The third is the underpinning technology that connects the real world to the digital world and enables synchronisation between the two.

Why are they useful? An urban environment is a complex, dynamic environment where housing, environment, transport and many other factors work together.

“Any time you make a change to one, you’re affecting all eight or nine other systems that are at work on the streets and in our public realm,” said panellist Dr Nano Langenheim, Lecturer in Landscape Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Melbourne.

Urban designers can use digital twins to plug in data from several different sources to understand how these systems interact.

The benefits and pitfalls of open data

Where relevant data is available in open data resources, urban planning projects could save time and money.

However, researchers and planners often collect data for a specific purpose. Data collected for understanding the free flow of traffic – while representing the same streets – may not have the information another researcher needs about footpath quality.

“What we are seeing through digital transformation is certainly a pressure on maturity in the marketplace for … understanding what the information management requirements are at the end of the project,” said panellist Mr James Barrow, Mixed Reality and Digital Engineering Lead at GHD.

Good data management standards that help define the type, accuracy, currency and purpose of data collected can ensure its longevity.

And that longevity starts with curiosity about what other users’ needs are, Mr Barrow explained. Ensuring the usability of data beyond a single project increases its value.

Using digital tools for climate change adaptation

City planners are already tackling the impacts of climate change: increased rainfall, rising sea levels and increasing temperatures.

The City of Melbourne is using digital technologies and data in projects like increasing tree canopy cover and understanding the microclimates around the city to combat the effects of extreme heat events.

“Heat is in fact a more dangerous killer of people in Australia than any other natural hazard,” said Ms Tiffany Crawford, co-Chief Heat Officer at the City of Melbourne.

But she believes the solutions to climate change are available.

“What it now requires is different thinking, innovation and partnership. I think that the great minds watching this and present today are a big part of that. Keep going!” Ms Crawford said.

Learn more about Infrastructure research.

First published on 26 January 2023.

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InfrastructureClimate changeFaculty of Engineering and Information Technology