Bologna’s ambitious Local Digital Twin is taking shape

25 October 2023

The idea of a ‘digital twin’ was born at NASA in the 1960s as a ‘living model’ of the Apollo space mission. Back then, NASA created simulators to assess the impact of oxygen tank failure, expanding a physical model of the spacecraft to incorporate digital elements.

Today, our understanding of the term is much more complex, and Bologna is fully grasping the many opportunities it offers. Bologna has committed to become the most progressive city in Italy, and they will be relying on a local digital twin to achieve this goal.

“Our objective is to create a more just, fair, and sustainable city,” says Stefania Paolazzi, Policy Advisor in Bologna, “and find a new sustainable development model that addresses economic, social and environmental challenges.”

To reach this target, the municipality is relying on the implementation of major strategies and investments that will bring about the social, environmental and technological transition of the city, while also enhancing its historic values.

​For example, Bologna is one of over 100 cities committed to achieving climate neutrality by 2030. The city is investing in new mobility, education and information, energy efficiency, waste management and urban greening. On this last point, the ‘Green Footprint’ project aims to enhance the well-being and quality of life for local residents by constructing a vast green infrastructure that envelops the entire city.

A view of Bologna
Bologna. Photo by Petr Slovacek

The ‘City of Knowledge’ strategy seeks to shift the city’s economic and social development towards a knowledge-based dimension, involving the redevelopment of a substantial city area and the implementation of active policies. Simultaneously, to address the pressing housing crisis, Bologna has launched the ‘Plan for Housing,’ with a bold target of building ten thousand new homes over the next decade.

According to Paolazzi, “the local digital twin will support decision-making into tackling these challenges and developing these strategies.”

Slow and steady

“There are many cities that already have a local digital twin,” she explains, “but no one has a complete working model.” At least, not for now. But this is what the Italian city has set out to do in the next three years. “We want to have a complete model of digital twin, meaning we want to include not only the physical world, but also the social interactions and the different urban systems,” says Paolazzi. 

Learning from the experiences of other cities that are experimenting with local digital twins or components of it, such as Barcelona with their 15 minute city platform, or Helsinki’s 3D city models, Bologna has spent the last year planning in detail how their digital twin will come to life.

A political project

“The digital twin for us is not just a technological project, but a strategic, political one,” states Paolazzi.

The project is led by the administration and based on a pact with all city actors with the aim of sharing data, imagining new solutions and implementing them together.

“We aim to have a dynamic model that can co-evolve with the city, a predictive model that help us anticipate for future challenges,” she says. 

The digital twin should serve as a valuable tool for researchers, decision-makers, the private sector and citizens, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of the city as a complex system, encompassing social layers and behaviours.

A civic approach

The city is seeking to provide people with the tools and knowledge to understand and exercise their rights as citizens, while enabling the administration to make informed, data-driven decision making. “We need a new, innovative, and democratic organisation to exchange information, to design scenarios and, at the same time, to protect citizens’ data”.

They are doing this by placing core values at the heart of the project, recognising the importance of ethics, respect for citizens’ digital rights, transparency, fairness, neutrality and data protection.

“We want the digital twin to be for everyone, improving the impact of our social policies,” says Paolazzi. “It should become part of the civic infrastructure of the city, not separate from it.”

Working on mobility, energy, and climate action

The tram in Bologna
The tram in Bologna.

At the moment, Bologna is applying the digital twin in three sectors: mobility, energy and climate change. In mobility, they are focusing on analysing data from sensors and qualitative social data to support the development of cycling and tram infrastructure.

In the energy sector, the project analyses the energy response of the city buildings, simulating the impact of new projects and urban plans, and designing alternatives, policies, and incentives to promote sustainability and achieve a net-zero energy city.

Raising Bologna’s profile

The local digital twin will position Bologna as a key player in Italy’s data valley. But it could also support the city on the international playing field.

“We really see in the digital twin the opportunity to strengthen our relationship with other European cities, such as Barcelona or Hamburg,” says Paolazzi.  

“We cannot do it alone; we need connections with other cities. It is an ambitious endeavour, but one that yields concrete results,” she adds. Collaboration and knowledge sharing are crucial for aligning values, promoting interoperability, and maximising the potential of the digital twin concept.

Bologna aims to establish synergies on both the political and technical levels, fostering collaborations with other cities and leveraging European opportunities.

Step by step

Bologna’s digital twin follows a phased approach, including inception, analysis, research and development, evaluation, and transition.

By 2026, the project aims to achieve concrete and ambitious results, including a clear and shared vision, economic resources, required expertise, and partnerships with other cities.

Bologna understands the digital twin is a powerful tool for transforming the city, with the values and needs of decision-makers, the city, and its citizens at its centre.


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer