Ctrl+alt+delete borders

29 March 2021

Bologna’s flagship project submitted to the Italian national government under the National Recovery Plan includes the development of a ‘technopole’ that will host 80% of the national computing capacity and will become one of the main hot spots for computing capacity in the world. As part of the digital innovation of the city, Bologna has also planned to develop a digital twin.

“Bologna is at the centre of a new revolution,” says Matteo Lepore, Deputy for Culture, Sport, Tourism and Civic Imagination for the City of Bologna. “The development of the new technopole, will allow us to be the first European Big Data Hub, and one of the first three cities in the world for computing capacity and data use. This, together with a rich network of research centres and private and public cultural centres, offers the ideal conditions to develop the digital twin city, which has the potential to develop new knowledge-based policies. Policies that by design need to relate to other cities and build a true alliance to tackle together the challenges that no entity alone can face. We want to contribute to promote a European network of digital twin cities to respond together to the big urban challenges of our time.”

A digital copy to improve our cities

The term ‘digital twin’ refers to the digital representation of a physical object and has been used in computer-aided design for over 30 years. However, using a digital twin as a city model is an exceedingly new concept. The models serve as a platform for designing, testing, applying and servicing the entire lifecycle of the built environment, as well as smart city development. Digital twin models at their best allow cities to plan, test and build things digitally first. For the models to be efficient, the city needs to be able to process enormous amounts of data, hence the computing capacity of Bologna comes in handy.

“One of the distinctive traits of the history of Bologna is that of knowledge,” says Lepore. “Here the first university of the western world was born more than 900 years ago, and knowledge is what inspires us also in building our future. Data knowledge, the ability to analyse data and use data in predictability models, is a fundamental tool to tackle some of the most demanding urban challenges of our time: from the environment, to mobility, to citizens’ health, to the need to preserve our resources.”

“A project such as this only makes sense if developed on a European scale,” affirms Raffaele Laudani, President of the Urban Innovation Foundation in Bologna. Some European cities, like Helsinki, have already developed digital twins projects, while other cities are just starting the process. Like Bologna, Barcelona hosts a very important computing centre and has included its intent for a digital twin city in its National Recovery Plan.

Many heads are better than one

“We have a history of collaboration with Barcelona, so the idea is to build a common path from the start,” says Laudani. “We want to create a joint team to develop together the characteristics, the objectives and common strategies for our digital twins. We can also target the same technological partner, so that together we can negotiate better conditions. Working together can save us money, and it’s an opportunity to exchange research and experimentation.”

Barcelona is not the only city Bologna is planning to share its experience with. “We are thinking in the framework of a European network,” says Laudani, “we want to try to reproduce at a European scale what the Association of South-East Asian Nations has already done.” Asian cities are well advanced in terms of digital twin projects and they rely on a network of digital twins that exchange good practices, but also share results and analysis done using their digital twins to develop common policies in response to the big urban challenges of today.

“It’s the power of working within a network of digital twin cities,” says Laudani. “Those who are more advanced can offer their experience, but even more importantly, through the network the digital twin has a bigger potential to develop effective and informed policies.”

The benefits are multiple. Economically, working together is more advantageous. In terms of research, competences, skills, and knowledge are shared. “If Barcelona is better in some respects, for example, they can support us, while we can offer them our excellence in another field,” explains Laudani. As the Asian experience teaches, shared results inform cities’ policies better. Knowledge is power after all.

Cities push for more multi-country projects

“The Commission supports the idea of a network of digital twins, as they have clearly mentioned in the final declaration on Digital Day, last 19 March,” says Laudani.

Cities have a long history of transnational collaboration. Most Pan-European projects’ success comes from what cities have learned from each other, how their combined expertise and insight has made everyone’s plan more effective. It is based on this knowledge that cities push for joining forces and working on the recovery together.

“I believe that cities should not look at Europe in terms of foreign policy, but they have to consider Europe as a fundamental dimension of the city government,” says Lepore. “Today’s city projects immediately consider the European scale. Today, cities either work together transnationally, or they don’t work at all,” adds Laudani.

In the spirit of Pan-European collaboration, the European Commission has invited national governments to include multi-country projects within their respective National Recovery Plans. Some of these projects, like the improvement of transport networks, or forward-looking digital and green projects, would provide tangible benefits for everyone if developed within the framework of transnational collaboration. However, no National Recovery Plan proposal to date includes such a project.

This is a missed opportunity. It is undeniable that we have a better chance at tackling global challenges, such as climate change, more efficiently together. So, cities continue their work to create Pan-European alliances such as the Digital Twin Cities to build a better future for all and press their national governments to include such multi-country projects to be funded through the National Recovery Plans as part of the European flagships.

The Commission has identified common challenges that member states are facing in the form of seven European flagships. The flagships cover issues such as digitalisation, energy efficiency, skills and education, renewable energies etc. Member states are invited to include in their national recovery plans how they will tackle these challenges and meet the 2025 objectives.

Flagships can be implemented through multi-country projects, and member states should indicate if their proposed reforms or investments contribute to any cross-border and multi-country project. Such projects are seen as essential for the recovery. Some of the projects proposed by cities to national governments, like the Digital Twin Cities, already describe how they would contribute to the European flagships.

As we plan for a recovery that looks harder every day, can we really afford to pass on the opportunity to use our collective knowledge for a better, faster recovery?

*Bologna meet this Monday with Rotterdam, Rennes Métropole, Barcelona and Helsinki to present digital twin cities projects. City representatives will also discuss with Eddy Hartog, Head of Unit Technologies for Smart Communities at DG CNECT. With Matteo Lepore, Deputy for Culture, Sport, Tourism and Civic Imagination for the City of Bologna, and Anna-Lisa Boni, Secretary General at Eurocities, introducing the event. Follow the online streaming at 16:30 on the Fondazione Innovazione Urbana Youtube channnel.


Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer