Data challenges in city infrastructure and transport systems

Bentley Systems Pty Ltd

By Stewart Smith, Solution Architect, Bentley Systems
Thursday, 04 July, 2024

Data challenges in city infrastructure and transport systems

With Australia’s population expected to grow by 6.5 million between 2023 and 2041, state and city leaders are moving quickly to plan for this rapid growth. Ensuring every citizen has access to necessary services, including affordable housing, along with implementing improvements to existing transport networks and related urban infrastructure, will be top of the list.

As population growth, urbanisation and transportation are deeply intertwined with climate change — transportation being one of the biggest contributors to harmful emissions around the world — any plans for new or upgraded infrastructure must be designed, built and operated with sustainability and resilience in mind.

In today’s landscape of extensive digital transformation efforts led by cities and transportation owner/operators, digital twins have emerged as a practical solution. They not only help achieve fundamental objectives, but also bring about various improvements in the processes tied to implementing transportation enhancements. These enhancements span optimised design, successful initial construction, on-time and within-budget completion, and improved operational performance.

However, achieving success through this digital twin approach is not without its challenges. Due to the large amounts and diverse natures of the data involved, the ability to manage and share information within updated digital workflows is of paramount importance. Fundamentally, every team member and stakeholder needs visibility and access to data they can trust to improve decision-making and realise improved outcomes.

How digital twins can help deliver safe and sustainable transport projects

Digital twins enable users to simulate the introduction of new or upgraded infrastructure to provide city planners with insights into their effectiveness, as well as the resultant environmental and social impact of transport-related projects. With the ability to stream data in close to real time to a digital twin — for example, traffic flows, ambient temperature and vehicle emissions — it is possible to build a very accurate picture of how a city's infrastructure and related services are performing. With this insight, decision-makers can predict and avoid potential problems, schedule and optimise maintenance interventions, and also increase the reliability, resilience and useful life of assets that are within their responsibility.

Construction company ACCIONA, a key member of the Southern Program Alliance — one of four ongoing alliances established by the Victorian Government — is leveraging digital twin technology to create a safer environment for removing 50 of the most dangerous and congested level crossings in Melbourne. Some of the benefits include using simulation to conduct virtual planning ahead of construction, minimising disruptions to the community, and aligning the team around a single plan. ACCIONA’s digital twin approach helped deliver the landmark project safely, on time, and with minimal disruption to passengers and the public.

ACCIONA provided a digital asset to help create an intelligent digital Victoria. Image courtesy of ACCIONA.

The relationship between digital twins and data today

With so many different disciplines and roles involved in these types of city infrastructure projects, it’s normal to have lots of data, often drawn from a variety of sources. These might include building information models (BIMs) and project drawings and reports, or IoT traffic sensors, GPS devices, and public transport schedules involved with daily city operations and environments. With so much data stored across different systems, ensuring effective integration and analysis can be tough.

For instance, ensuring the reliability, safety and service of a metro system requires data that is likely stored in a number of different enterprise systems. The resulting silos of data can make information invisible or inaccessible to those who need it, compromising the ability to make data-driven decisions. Due to the sheer volume of data involved, other key considerations, including ownership, confidentiality and liability issues stemming from its use, highlight the importance of data integration, validation and visualisation. Without a single view of the truth, it’s impossible to extract accurate, meaningful insights.

All these challenges mirror the increasing complexity and intricate nature of creating and curating digital twins of city infrastructure and transportation networks. However, city leaders, asset owners and stakeholders should not be deterred from grasping the huge opportunity digital twin technology offers to realise the full potential of their data within digital workflows that span the whole asset lifecycle.

Maximising digital twin output in the future

As the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities within digital twins rapidly evolves, organisations can expect to build on the foundation of time and effort they invest today, further optimising processes and outcomes in years to come. Ensuring teams are empowered to fully utilise these technologies means upskilling and retraining will play an important role. Depending on the role and responsibility of those involved, organisations could train employees in the use of data visualisation applications, data analytics and/or AI.

For cities and the transportation sector, digital transformation is not without hurdles. Yet the potential benefits of utilising digital twins far outweigh the challenges of deploying technology and workflows that unify data and build infrastructure intelligence. While AI-powered digital twins might not be part of your organisation’s standard business processes today, it’s clear that they will have a profound impact on how we will design, build and operate our cities and transportation networks of tomorrow. Digital twins will accelerate infrastructure intelligence exponentially, helping organisations overcome the current challenges to build a better, more sustainable and resilient future for all.

Top image caption: As part of the Southern Program Alliance, ACCIONA was tasked with removing level crossings and constructing new stations along the Frankston Line. Image courtesy of ACCIONA.

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