Digital Twins: Bridging data gaps for sustainable urban development

October 31, 2022


Cities around the world are working on integrating digital solutions to collect and interpret data that can inform responsive and resilient change. Similarly, UNDP Kosovo is exploring innovative digital geospatial options suitable to Kosovo’s context. 

Over the past 50 years, the world has witnessed significant urban growth and fast economic transformation of cities. Although cities occupy a relatively small percentage of the world's land surface, UN-Habitat data shows that cities consume more than 75% of the world’s energy. The ecological era presents an urgency of transforming cities and their consumption patterns away from unsustainable resource exploitation, thereby becoming more sustainable economically, socially, and environmentally in the long run. 

In Kosovo’s context, problems like urban sprawl and car-use dependence, lack of access to infrastructure and big scale commercial developments, lack of open and sufficient green spaces, require us to rethink ways in which we can support and nurture better urban development. That’s why local institutions are increasingly exploring interactive digital solutions to address unsustainable growth patterns, so as to increase the quality of services provided to the inhabitants.

In this year’s edition of KosICT, one the biggest conferences on technology across the Western Balkans, UNDP Kosovo brought together experts from the public and private sector to explore Kosovo’s leapfrogging potential by building a “digital twin” that collects and uses comprehensive data sets to inform urban planning and administrative processes. The digital twin applied to cities comprises one of the most cutting-edge topics currently in the scientific and social debate on urbanism, sustainable urban policy development and governance.



A digital twin of a city is a dynamic representation of a municipality and its infrastructure, buildings, roads and bridges, vegetation, and more. Using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, digital twins gather data from the physical world and feed it into machines to reconstruct on a digital plain. Introducing this digital option at the KosICT was inspired by Virtual City Systems (VCS), a global leader in semantic 3D model solutions based in Berlin. Mr. Henry Willem Farr, Sales and Marketing Manager at VCS Berlin, explains that all real objects are converted into a data format that enables users to apply multiple informational layers. This granular data system informs decision-making processes by allowing public officials to track real-time traffic data, simulate mass pedestrian movement in selected locations, map out people’s safety perceptions and identify potential risks, assess rooftop solar potential, test out urban deployments prior to implementation, and much more. 



A digital twin could lay the groundwork for an adaptable data processing system and help overcome a critical barrier in Kosovo’s digital growth: the data gap. When it comes to improving decision-making processes in local urban planning and public administration, the Deputy Mayor of the Municipality of Pristina, Ms. Donjeta Sahatçiu, points to a clear need of building a structured system of data sets. This is backed by the UNDP Kosovo Digital Readiness Assessment, which shows that one of the biggest impediments to a whole-of-society digital transformation in Kosovo is the lack of data access and processing. At the same time, the DRA highlights digital literacy among central institutions as a concerning exception and recommends to allocate time to digital skills trainings. Ms. Sahatçiu did point out that the public administration needs support in the process of transitioning from paper-based work to working with digital tools in a responsive manner. 



According to Ms. Sahatçiu, there is a very vibrant community of NGOs and businesses in Pristina’s ICT sector producing data highly valuable to informing municipal processes, but there is no system in place to track that data. From a technical perspective, the generated data is not being used because the data sets are not structured and adaptable to the existing municipal data sets. The pinnacle of a data-driven approach to building oversight, digital twins and GIS systems both display geospatial formats of layered information and can be combined to provide a broad context for almost any quantifiable physical aspect of metropolitan infrastructure and amenities. Overall, the format will aid in lifecycle maintenance by housing all available records of material and non-material municipal infrastructure and facilities.

To address the spatial data gap, the Municipality of Pristina is currently cooperating with the research institute SpaceSyntaks that works around conducting human-centered research to deepen the understanding of the relation of urban phenomena with their socio-economic conditions. Geospatial data like inventory of city lighting fixtures in Pristina has been developed by SpaceSyntaks, and the Municipal Staff or others may utilize this information to enhance their efforts to improve public safety. This is particularly crucial for the safety of women and girls, who continue to face a high level of threat from sexual harassment in public spaces. Understanding how people feel in different parts of the city is a key factor in SpaceSyntaks' ongoing perception mapping project in Pristina. The Co-Founder of SpaceSyntaks, Ms. Gresa Neziri, encourages people to use open street maps or similar open data platforms as a simple, yet necessary public contribution that further increases the amount of disposable data for certain locations. 



As cities around the world are consistently working on integrating digital solutions to collect and interpret data that inform responsive and resilient change, UNDP Kosovo is moving forward in exploring new digital options suitable to Kosovo’s context. Although much work remains to be done in terms of integrating an advanced technology like the digital twin, it is necessary to consider the vast expanse of possibilities presented by it. Working with intelligent data models instead of building data from scratch, could support decision-making processes in many areas, incl. energy and environmental risk analysis, social welfare, and urban planning, mobility planning, and more.