Cities & Public ServicesMay 16, 2023

What sets future-ready cities apart? Embracing digitalization

New research from ThoughtLab provides a roadmap for the next phase of urban transformation.
Avatar Melissa Russell

Once upon a time, the city of the future was envisioned as a gleaming metropolis: Flying vehicles whisking people around without encountering so much as a speedbump – no traffic congestion, overcrowding or failing infrastructure in sight.

Of course, reality has turned out to be somewhat different. The challenges facing the world’s cities – climate change, swelling populations and public health, just to name a few – are significant and intertwined. But many international experts believe cities of the future can be liveable, sustainable and prosperous.

Some cities are already preparing for the future by taking steps to balance environmental sustainability and economic growth, reduce crime and improve access to healthcare and housing. New research has found the most future-ready cities are embracing digitalization as a way to anticipate and manage rising challenges.

“City leaders are under huge pressure to deliver long term urban planning strategies to achieve sustainable objectives, and also anticipate and react to crises relating to health, natural disasters, energy supply or resources,” said Jacques Beltran, vice president for Cities and Public Services at Dassault Systèmes. “Cities now have access to tremendous volumes of data. [Digitalization] becomes a major opportunity for them to better understand the complexity of their territory, prevent or anticipate crises by simulating various scenarios, and take science-based decisions while ensuring data security and sovereignty.”

The Future-Ready Cities study

Cities are still reeling from the pandemic. They’re facing economic, social and climate disruptions. And citizens expect more – more sustainable and safer infrastructure, greater inclusiveness, affordable housing.

To provide a roadmap for “the next phase of urban transformation,” research and thought leadership firm ThoughtLab benchmarked 200 worldwide cities, surveyed 2,000 people across 20 cities, and interviewed decisionmakers across various regions. The study and resulting report, “Building a Future-Ready City,” which was co-sponsored by Dassault Systèmes, makes the case that leaders must take urgent action to address dramatic shifts that are already impacting urban centers, even as they struggle to keep up with the pace of change.

ThoughtLab CEO Lou Celi says cities need more evidence-based analysis in order to build a road to the future. “It’s not enough to say I want to be sustainable, you have to say how you’re going to make sustainability sustainable,” he said.

12 things future-ready cities have in common

  1. Driving digital transformation and innovation through the use of virtual twins and other technology
  2. Forging partnerships with technology firms to create innovation communities
  3. Filling data gaps to create effective digital models
  4. Finding new sources of funding projects – cities must begin to think like businesses
  5. Building resilience and agility to manage change
  6. Building trust and transparency
  7. Empowering communities and citizens to drive change
  8. Building global economic, political, and trade connections
  9. Attracting needed talent and skills
  10. Developing an ecosystem of collaboration
  11. Building efficiencies across processes and resource usage
  12. Fostering inclusiveness and equity

What do people expect the future to bring?

Throughout the world, people expect the future to bring more online education, shopping and work, more digital access to government services, and healthier ways to live in their cities including improved transportation and better access to telemedicine.

Urban leaders say they expect to see more people return to cities to work and live, and they anticipate more use of digital tools to pay for goods and services. They largely expect remote learning to decrease and the use of low- to no-emission transportation such as bicycles and scooters, to increase. One example of how that might work is Chicago’s biking initiative: an environmental bond issue enabled the city to give away 5,000 free bikes to qualified low-income recipients.

Everyone is concerned about climate change, homelessness, housing and public health, including mental health and addiction. Crime, budget deficits, education and skills gaps, and attracting and retaining business are on the list of top challenges.

How do virtual twins contribute to future-ready cities?

Future-ready cities are adapting to residents’ needs by building trust, empowering communities and ensuring citizen safety. They are acting to reduce crime, traffic congestion and emissions and are working toward greener economies, new business models and new ways of innovating. The cities that are most prepared for the future are further along in digital transformation, harnessing technology and data to build resilience and agility.

A large number of these cities are using digital twin technology – known as virtual twin experiences at Dassault Systèmes. Barcelona is leading the way in the European Union, using the technology to reduce its carbon footprint. Seoul, South Korea is using virtual twins tied into the metaverse to visualize city planning. In China, Chengdu is using virtual modeling to plan reconstruction of bridges and tunnels. Cities in Portugal are using real-time virtual experiences to monitor real-world water systems. Celi says researchers expect more than 500 urban digital twins by 2025.

“It will be a very different world in five years,” he said. “The pandemic and other challenges have accelerated the need for transformation.”

Virtual twin technology is a key solution for cities that want to prepare to meet these challenges and expectations. They help city leaders understand the complexity of their territories by visualizing them in a 3D universal representation. They help develop clear, long-term visions and plans for transforming to ensure a sustainable future.

Most often, Beltran explains, cities will start with projects that address a specific, concrete need or use case. For example, an impact analysis of mobility regulations on air and noise pollution near a school or hospital. Or a city bisected by a river may want to anticipate the impact of flooding on residential buildings to develop evacuation scenarios or modify land-use plans.

“A science-based virtual representation of a city is the only way to understand the reality of a city and the experiences of its citizens, and to plan for the future,” Beltran said. “With climate change, cities will face unprecedented temperature increase: so what does it mean for citizens? How can the city adapt to much hotter temperatures? What impact will this have on public transportation infrastructure? What impact will it have on the general attractiveness of the city for businesses? Virtual twin technology can help cities facing such challenges by simulating the impact of such phenomena, build the ‘what if’ scenarios, choose the most appropriate measures and communicate with citizens to explain their rationale.”


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