How the City of Tallinn uses digital twins

When speaking of digital governments and government services, it’s hard not to talk about Estonia. During the UserCentriCities summit in May 2023 in Brussels, it once again became apparent that Estonia is at the forefront of digitalization. Something that can also be seen in Tallin’s efforts related to urban and city planning with digital twins, which UCC members Aado Almets and Christopher Raitviir are working on. Christopher shares the details of Tallin’s smart city approach.

But before we dive into that, what are digital twins? Digital twins are models of analysed and refined data which are usually shown in user interfaces as 3D-models of cities that can be used for a multitude of purposes to improve (smart) cities. Digital twins are used in many European cities to optimize the cities and make them as user centric as possible. They can for instance be applied to urban planning. Your city may have a digital 3D-model as well. In you’re unsure, a Google search on your city, followed by ‘Digital Twin’, might give you an insight into activities in this area from your city! Read more about digital twins here.

Digital twins are an important part of smart cities. The smart city is the place where governments, citizens and other stakeholders come together. It’s where technological solutions help create a more liveable, comfortable and sustainable living environment. There are many things to learn from digital solutions in the city and how citizens react to them.

Digital twins in Tallinn

So how does Tallinn use digital twins and smart city technology? Christopher: “I think the best parallel when discussing a digital twin, would be a layered cake. One layer could relate to buildings in the city. You can have a detailed overview of buildings in the city. But if you take it a layer further, you can see how these buildings come together in a larger area. What implications does this have for surrounding buildings, biodiversity and people? The latter being another layer as well. A digital model where all these layers come together makes city design and planning more tangible.”

These insights into what is being built in the city also goes hand in hand with knowing what technology is needed to further optimize the city. “For instance, if we create a playing ground for children, how can we optimize the planning solution with the technological analysing tools to ensure that there is enough sunlight and no strong cold wind breezes? All this can be achieved with digital twin solutions in urban planning stage.”

Designing the city with citizens

Building a city that is genuinely smart can only be done by involving as many stakeholders as possible. “For example, we currently have a project in which we do a detailed analysis with stakeholders by interviewing different users from the different local municipalities, the planning agencies, real estate developers, and others. We always have to look at different sides”, says Christopher. He continues: “Involving citizens is essential. We do that by setting up instruments for public participation.”

Tallin has set up a participation hub to show planned innovations in the city and their impact. This allows citizens to express what they think is important for the city. “They can look at the different solutions through digital models and use AI for city street design. We’re for instance renovating a major street in Tallin where we use these models to design the street together. We used Urbanist AI to do this.”

Urbanist AI allows people to create different versions of the city, by simply erasing or adding new elements to the model, like a café, a tram line, cycling road, you name it. “It also helps them to see if what they want actually fits and looks how they expected it to. You may have a picture in your head of what the city should look like, but when you actually see it visualized in front of you, you may want to adjust elements. It’s with this input from citizens that we can come to a design that works for a lot of people. And we always give updates on what we’ve done with their input. People want to know how their contributions have helped design the city.”

Too many details…?

This detailed insight into urban planning can be taken to the next level. “Imagine an apartment complex being built. These building sites usually have a billboard with information about the project. What if this project information was enriched with a QR-code to a 3D-model of the building. This would allow citizens to see the set-up of the separate apartments. Where would the kitchen or bathroom be for instance? Or how would I furnish an apartment when I know where my neighbour’s bedroom is? Of course, this needs a paradigm change in collaborative usage of living environment and drop the usual “not in my backyard” way of thinking.”

Generative AI, like Urbanist AI, or augmented reality would be extremely useful to show detailed information like this. However, this also had potential side effects. “In this example, thieves may also know too much about the building to plan a break-in. This could be a negative side effect in this specific example. So, we should always consider what implications showing detailed information has. What information should or shouldn’t we share in digital tools and models? The public sector should be a role model. Even though something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be. It can’t be demanded. It may look cool, but it should always service a good purpose.”

Perfectly balanced, as all things should be

The point Christopher makes relates to his view on urban planning containing three pillars that must be balanced. “Technology, processes and people have to be aligned.” But even though there has to be a perfect balance between these three elements, Christopher values people most.

 Simply because if people don’t support what you’re doing, the other pillars will fail. Technology and processes are just making something a little better, but if you you’re not focusing on people, you’re not actually accomplishing anything.

Tallinn’s road to digital success

The rapid steps Estonia is taking towards becoming a digital society are admirable. Why they can move so fast and how they’ve become a frontrunner can be explained quite easily if you ask Christopher. “The reason we’ve been so successful is because when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late eighties, the government system was very bad. For us, nothing was working well and because we were a new country, we had to build an entire system from scratch. And we were poor, so things had to be effective.”

This resulted in Tallin quickly transitioning to cost-effective digital solutions, with little restraints. “What makes it harder for Western European countries to move as fast is that they already had a working system in place. If things are working reasonably well, it’s harder to completely restructure existing solutions with new technologies. Our history is one of change and innovation. We have lived like this for decades. It has become a natural thing.”

An open invitation

And Estonia will gladly share their best practices to help other countries. “Collaboration is key. It’s pointless to reinvent the wheel all the time and to think in silos. We may be a front runner in this field, but other countries are front runners in a different area. We can learn from each other. It may not be possible to simply copy everything from each other, since we’re all different, but we can push each other in the right direction. We are more than happy to share our experiences and knowledge.”

It matches with Christopher’s vision on public service. “People in public services aren’t in it for the money. We’re in it to really make a difference. Life isn’t about money, it’s about change, about making life better for everyone.”