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Augmented reality and digital twins

All public service organisations should be aware of digital twin technology and its possibilities, considering carefully how it may be deployed in some of the simpler scenario planning areas, such as reducing risk and improving digital service take-up. This is particularly true of some of the larger national government digital projects that have failed in the past, at least in the UK, to anticipate some of the more complex citizen needs in local public services before their release.

Authors and contributors: Jos Creese, Martin Ferguson, David Ogden

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Another trend expected to gather momentum in 2023, with practical applications, is the use of augmented reality modelling or ‘digital twins’. This is a way of building, testing, and adapting prototypes (services, policies, plans or designs) at relatively low cost, to emulate the real-world scenarios.

The methods and tools are already commonly used in commercial products and architecture design. Now being adopted in the public sector for a range of digital service scenario testing, they use realistic factual representation of physical assets and processes to generate insights for improved performance and service.

“Digital twins will become the ultimate tool for city governments to design, plan and manage that connected infrastructure in assets in an efficient and cost-effective way”

Dominique Ponte, VP End Markets, ABI Research

Application areas likely to be seen in the coming year include supply chain modelling, travel planning, public building design, service access and take-up analysis, channel integration modelling, inclusion testing, street planning, smart city modelling, tourism, and resilience modelling. As theory moves from concept to practice there is a growing list of service areas emerging, including examples such as ‘mobility as a service’.

“Once we talked about ‘visual storytelling’ rather than ‘digital twins’, it wasn’t seen as a crazy idea, and is really taking off.”

Allan Lightbourne, Chief Digital Officer, Tauranga City Council, Aotearoa New Zealand

Applying these modelling techniques in digital transformation programmes can help to anticipate and avoid unexpected consequences in implementation. This can be particularly valuable in more sensitive applications of digital development, delivering objectivity and catastrophic digital failures that beset some complex transformation programmes, especially in the public sector. Nevertheless, similar ethical considerations to those surrounding AI apply here, namely: use of biased assumptions, data and algorithmic bias, fairness, and transparency.

Whilst augmented reality and digital twins modelling will become more commonplace in 2023, it will be led by the digital leaders in public service organisations already experimenting with more complex and innovative digital methods, such as incorporating gaming technology and AI to deepen its potential. A pragmatic approach is emerging, centred around building an ecosystem of digital twins adhering to open architecture principles, for example spanning specific airport, business districts, stadia and university developments. The UK-based Digital Twin Hub brings together those working to fight global systemic challenges such as pandemics, climate change and resilience.

Digital twin technology has the potential to model complex human and environmental interactions. However, it will not gain trust and maturity for some years. Indeed, there remain serious questions to be answered about its application:

  • How do we avoid the technocratic utopianism of the 1970s – urban simulations that left out the social dimension?
  • How do we embrace ethical and moral considerations to achieve new purposes and better outcomes for people, communities, and our diverse places?

These and other ethical questions are addressed in Socitm’s policy briefing and resources covering responsible and secure use of technologies and data.

Case studies

Stirling Council – an AR city

Stirling to become world’s first fully Augmented Reality city (

Stirling Council has invested £200,000 to deliver the first augmented reality (AR) city in the world. The programme will deliver an interactive 3D guide to the city, overlaid with information and pictures for visitors and tourists.

“Offering this complete AR environment across Stirling is an exciting world first and will revolutionise the visitor experience in our amazing city. The new free app will also open up a plethora of fantastic opportunities for local businesses and will make Stirling a more inclusive and accessible place.”

– Councillor Chris Kane, Leader of Stirling Council, Scotland

Transport for London – using digital twin for Piccadilly Line upgrade

TfL to develop Piccadilly Line intelligent digital twin ecosystem (

Transport for London, (TfL) is using a digital twin as part of its Piccadilly Line upgrade which sees the introduction of 94 new trains. Digital twin includes the size and shape of tunnels, power, platforms, and more, with different levels of data being integrated. More than a method of design, it is being used for real-time physical inspection and surveying, to detect faults, heat, and environmental issues.

“With a digital twin, we wanted an environment that we could work within that’s consistent for the whole line, and it’s able to present the data.”

– Robert Frith, Head of Engineering, Piccadilly Line TfL

Warrington Borough Council – using digital twin in climate change impact

ICL Digital Twin technology used to investigate the potential energy, carbon and cost savings that could be achieved for the Warrington Borough (

Warrington Borough Council is using digital twin methods by blending a variety of data sources to monitor the environmental impact of climate change in a shareable system, simulating the impact of different scenarios. It has shown the effectiveness of measures such as renewable energy systems, and adapting the mass and form of buildings, evidencing savings of 2,500 tonnes of CO2 for two neighbourhoods in the borough.

“Using the model will allow the council to see various optimisation scenarios and understand the potential return on investment for associated decarbonisation initiatives.”

– Councillor Janet Henshaw, Cabinet Member for Sustainability and Climate Change, Warrington Borough Council, England

Digital Urban European Twins – measuring urban environmental inter-relationships

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Antwerp, Athens, Flanders and Pilsen are collaborating in the Digital Urban European Twins (DUET) project to build virtual city replicas that make it easy to understand the complex interrelation between traffic, air quality, noise and other urban factors. Powerful analytics model the expected impacts of potential change to help make better evidence-based operational decisions and longer-term policy choices.

“Cities that build digital twins with only the interests of architects or urban planners in mind will miss out on the opportunity to engage the very people they are supposed to help. By contrast, digital twins that are accessible to the broader public are likely to be more sustainable and valued than those that cater to trained professionals only.”

– Lievan Raes et al., DUET project