Singapore is known for its efficiency, partly brought about by its small size and high density. But how will the city make sure it continues to be comfortable to live, work and raise a family in?

Officials must test bold new ideas to cope with our increasingly changing times. But with Singapore’s dense urban setting, there is little room for failure with physical experiments. Instead, the Government is building a digital copy of the city in 3D for designers, planners and policymakers to explore future scenarios.

With everything from bus stops to buildings, Virtual Singapore is literally that – a $73 million, data-rich, live digital replica of the actual city. The “main purpose” of this to help officials make the best urban planning decisions and communicate with citizens by sharing information visually, says Alexandre Parilusyan, Vice President of 3DEXPERIENCity and Business Transformation at Dassault Systèmes, the government’s private sector partner on the project.

Thinking in 3D

A 3D virtual representation of the real world makes it easier for officials to “explain and to communicate”, Parilusyan says, because “3D is a natural language”. “When we communicate, we are thinking in 3D, we see things in 3D,” he adds.

Officials will be able to take a bird’s-eye view of the city, or could choose to zoom in on specific features of an area. At the broadest level, Virtual Singapore will show the terrain, shape and location of actual buildings, which is useful for flooding analysis, Parilusyan explains.

Planners could also get a more detailed view of buildings, with texture, roofs and windows, for things like planning things like solar panel roofs or emergency evacuation routes. A click on a building can show how much electricity it consumes. They can go down to the pedestrian level, looking at accessibility, traffic and availability of shaded walkways.

Singapore’s digital twin will be as data-rich as it is in real life. There will be static data on things like location of traffic lights and bus stops, along with dynamic data from sensors such as bus positions and dengue clusters. It will have data on the way people behave, like how many people are entering and exiting buses.

Virtual experiments

Singaporean officials will conduct “virtual experiments”, taking measurements and analysing the numbers. For instance, officials could identify whether there is good coverage of wireless networks in the city and where new antennas should be placed.

Meanwhile, dengue clusters are identified today by measuring the density of people who have been bitten by the disease-carrying mosquitoes. “We are looking to have something more in 3D, which is giving the ability to view the way these clusters evolve over time,” he explains.

Officials will also run “virtual test bedding”, Parilusyan adds, testing how new ideas will take shape on the ground. This is a tool being used by the housing agency to find ways of making public housing more environmentally friendly. The Housing Development Board has chosen specific neighbourhoods to install solar roofs, water-retention features, and pneumatic waste systems. “But you do it virtually first,” he says. “You analyse cost and benefits, feasibility, and analyse among the agencies who will do that.”

Long-term planning

The platform will also be used for more long-term planning and decision making, he adds. For instance, Singapore’s ageing demographic will require major changes to infrastructure. “You have LTA [Land Transport Authority] putting a ramp for giving access to disabled people; at the same time, you have the town council, want to modify the gardens,” he says.

These two organisations will have to collaborate to plan changes together. “Virtual collaboration means you can – without spending a dollar on the field – try to make the two projects compatible,” Parilusyan says.

Virtual Singapore could help with planning the new high-speed rail to Kuala Lumpur. The terminus will be located in Jurong East – one of the most densely populated parts of the city and home to a future second business district. “Those are very impactful in terms of urban planning. You need something to help urban planners to make the best choice, and discuss with the people and the businesses to optimise the entire area,” he notes.

Access for citizens and business

Virtual Singapore will also support the city’s R&D work. It will be used by research institutes and university labs, such as the government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research and the National University of Singapore. “They can use this model to do very large-scale simulations, like wind, noise, traffic simulation,” he adds.

In the future, citizens and businesses will also get access to Virtual Singapore, says Parilusyan. “We are working on this topic with agencies to see what kind of data we can provide to this external platform.” For instance, companies could use Virtual Singapore to test driverless cars without placing them on heavy-traffic roads, the government has said.

Singapore’s survival has been a story of continuous innovation and reimagination. Its future will be no different, and Virtual Singapore will play a crucial role in shaping that.