A Tale of Two Cities: Who Owns LA's Digital Twin?

Andrew Fiouzi
Andrew Fiouzi is an editor at dot.LA. He was previously a features writer at MEL Magazine where he covered masculinity, tech and true crime. His work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Long Reads and Vice, among other publications.
A Tale of Two Cities: Who Owns LA's Digital Twin?
Binary code by Christiaan Colen, Los Angeles skyline by Jon Evans, Photo Illustration by Sebastian Miño-Bucheli

In a single paragraph, writer Jose Luis Borges imagined an empire where the science of cartography became so exact that a map of one province occupied the entire city. In 1981, nearly 40 years after Borges penned “On Exactitude in Science, French sociologist Jean Baudrillard referred to Borges’ story as “the finest allegory of simulation,” which he argued no longer applied to “a territory, a referential being or a substance.”

“It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality,” Baudrillard prophetically claimed. "A hyperreal."

Such is the foundation of today’s current stage of hyperreal world-building: that of a city’s digital twin, a real-time, virtual representation of an actual physical system, place or process. According to Louise Wright, Head of Science for Data Science and the Head of Digital Metrology at The National Physical Laboratory in the U.K., an urban digital twin serves as an indistinguishable digital counterpart of a real world physical system by uniting several existing technologies.

What distinguishes a digital twin from “normal” models is that the virtual copy can change along with its source. A model stops being an accurate representation of a physical object once it becomes real, but a digital twin uses artificial intelligence to continuously update the copy making it a perfect imitation of its source. Think of the difference between Waze’s ability to identify traffic in real time versus a standard GPS. The digital twin is perhaps the closest, current example of software imitating physical space.

Marc Strassman has been trying to convince city officials of the importance of creating a digital twin of Los Angeles. The former reporter has been making his pitch over the past few months, creating two different Facebook groups to spread the word. One is dedicated to “the creation and operation of a Unity-based digital replica of the City of Los Angeles.” The other is a campaign for his involvement in the drafting and passage of what he’s calling the ‘Digital Twin & Metaverse Act of 2023,’ “Congressional legislation designed to accelerate the transition to the Metaverse while assuring the human and civil rights of everyone in it.”

Strassman has reached out to city representatives, and they’ve shown interest. “I’m expecting a call sometime this month,” he says. Meanwhile, another project digitizing Los Angeles is already underway.

In June, a community of Los Angeles building owners founded a group called the Better Buildings Challenge, partnering with Urban Digital Twin pioneer Cityzenith to create a real-time virtual representation of Los Angeles.

Initially, Cityzenith’s project will focus on automating the green building retrofit process in Los Angeles’ downtown Bunker Hill neighborhood. According to Michael Jansen, Cityzenith’s CEO, data for the project will come from privately held energy or building management systems, occupancy readings, and architectural information.

“Our focus today is on decarbonization specifically of buildings and of structure,” Jansen says. “In the future, additional modules will address repositioning, economic development, public safety, and other important functions. The master urban digital twin will feature a metaverse of applications, some free, some paid.” He expects to have a digital twin of the Bunker Hill area to show by the end of the year.

The difference between Strassman’s concept of a digital Los Angeles and Cityzenith’s is–as so often is the case with anything web3-adjacent– a question of ownership. Cityzenith approached the private building owners and pitched them on the ways they could profit off the technology; they in turn got the plan in front of the city. Strassman envisions Los Angeles’ digital twin as a joint public-private partnership between the city, private companies, civic organizations and individuals.

Louise Wright explains it’s slightly more complicated than Strassman’s utopic version. “If you owned the twin but didn’t have access to the software to run it, it would be of no use,” she says.“It’s a bit like any other sort of software; I am using Microsoft Outlook under license but I don’t own it in any meaningful sense of the word.”

Jansen tells dot.LA that over the course of its multi-city pilot program–which also includes building digital twins New York City, Las Vegas and Phoenix–Cityzenith will invest up to $250,000 to implement what they stress is a public service.“The master twin is then used by the city for free,” Jansen says, though he admits the company also sells modules to be monetized by private building owners.

By using sensors that measure everything from humidity, temperature, fan speeds, power usage and air quality, Wright says, Cityzenith can create an urban digital twin with the capability to help people manage operations, be they private facilities or public infrastructure projects. “This kind of digital twin is… more about being able to understand the effects of rapidly changing factors that may be interrelated and difficult to predict on the urban system as a whole,” she says.

Jansen argues that Cityzenith’s digital twin also serves as a public safety measure even when owned by private operators; automating a building’s permitting process, for example.“Two different fire departments have approached us to have a digital twin built that they could give their firefighters,” Jansen says. “So that when something happens they can point and click on the building and know the building information they would need before going in.”

If Cityzenith’s project succeeds, Jansen envisions Los Angeles “standardizing operation” to the point where “individual constituents — building owners, campus operators, infrastructure operators — would have their own individual twins that would connect to the master.” The master would be owned by the city, though what branch of the governing agency would be responsible for monitoring and maintaining this massive virtual infrastructure project is TBD.

Strassman, meanwhile, is aware of Cityzenith’s project. “A lot of people are going to be thinking about creating a digital twin soon,” he says. “So, I’m trying to surround the project with a campaign to educate the public as well as the political and economic decision makers participating in it.”

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