Ålesund’s digital twin visits Geneva

An interview with the city’s mayor and the technical mind behind the digital model shows how cities can tinker with large-scale questions to make a smarter future

Marit Fosse
Geneva, Switzerland

Ålesund Mayor Eva Vinje Aurdal

Photo: Marit Fosse
Joel Alexander Mills, CEO of Augment City, and Ålesund’s Mayor, Eva Vinje Aurdal, were in Geneva to present on the digital twin of the city and how it can be used to make cities better.

In an event in Geneva dedicated to the future of cities, entitled Smart Summit, Norway was represented by the small city of Ålesund, on Norway’s west coast. For this prestigious event, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe had invited participants from all over Europe. Thus it was that, for two days, Ålesund, with its mayor and official delegation, was the object of considerable international recognition. Being of the curious sort, I had to find out why such a small city from Norway was to be found among great cities like Paris and New York. What I discovered was something the mayor and delegation can be proud of. So, I’ll leave the floor to Mayor Eva Vinje Aurdal and her co-delegate Joel Alexander Mills, CEO of Augment City AS, to give us the details.

Marit Fosse: You came all the way from Ålesund to attend this summit of cities. How did you hear about the event, and why is it so important for you?

Eva Vinje Aurland: As the mayor of Ålesund, I consider it very important for us to make our society more sustainable, and this is why we are always on the lookout for smart ways to do so. Ålesund, as you might be aware, is recognized worldwide for its maritime and offshore environment. So, what is more natural than to work with them in the development of our city? For instance, simulation technology has been developed in Ålesund, mostly by the offshore and petroleum actors in collaboration with the university. Joel, who is here with me, is the expert in this field and a representative for this innovative technology.

Since we in Ålesund are always looking for smart and innovative ways to improve our services, we contacted Joel. Now he and his colleagues are working on a digital twin of the city. This is a tool that we are going to use in the planning process, and it’s really exciting. It was the United Nations that contacted us and thought this project would be interesting to share. For us, as a city, it’s also interesting to be here, assessed as other cities around the world. There might be a possibility to set up a lab in Ålesund. However, I will now leave it to Joel to explain it better.

MF: So, Joel, how did it all start?

Joel Alexander Mills: I was in my office on a Friday evening; it was late and I should have been going home. I heard a knock on my door. A lady came in and asked me, “Can I see the simulation?” All I could think of was that I really wanted to go home. Then she said to me, “I’m the secretary-general for Smart Cities in the United Nations. Can we have a talk?” So I took her around, showing her the simulators.

She asked me if I’d like to go to a conference in Vienna to talk about the simulation. There was a conference scheduled in Ålesund a couple of months after that so I said, “Let’s do a deal. If you come and talk at my conference, I will come to yours.”

I went to talk in Vienna, and they were all very excited about the project, and then she came to Ålesund. Within a few weeks, Ålesund was the first city to sign up for her program in Norway.

I have to say that it’s a very exciting time now, because we are setting up councils in the Ålesund area, and by putting all these together, there is a dynamic that allows things to happen very fast. Normally with councils, things take an awful long time, but this is not the case here.

Here we are with technology that has been developed for the offshore industry, and we did not have any expectations for using this for smart cities.

As I said, we showed this in Vienna, and we were with lots of people, especially big international companies that have been working on the smart city concept for a long time. We had not developed it at all; we just showed what we do in the offshore industry. Amazed, they came to us and asked us how is it possible that we have come so far. My answer was that I do not think that we have even started.

We are using technology drawn from a completely different environment, but simulators do not differ whether they are being used offshore or in the city. We have been building digital twins of oil rigs and vessels for years. So, for us it was quite easy to put up a digital twin of a city.

To build a digital twin of a city, you need to have a very good understanding of what a city needs and what it does. It does not solve anything for you, but it is a tool that allows everybody to understand what is going on. It definitely allows you not to think in silos but rather to think across the board and see all the different solutions.

One of the examples I’m going to talk about later today is traffic. When you talk about traffic, people start to think that you need to do something with the cars, or the roads, but this is not necessarily the case.

We started to look at the data, and started to simulate them. What would happen if we started to change opening times of schools, day care institutions, or offices? We started to change the opening times and analyze how this would influence the traffic in Ålesund. The result was astonishing, because we then spread out the traffic, and by doing so we removed the rush hour traffic. So, in fact, not by changing anything with roads or the use of cars, but simply by changing nursery opening times, we managed to eliminate the rush hour traffic.

The digital twin is a tool that opens up many different areas, making it possible for the council to make decisions, to look at the consequences, to anticipate, and to have control.

We really hope for it to be a game changer. Ålesund is the first city where we’re using this technology. It’s a perfect prototype, because it is a small city, very controlled, with very good quality data. In Norway in general you have good quality data.

Once you have done [digital twinning] with a small city, we can copy [the process] as many times as we want, and we can also share it with other cities and municipalities. In the offshore industry, this is not possible, because when you do work for one customer it is confidential because they are competing with everybody else, but cities do not directly compete in the same way.

For more information on Ålesund, visit www.alesund.kommune.no/fakta-om-alesund/new-in-alesund.

This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Marit Fosse

Marit Fosse trained as an economist from Norwegian school of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen (Norges Handelshøyskole NHH) and then earned a doctorate in social sciences. She is the author of several books. Nansen: Explorer and Humanitarian, co-authored with John Fox, was translated into Russian/Armenian/French. In addition, Fosse is the editor of International Diplomat/Diva International in Geneva, a magazine set up 20 years ago for diplomats and persons working in the international organizations in Geneva but also elsewhere. In her free time, Fosse is an accomplished painter.