Virtual Singapore: a Digital 'Twin' for Planning (Innovation Type: Institutional Pioneer)



Innovation Type: Institutional Pioneer

Urban challenge

Home to a land area of just 628.6km² – a 'little red dot' on most maps – Singapore has long faced challenges whilst planning for the builtenvironment. Innovations in housing, mobility, and land use have been key priorities of the government. However, with the third highest urbandensity in the world, both the government and private sector developers are limited in their ability to pilot urban projects in the real world withoutinterfering with the everyday lives of Singaporeans. In this regard, crucial workarounds have included GIS (Geographic Information Systems, tomodel and analyse spatial characteristics) and BIM (Building Information Modelling, to design and simulate new developments). However, adecade back, GIS and BIM data tended to be unintegrated; modelling also tended to be 2D, and any 3D modelling efforts were siloed and of a lowresolution. To plan for pressing urban priorities, the need for detailed or ‘semantically enriched’ information arose. 

Innovation process

The idea for a Digital Twin evolved from the government’s extensive use of 2D maps in analysing and solving urban challenges in the past. In 2013,3D modelling was an emerging technology, and the state recognized its potential in offering planners a more comprehensive and accuratemedium to design and pilot urban solutions. With different state agencies experimenting with 3D data in varying forms and extents – and withoutan overarching standard guiding their development – modelling efforts were duplicated and could not always address identified urban challengesand use cases. As such, Virtual Singapore, a 3D modelling research programme, emerged as an effort to coalesce and unite these endeavours. 


The Virtual Singapore initiative harnesses the potential of 3D modelling to solve urban challenges. It is an ambitious research programme,operating along three strategic thrusts: (i) consolidating research in 3D data, (ii) catalysing the local 3D modelling industry, and (iii) developing anoperational 3D city model and data platform that integrates BIM, 3D GIS, and simulation for planning use by researchers, citizens, and civilservants. At the heart of Virtual Singapore is a 3D city model (thrust iii.) – a dynamic 2D/3D Digital Twin which offers planners and citizens tools toexamine spatial data, test-bed concepts, and observe the impacts of projects in a ‘Virtual Singapore’ before delivery in the real world. With accessto live real-time monitoring data from IoT sensors, decision-making and urban interventions are better informed by accurate spatial data and real-life human behaviour. However, a database that met Singapore’s distinct research needs could not be operationalized without certain preliminaryefforts. As such, the initiative also involved synthesising research on best practices in 3D data acquisition and analysis, and identifying a list oflocal use-cases that would benefit from 3D modelling (thrust i.). Secondly, CityGML, a modelling standard with high ‘semantic richness’, wasidentified and adopted to catalyse the local 3D modelling industry. The government worked with a collective of local firms to train and uplift their3D modelling capabilities along the CityGML standard, developing the local expertise to be able to contract for the Virtual Singapore Twin andother future 3D solutions for the government (thrust ii.). 


Some of the applications of Virtual Singapore include flood risk analysis, opportunities for solar panels and green roofs, and examining theimpact of wind load on vegetation. The operational 3D city model operated by Virtual Singapore is available for use by state agencies, privatesector actors, research institutions, and university labs, including the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), and the NationalUniversity of Singapore. Citizens also benefit from access to OneMap 3D, the public version of the Virtual Singapore model.

Key takeaways

  • Explorations with frontier technology should address a clear gap. The development of a Digital Twin from scratch should notbe embarked on for the sake of prestige, as there any many proprietary solutions now available for 3D modelling. At the time ofVirtual Singapore's development however, there was a clear gap in the research capabilities of local policymakers and planners– i.e., the absence of an integrated 2D, 3D, GIS, and BIM technology solution. Focusing on addressing this gap was the key to theprogramme's success. 
  • Identify strong use-cases which benefit from frontier technology solutions; do not rush into expansive technical solutions. Here, the team identified distinct use-cases and urban problems which necessitated the use of 3D modelling for more accuratesolutions, and this ensured that the development of the Digital Twin was targeted, directed, and useful in solving many ofSingapore’s most pressing urban issues. 
  • Engage with a variety of entrepreneurs and experts from diverse domains. By synthesising expertise from multiple digitaldisciplines – GIS, BIM, and gaming – the Virtual Singapore team benefitted from a diversity of knowledge area and skills,leading to a more comprehensive and innovative Digital Twin platform. 
  • Engage the local digital sector to sustain innovative solutions. By focusing not only on contracting or procuring a 3D platform,but by engaging the local GIS and BIM industries in capability development, the government was able to mould a moresustainable approach towards urban research – one that focused not only on a single solution to an urban challenge, but onincreasing local capacity for GIS innovation in this area now and in the future. 

Learn more about Smart Urban Innovations from around the world in the UNDP Smart Urban Innovations Handbook:

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