February 15, 2024

Digital Facsimiles to Boost Civic Engagement in Urban Planning

Jane Adams

In this blog post, Jane Adams explores the intersection of digital facsimiles, simulations, and user-friendly interfaces, showcasing how these tools are empowering individuals and communities to actively engage in urban planning processes.


“Cesium 3D Tiles”, Nearmap


In the modern age, urban planning has evolved far beyond blueprints and zoning regulations. It has entered the digital realm, where sophisticated simulations and user interfaces are changing the way we envision, develop, and interact with our cities. Urban planning, once a domain reserved for experts and policymakers, is now becoming an arena where citizens play a crucial role in shaping the future of their communities.

Our research question delves into this transformative shift: "How can simulation and user interfaces leverage urban intelligence for policy changes through visual communication?" In this blog post, we will explore the intersection of digital facsimiles, simulations, and user-friendly interfaces, showcasing how these tools are empowering individuals and communities to actively engage in urban planning processes.

We explore the world of digital twins, agent-based modeling, and gamification, along with real-world examples of their application in urban planning. We delve into advocacy through data visualization and the creative realm of data art, highlighting the potential these mediums hold for influencing policy decisions and driving positive change in our urban landscapes.

By the end of this exploration, we hope to shed light on the immense potential of these digital tools, leaving with a deeper understanding of how they can foster civic engagement, transform urban planning, and ultimately lead to more inclusive, sustainable, and thriving cities.


In the realm of urban planning, simulation serves as a powerful tool for understanding and predicting complex urban systems. It allows planners, policymakers, and communities to visualize and experiment with different scenarios before implementing them in the real world. Here are some key elements of how simulation is transforming urban planning:

Digital Twins

Digital twins [1, 2] are digital replicas of physical objects, processes, or systems. They seek to mimic in immense detail real-world phenomena, to allow for controlled study. For example, mechanical engineers might use a digital twin of a wind farm to simulate physical properties, machine telemetry, and integrate real-time windspeed data. Biologists use digital twins to model complex pathologies in ways that are not possible in clinical settings [3]. In urban planning, these digital twins replicate entire cities, offering an immersive and interactive way to explore urban environments [4]. Planners can simulate changes in infrastructure, traffic flow, and environmental conditions to better understand the potential impacts of various decisions. The more variables are included in these digital twins, the more closely the dynamical systems of the simulation can align with real-world processes.

Agent-Based Modeling (ABM)

Agent-based modeling is a simulation technique where individual agents (representing entities like people, vehicles, or buildings) interact with one another and their environment based on predefined rules [5]. ABM has been used to model various urban phenomena, from the spread of diseases (as seen in the SIR model during pandemics [6]) to traffic congestion and pedestrian movement in city streets. By using ABMs, policymakers can game out ‘worst-case scenarios’ for disaster preparedness, or test counterfactuals in proposed changes to zoning or traffic.

Urban Planning Optimization via “Cities: Skylines”, Carter Duncan et al.

OptimizationSimulation could also be used to optimize policy decisions. For example, researchers like Carter Duncan et al. demonstrated how, by connecting the video game "Cities: Skylines" to a machine learning back-end, a reinforcement learning model could optimize its urban planning based on some reward function [7]. This game allows players to create and manage their cities, but researchers may increasingly use it to study emergent behavior and test different policies.

Emergent BehaviorSimulation often reveals emergent behavior—unintended consequences that arise from the interaction of various elements in a system. One example is OpenAI's "box surfing" multi-agent interaction result [8], where a simulated AI learned to manipulate its environment in unexpected ways to achieve its goals. In urban planning, understanding emergent behavior can help avoid perverse instantiation [9], where well-intentioned policies result in unintended negative outcomes, as observed in Goodhart's Law [10] (“when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be an effective measure”).

Simulation provides a dynamic platform for urban planning, enabling stakeholders to experiment with ideas, understand complex urban systems, and anticipate the consequences of their decisions. It's a critical tool in the pursuit of more efficient, sustainable, and livable cities.

User interfaces

While simulation provides valuable insights and data, it's equally important to make this information accessible and engaging to a wider audience, including community members and policymakers. User interfaces (UIs) play a crucial role in achieving this goal. They bridge the gap between complex urban data and comprehensible insights, encouraging civic engagement and informed decision-making. Here are some key aspects of user interfaces in the context of urban planning:


“Project Sidewalk”, University of Washington

Gamification employs game design elements and principles to make complex tasks more interactive and enjoyable [11]. It has the potential to engage community members in data collection, idea generation, and decision-making processes. One such example is "Foldit" [12], a video game where players solve puzzles related to protein folding, which led to the discovery of new protein folding solutions that would have taken much longer without a community effort. In urban planning, one such gamification example was "Project Sidewalk" by the University of Washington [13], wherein users were invited to annotate images of city streets with accessibility infrastructure, helping to create a comprehensive map of accessible and inaccessible areas in the city.

Interactive Tools

Interactive tools, such as 3D modeling software and virtual reality applications, enable users to immerse themselves in urban planning scenarios. These tools allow stakeholders to explore proposed changes to the urban landscape in a tangible way. For instance, the city of Stockholm used the previously mentioned video game “Cities: Skylines” to help citizens participate in planning Stockholm's urban development [14]. This not only aided the citizens by providing them with an accessible and visually satisfying tool for gaming out strategies, but also helped policy-makers communicate the project constraints to the stakeholders, such as financial and spatial limits.

Data Dashboards

TransitMatters Dashboard

Data dashboards provide a visual representation of complex urban data in real-time. Organizations like TransitMatters [15] in Boston use dashboards to display information about slow zones in public transit systems. These dashboards not only inform commuters, but also drive policy changes by highlighting areas in need of improvement [16]. For example, the TransitMatters’ visualization of slow zones has been a major discussion point in the elimination of such slow zones as the MBTA overhauls the oldest subway system in the United States.

User interfaces are the gateway through which the public interacts with the world of urban planning. They empower citizens with the tools to understand, contribute to, and even shape the future of their cities. By making data and simulations accessible and engaging, UIs encourage a more inclusive and participatory approach to urban development.


In the realm of urban planning and policy advocacy, two powerful tools emerge as champions of engagement and change: Data Visualization and Data Art. These creative approaches transform raw data into compelling narratives that resonate with the public, urging them to take action and support critical urban initiatives.

Data Visualization

“No Tropical Paradise: Urban 'Heat Islands' Are Hotbeds For Health Problems”, WBUR

One local example of data visualization's impact lies in a 2017 research project by the Trust for Public Land [17] on the urban heat island effect in Boston [18]. By visualizing the temperature disparities across neighborhoods, the project effectively communicated the health risks associated with such disparities, and allowed individual citizens to look up their places of work, business, and recreation, to better understand the immediate impacts of planning choices like tree planting, splash pads, asphalt coverage, and traffic congestion.

Not only did this project raise awareness about the pressing concerns of urban heat effect in a hyper-local way, but it also inspired collaborative efforts to tackle this issue. Boston.gov implemented Heat Resilience Solutions [19] as a direct response to the data-backed insights, demonstrating the influential power of data visualization in driving policy changes and community engagement.

Data Art

Data art, in contrast to data visualization, adds an artistic dimension to the communication of urban planning issues. It allows for subjective, abstract, and often emotionally charged representations of data, and allows for a ‘closed loop’ from physical, to digital, back to physical, allowing for quantitative values to be made tactile.

Candy Chang's interactive public art installation, "Before I Die" [20], invited community members to share their aspirations and dreams on a public wall. While not a traditional data visualization, it served as a collective expression of community desires, providing policymakers with valuable insights into the hopes and dreams of the local population, while also strengthening communities through shared expression.

"Before I Die”, Candy Chang

Laurie Frick's data art piece, "Where Does the Cash Go?" [21] used art to shed light on complex financial data. By creating visually striking representations of household budget allocations, Frick made it easier for the public to understand disparities from the richest to poorest households. In this way, she bridged the gap between data and public comprehension, but in a way that was gentle and required thoughtful and slow exploration of the abstracted information.

Protestors in Chicago in 2020 created a thought-provoking data art installation at a protest against police violence. Using colored boxes, they visually represented the city's police budget, which amounted to a staggering $1.8 million [22]. By turning data into a tangible, eye-catching display, they sparked conversations about resource allocation, leading to calls for budget reforms and social justice.

Asha Ransby-Spron& BYP1000 via Rahul Bhargava

These examples underscore the transformative power of data art in bringing urban issues to life and engaging the public in meaningful dialogues about policy changes.

Data visualization and data art serve as dynamic tools in urban advocacy, amplifying the impact of data-driven narratives. By harnessing these creative mediums, urban planners can empower communities to better understand the complexities of their cities and, in turn, drive informed and effective policy changes.


In our exploration of the dynamic intersection between digital facsimiles, simulations, user-friendly interfaces, and civic engagement in urban planning, we have witnessed an evolution of urban planning from a top-down, expert-driven process, to one where citizens actively participate in shaping their communities.

Revisiting our research question, "How can simulation and user interfaces leverage urban intelligence for policy changes through visual communication?" has uncovered the potential of digital twins, agent-based modeling, and gamification as powerful tools that democratize urban planning, allowing individuals to envision and influence the future of their cities.

Digital twins have transcended their origins in mechanical simulations and body systems to become urban intelligence enhancers. Agent-based modeling holds potential to better understand and perturb the intricate dynamics of cities. Games like "Cities: Skylines" have demonstrated how gamification can engage communities in urban planning intitiatives, opening doors to co-creation and informed decision-making.

Our exploration of user interfaces extended to real-world crowd-sourcing applications like "Project Sidewalk" and Stockholm’s urban development democratization. These initiatives empower communities to actively participate in urban planning and advocate for change. "TransitMatters," with its local focus on Boston's transit system, demonstrated how user-friendly dashboards can drive policy changes and improve urban mobility.

In the realm of advocacy, we discovered the potential of data visualization and data art. Boston’s urban heat islands dashboard showed us how data visualization can convey complex issues and lead to tangible policy solutions. Data art, as exemplified by Candy Chang, Laurie Frick, and Asha Ransby-Spron, revealed the emotional and artistic power of data, fostering transparency and accountability.

Our exploration has left us with a realization: digital facsimiles, simulations, and user-friendly interfaces are catalysts for change in urban planning. They democratize the process, amplify citizen voices, and encourage collaborative decision-making. Future work will involve hands-on engagement with one such example, TransitMatters, as they continue to develop their data communication dashboards. As we further this research, we seek a future where citizens are not mere spectators of urban planning, but active participants, where data and creativity unite to inspire policy changes that lead to more inclusive, sustainable, and thriving cities.


[1] https://www.ibm.com/topics/what-is-a-digital-twin

[2] https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/products/digital-twins

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41746-022-00610-z

[4] https://www.cnn.com/2023/01/31/world/digital-twin-cities-tnf-spc-intl/index.html

[5] https://towardsdatascience.com/intro-to-agent-based-modeling-3eea6a070b72

[6] https://towardsdatascience.com/how-epidemics-spread-exponentially-and-how-social-distancing-and-popular-places-affect-it-5ca79979f988

[7] https://scholarcommons.scu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1214&context=cseng_senior

[8] https://openai.com/research/emergent-tool-use

[9] https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-27005-6_2

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7901608/

[11] https://www.gamify.com/what-is-gamification

[12] https://fold.it/

[13] https://sidewalk-sea.cs.washington.edu/

[14] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-38404884

[15] https://transitmatters.org/

[16] https://mass.streetsblog.org/2023/11/07/transitmatters-analysis-confirms-success-of-last-months-red-line-track-work

[17] https://tpl.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=1b6cad6dd5854d2aa3d215a39a4d372d

[18] https://www.wbur.org/news/2017/07/05/greater-boston-heat-islands

[19] https://www.boston.gov/environment-and-energy/heat-resilience-solutions-boston

[20] https://beforeidieproject.com/

[21] https://www.lauriefrick.com/where-does-the-cash-go

[22] https://twitter.com/ashapoesis