A digital 3D model of a building surrounded by other colorful shapes representing the surrounding buildings.

Virtual 3D models help visualize more sustainable cities

Entrepreneurship often does not take a linear path, and startups’ business plans and missions evolve over time. That’s what happened with Chicago-based Cityzenith, which creates “digital twins” — 3D virtual replicas of buildings and infrastructure.

Founder and CEO Michael Jansen, an architect, previously launched a business focused on CAD and BIM services — electronic drafting tools that architects and engineers use to design buildings and infrastructure. Eventually, his team realized that the projects involved numerous tools and it would be valuable to have one platform to unify all the tools and data. At the same time, a lot of digital tools were evolving from 2D to 3D imaging.

Those factors sparked the idea for Cityzenith. The data visualization platforms analyze numerous datasets and generate real-time 3D digital models of the built environment. These can help cities and private businesses solve problems, especially those related to sustainability and climate resilience. The multiple systems and datasets otherwise might live in siloes, but this technology incorporates it into a complete digital twin model.

“What the tool does well is scale to any size of project: a building to a city block to a campus to a city to an entire country,” Jansen said. “Solving problems associated with climate resilience requires collaboration at a massive scale. The reason digital twins are being used is they bring massive amounts of information together and imagine what will happen. No other tools can do this to scale.”

The models not only show current conditions but also predict and simulate what the built environment and its functions will look like in the future. Users can identify areas for changes and use the knowledge to create decarbonization strategies. The technology can simulate the more sustainable model.

“As the company grew — especially from 2013 to 2015 — we began to work with cities to see if we could play this role of pulling disparate kinds of information together to solve problems. Some of the first problems were related to climate,” Jansen said. For example, on one project, “building owners could log in and get tools and information they need to achieve a carbon-neutral path by 2030.”

A digital 3D model of a building with callouts labeling components including parking spaces, the ground floor plan, and a circulation diagram.
The “digital twin” models combine numerous tools and data to give a more complete view of buildings and their surroundings. (Photo credit: Cityzenith / Courtesy)

Pandemic impact

Despite an initial slowdown during the pandemic, 2020 turned out to be a good year for Cityzenith as businesses turned more attention toward digital tools. It raised more than $2 million in funding and released a new, advanced platform last summer. In the fall, it announced the new platform would be used as part of the project development for the planned $500 million Orlando Sports & Entertainment Smart District.

What’s next

The value of cities using digital twin technology for climate action is only beginning to catch on, and most that have tried it so far are running pilot programs. But experts predict the technology will explode as a popular solution and achieve widespread adoption in the next four years. Jansen notes that cities are notoriously low on funding so Cityzenith launched a program to donate the technology to improve cities’ exposure to and use of the tool. 

The goal is to forge partnerships with 10 cities over the next year or so. Then the company expects commercial businesses to follow suit. Jansen also would like to raise more funding this year, along the lines of $10 million. He anticipates that President Joe Biden’s commitment to decarbonization and climate action will usher in a good four years of business for Cityzenith and other businesses with environmentally focused missions.

On being Midwest-based

“I think, generally, the Midwest is a little bit of a hidden gem. You can get a lot of what you need right here in the form of talent. For example, you have a lot of good data people in the Chicago area,” Jansen said.

The location also helps the company stretch its dollars. “You can complain about getting 14 inches of snow, but the fact is our operating costs are significantly less … than if we had to start this company in Silicon Valley,” he said. “The cost cannot be ignored. It’s a serious thing for a business.”

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