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How ‘digital twins’ can help bring a better built environment

28 May 2019

Pairing physical roads, bridges and buildings with a ‘digital twin’ – software or systems that represent them – could be the key to more efficient decision-making and better infrastructure performance.

How ‘digital twins’ can help bring a better built environment
Using data to make a ‘digital twin’ – software or systems that represent them – could make decision-making more efficient. Image credit: ODI

The fourth industrial revolution – the term given to advances in powerful technology and the convergence of physical and digital realms – is increasingly helping engineers to make more informed decisions about how to deliver and manage infrastructure assets.

Key to this is the availability of accurate, real-time data about infrastructure condition and performance. But as technological capability increases, we have to be sure that this data is used in the best interests of end users, i.e. society.

We have a long way to go to perfect the ways that built environment data is accessed, used and shared, and to deliver full benefits to planning, performance, safety, and national security. But one solution could be through use of digital twins, and a current initiative to create a “national digital twin” of the UK’s infrastructure system.

What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a digital representation of something physical, such as a building, a bridge, or a stretch of motorway.

Driven by real-time data from the physical asset, the digital twin can be used to understand how a bridge would respond to loading and usage changes, or how traffic flow patterns may impact motorway capacity. Crucially, the digital twin is more than just a model, as it enables positive interventions back into the physical twin.

Using these digital twins means we can better support the design, operation and maintenance of many aspects of our world, making it safer and more efficient.

The future vision is for digital twins is that they can be combined together to create a ‘national digital twin’, which enables better decision-making at system and national level.

Creating a national digital twin

The national digital twin will not be a single digital twin of the whole built environment. Rather, it will be an ecosystem of individual digital twins connected via securely shared data.

Delivering this vision will need a wide variety of organisations across the public and private sector to work together to increase access to data while retaining trust. We will need to work together to understand how these principles can be applied, creating tools, guidance and training that will help to embed them across the sector.

The drive to make the national digital twin a reality is being led by the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG), part of the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB).

Creating principles for digital twins

The National Infrastructure Commission’s December 2017 report Data for the Public Good recognised that “data is infrastructure" and that there are increasingly strong connections between digital and physical infrastructure. The report also called for the DFTG to develop a digital framework that will help to unlock the value of infrastructure data and enable a national digital twin to be created.

The DFTG, which includes representation from a range of data stakeholder bodies including the Open Data Institute (ODI), has created a set of principles to underpin development of the framework and to guide the creation of digital twins.

Key to digital twinning is openness: open data, open culture, open standards and collaborative models that build trust, reduce cost and create more value. Data also needs to be secure and must deliver insight and maximum benefit to end users of infrastructure. These values, plus useful definitions, are summarised in The Gemini Principles, published by the DFTG in December 2018.

The DFTG has also now published a roadmap for developing and information management framework and will soon launch a digital twin “hub” to enable knowledge sharing about how to create and manage digital twins.

Data ownership or data stewardship?

The Gemini Principles echo the ODI’s own principles for strengthening data infrastructure, although they do talk about the need for clear ownership.

At the ODI we prefer to talk about the need for stewardship and rights over data, as we think they are most likely to create an open, trustworthy data ecosystem, but agree with the need for curation, governance and regulation to help deliver on the value of data.

Data infrastructure is as important as physical infrastructure

Infrastructure is the foundation on which our societies and economies function. Data has become a new form of infrastructure, underpinning better decision making across governments, organisations and communities. We need to continue to strengthen and maintain our data infrastructure, just like we do our roads, railways and health systems.

We are looking forward to continuing to work as part of the DFTG to deliver on this vision and help build a world where people, communities, organisations and governments use data to make decisions that improve people’s lives.

Get involved

Would you like to collaborate with the ODI on this research and development project? Or do you have an idea for how we could work together to develop this or a similar new project? Contact the ODI via this contact form.

Further information

Keep pace with the smart infrastructure revolution

Explore essential resources to successfully exploit the benefits of new technologies and make the digital twinfrastructure a reality.

Visit the digital hub

  • Leigh Dodds, Associate of the technical team, Open Data Institute
  • Peter Wells, Head of Policy, Open Data Institute