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The National Digital Twin sounds exciting – but we need to do the hard stuff

25 April 2019

Applying digital to infrastructure requires everyone to make some fundamental changes. Mark Enzer, Chair of the Digital Framework Task Group, explains the next steps we need to take to make it work.

The National Digital Twin sounds exciting – but we need to do the hard stuff
Roadmap for delivering the information management framework for the built environment (from the CDBB)

The National Digital Twin for infrastructure – an ecosystem of digital twins connected via securely shared data – represents an exciting future vision for civil engineering, as we strive to better serve the needs of people and businesses.

As set out by the National Infrastructure Commission’s seminal Data for the Public Good report in late 2017, a National Digital Twin could increase infrastructure resilience, reduce disruption and delays, optimise our use of resources and boost quality of life for citizens.

It’s an eye-catching concept, but beneath the glossy surface, there needs to be a realisation that it will require our profession to do some serious hard work to make it a reality.

That hard work will be boring for some and invisible to others, but we really need to get our data into shape to make the National Digital Twin work. We need to continue to shift our professional culture to treat information as an asset, and that means recognising its value and managing it properly through many lifecycles.

What’s a digital twin?

A digital twin is simply a digital representation of a something physical, which unlocks value principally by enabling better decisions about how the physical asset is built, operated, maintained or used.

But a digital twin is more than just a model: it has a two-way connection with its physical twin.

Data flows from the physical twin to the digital, enabling insights to be gained and decisions to be made that create the opportunity for positive interventions back into the physical twin.

Digital twins have been around for years, delivering benefit in many sectors from manufacturing to Formula One, but they’re just starting to make their presence known in the built environment.

What’s special about the National Digital Twin?

The National Digital Twin won’t be a huge singular twin of the entire built environment.

Instead, it will consist of “federations” of digital twins joined together via securely shared data, enabling infrastructure professionals to make better decisions at project, asset, network or system level.

Fundamental to the National Digital Twin concept is the value proposition that better decisions, based on better data, will lead to better outcomes for the public per whole-life pound.

More detailed definitions and a set of values to guide the development of the National Digital Twin can be found in The Gemini Principles, published by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) in December 2018.

Challenges to traditional perspectives

Even just the concept of the National Digital Twin challenges the way we think in our industry, but in a good way.

It makes us see infrastructure as a system of systems, interconnected in a variety of ways, just like the ecosystem of digital twins will be.

This perspective also drives us to focus on the whole lifecycle of assets, not just their initial delivery.It makes us see beyond the obvious value of physical assets to recognise the real value of digital assets as well. And it helps us to see technology as an enabler of something more important and longer lasting – an information value chain that delivers better social, economic and environmental outcomes for the people of the UK.

In effect, we’re describing the application of the fourth industrial revolution to infrastructure – the development of a cyber-physical system of systems. We know that infrastructure is fast becoming an information-based industry, so this is in many ways just a natural next step.

Action and next steps

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

Established by HM Treasury’s announcement in July 2018, the DFTG brings together government, industry and academia to guide the development and adoption of the Information Management Framework for the built environment.

The Information Management Framework is the ‘hard stuff’ that enables us to get to the exciting bit that is the National Digital Twin.

The DFTG/CDBB has now published a roadmap for delivering the Information Management Framework. It has five interconnected streams and highlights key areas to be tackled including information governance, standards and security.

In addition, CDBB is soon due to launch the Digital Twin Hub (DT Hub), which will be a web-enabled collaborative community for those who own or are developing digital twins.

It’s intended that members will be able to share key lessons and that the emerging best practice will be captured, first as guidance and later be developed into standards.

How you can help

For those who can, the call to action is to develop digital twins in line with the Gemini Principles, to help in the development and adoption of the Information Management Framework and to start enabling the National Digital Twin by demonstrating secure, resilient data sharing between organisations and across sectors.

If this describes you, then CDBB and the DFTG wants to work with you, so do get in touch.

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  • Mark Enzer OBE FREng, strategic advisor at Mott MacDonald