Chair’s Letter: The Digital Twin: Why, What and How

Blog Author: Richard Saxon, CBE

The built environment is officially regarded as an enabler of the economy and of our quality of life. By the ‘built environment’ I mean the complex of economic sectors which plan, regulate, develop, design and build, operate and maintain the physical fabric of our civilisation, its buildings and infrastructure. These sectors total between 15 and 20% of the total economy and the current government view is that the success of built environment investments should be measured by the outcomes they support for the economy and society.

The Centre for Digital Built Britain set up at the University of Cambridge in 2017 has set out its agenda as to harness digital technology to enable understanding of how outcomes in society are enabled by built environment. By creating and analysing data flows between the public use of services, the organisations who provide them, the operators of the physical environment that houses them and the designers and builders of that environment the plan is to enable continuously improving practice and outcomes. The CDBB uses the term ‘Digital Twin’ to describe the setting up of a parallel, digital entity of each asset and its dynamic use such that human and machine learning is possible. Eventually, the collation of all available asset Twins would create a National Digital Twin, able to simulate possible actions to optimise outcomes.

But the digital landscape within the built environment is fragmented. Holistic approaches are not yet emerging. I see the complex of sectors as following different paths into digital working. The broad pattern of sectors is threefold: Property, Construction and Facility/Asset Management. Within each are many subsectors or silos, but the broad pattern describes the tripartite, life-cycle arrangement where owners and investors initiate built-asset projects, the design and construction world creates them and the occupiers operate, maintain and adapt them.

The three mega-silos are like an interlocking Venn diagram, as each silo overlaps the others. Owners also act as construction project leaders and asset managers; constructors build new but also maintain assets (half of all spend is repair, maintenance and improvement); facility and asset managers can be part of the owners and/or of the occupiers. Professional services are a big part of the picture and serve all silos.

The Property silo calls its technology applications Proptech. Applications cover analysing, marketing, financing and managing projects and assets. The Construction silo focusses on BIM applications and on ‘reality capture’ through scanning. The FM silo, slowest to take up technology, is being marched rapidly into what it calls Smart Buildings, the operation of landlord and tenant space through sensors, analytics and actuators on the Internet of Things.

The silo overlap issue is not much appreciated yet. Developers want to use Proptech to manage projects, but BIM provides a generic platform for this. FM sees Smart as all-powerful but needs the asset model from BIM to complete their toolkit. Constructors are focussed on capital projects and don’t yet see that the asset model could be of great value to occupiers. Whole-life appreciation and the study of outcomes is at a very early stage.

The idea of the Digital Twin is to provide a digital representation of something physical so that applications can help to optimise design, smooth creation and facilitate operation, all the while collecting data from inuse performance and outcomes to enable better future facilities. This feedback loop can also improve current asset performance by adjusting systems in situ. So, the Digital Twin is a combination of a data model of the artefact and the sensor/analytics/actuator approach to make the artefact a digital entity on the Internet of Things with a level of awareness, intelligence and adaptability. Software can steer the digital entity, with upgrades delivered down the line. This approach has long ruled in aerospace, is advancing rapidly in automotive technology and is now arriving in the built environment as costs drop dramatically.

The Digital Twin concept has the potential to unify the currently distinct silo approaches to technology use. It probably will mature gradually over the next five to ten years, as the Internet of Things, 5G telephony, Blockchain and other emergent approaches power up. Meanwhile, we have some useful approaches available already:

  • A provider of Common Data Environments (CDE) focussed on the in-use phase, provides not just an Asset Information Model for FM but links it to many other data streams, from the building systems and the occupier’s workplace management systems to the outputs of the occupier’s ERP systems. This enables occupier outcomes to be assessed in relation to facility performance, with ability to optimise.
  • An electrical equipment supplier, which already has digital twins for all its components, has linked with a workplace automation firm, to enable interoperation between the Building Management System and the Integrated Workplace Management System. The latter detects all occupants and their utilisation of space, so performance of the building can be adjusted to meet use.
  • Another major electrical engineering group is acquiring one of the core BIM software houses to link modelling capability to dynamic data capture and control.
  • A BIM software provider is acquiring companies to enable it to cover Integrated Workplace Management Systems (IWMS), in effect adding awareness and control to asset information management.

I think that we should be alive to the fundamental difference between building-related technologies and occupier technologies. Just as space is only an enabler of economic, social and environmental outcomes, so built environment technology must not stray into the occupiers’ sphere without thought. The technology of medicine, of education, of the office workplace, even of the home, is distinct from that of the facility in which the function happens. Those technologies will evolve separately and rapidly. The built environment needs to support the users with the infrastructure for their purposes but not invade privacy, attract risk or expose itself to overly rapid obsolescence.

There is much to consider as the Digital Twin concept emerges. The Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain has set out ‘The Gemini Principles’ to guide us and a roadmap for the Information Framework needed. What is clear is that whole-life cycle thinking needs to become the norm in the built environment, with players connecting the silos rather than throwing their outputs over walls. It’s human nature to limit your horizons to the familiar and short-term. The Digital Twin could help us to transcend that.