Why the century’s most important infrastructure project will be virtual

The most important infrastructure project of the 21st century will be the development of ‘digital twins’ to upgrade the operation and asset management of all domestic infrastructure, says Jamie Radford.

What is the most important 21st century infrastructure project? It’s not High Speed 2, a £50bn investment to treble rail capacity between London and other key UK cities. And it’s not ITER or DEMO, paving the way to development of nuclear fusion power stations. Neither is it China’s ambitious, 600-mile South–North Water Transfer Project. 

In fact, it may not even involve construction of any physical assets at all. The most important project of the 21st century will be virtual - the development of the first national digital twin to upgrade the operation and asset management of all domestic infrastructure.

The world’s asset base faces unprecedented challenges. Urbanisation, population and economic growth demand additional capacity, while replacing ageing assets is increasingly urgent. However, providing new capacity while eliminating infrastructure carbon emissions by 2050 will prove an even greater challenge than building the original networks of the industrial revolution.

The infrastructure in developed economies is mature. In the UK, for example, we add less than 0.5% to the existing asset base each year. The focus must be on transforming the performance of existing systems. 

Digital twins (dynamic software models of physical systems) enable optimisation across the whole asset life. Rolls-Royce pioneered the technique, using engine sensors to cut unplanned maintenance events by 75% to address a £5bn a year problem. The exponential decrease in cost for data collection and processing have enabled the internet of things, with tens of billions of sensors connected by 2030, providing data for digital twins of complex infrastructure systems. 

While operational efficiencies of 10-20% are already being achieved across all sectors of infrastructure, the greatest value will be from interconnected systems-of-systems modelled in a national digital twin. This would deliver benefits across all stages of asset management, with strategic investment decisions informed by operational data and accounting for multi-sector interdependencies. 

Construction could be coordinated to reduce public disruption, and operation optimised through sophisticated supply-demand balancing. Variable renewable energy may combine with electric vehicle storage and peak-shifting of high intensity usage like pumping water. In the UK alone, increased sharing of infrastructure data could yield benefits of £15bn a year. That’s equivalent to a free Crossrail. Every year. That is the size of the prize.

There are, however, substantial challenges to overcome. Far from the digital twin’s ‘single source of truth’, most asset owners have different systems holding conflicting information and many do not know the location of all their buried assets. Information is not valued, resulting in insufficient investment in its maintenance. Even if comprehensive as-built information is captured, it is rarely updated throughout an asset’s life. 

Asset performance is often not defined and there is no data to measure it. The industry is risk averse, hoarding data to mitigate poorly understood security risks. A major change in culture is required - from a focus on construction to delivering customer outcomes; from aspiring to build large infrastructure projects to striving for no-build solutions; and from predominantly civil engineering to truly interdisciplinary collaborations.

However, if we can overcome these challenges, then the sheer scale of the opportunity, applied throughout the lifecycle of all infrastructure, makes the development of national digital twins the most important infrastructure project of the 21st century.

Jamie Radford is information consultant for the Smart Infrastructure initiative at Mott MacDonald. The Infrastructure Intelligence Digital Transformation Hub is provided in association with Mott MacDonald.