Digital twins are growing up

There is a need to qualify what is meant by the term ‘digital twin’ and that qualification should focus on purpose and measurable benefits, says Richard Shennan.

If whoever coined the term ‘digital twin’ for the infrastructure and cities sectors had a penny for each time it has been used, he or she would be wealthy indeed. 

I first came across the term in 2016 at an industry conference in Singapore, where it was declared phrase of the event. I started to use it enthusiastically, as it embodied earlier ideas such as through-life asset information models that have been central to our thinking on digital transformation. But as I look across the landscape now, my concern is that the very success of the term is beginning to undermine its currency.

The definition of a digital twin from Digital Built Britain as “a realistic digital representation of assets, processes or systems in the built or natural environment” seems clear. However, the attractiveness of the term had led to its deployment in a wide range of commercial applications. These vary from 3D geospatial representations limited to primarily visual aspects to cloud-based platforms, digital object-based asset registers, organised sets of live data with interconnected static and dynamic components referenced in time and space and ultimately digital representations of entire enterprises. 

All of these have value in different contexts, so there is a need to qualify what we mean by digital twin in any given context. I believe this qualification should focus on purpose and measurable benefits.

The pursuit of purpose is key to Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures (MMDV), recently launched to partner with technology companies and start-ups to develop the next generation of digital innovations. Our deep understanding of the core infrastructure sectors allows us to deploy digital potential to unleash economic, social and environmental benefits.

Our first start-up business, Smart Infrastructure, has developed a unique proposition to do exactly that across all sectors, with the Smart Infrastructure Index and Opportunity Workshop providing clients with a way to benchmark their digital transformation and highlight next steps. This opens the door to pilot projects in asset performance optimisation powered by our Moata platform, where digital twins are central.

We also have advanced capabilities in understanding purpose at the city-wide level. At the recent Global Parliament of Mayors, it was clear from the digital stream that the key to reaping the potential benefits of digital twins is to understand the use cases and articulate the problems, then use existing data to drive quick results while pursuing the longer-term vision of developing ever more comprehensive digital twins driven by value. 

The publication of the Gemini Principles, laying the groundwork for the development of a National Digital Twin, is another big step forward in establishing the UK as leading thinkers in this area. The Digital Framework Task Group, chaired by Mott MacDonald’s Chief Technical Officer Mark Enzer, clearly sets out the values that ensure future digital twins work for the public good. Purpose is at the heart of these values, underlining the essential truth that it is at the intersection of infrastructure domain knowledge and digital expertise that the greatest benefits can be discovered and unlocked.

Richard Shennan is global digital business development director at Mott MacDonald.