Digital twin technology – a future UK export success?

Auckland Council and Mott MacDonald worked together to develop a digital twin of local beaches.

Industry leaders and policymakers globally can make the most of digital twin technology and the UK is well placed to lead that effort, says Will Sowter.

Digital twin technology - essentially a computer-generated replica of a physical entity - has become an essential tool for the infrastructure sector. Whilst the technology itself has been around since the early 2000s, in more recent years the capacity to draw on ever more detailed real-time data has made it even more valuable for business. By bridging the digital and physical worlds with this information, digital twin technology can provide unique analytical insights for engineers, policy makers and urban planners. 

The term is most commonly used to refer to assets, but ‘digital twins’ can also be used for a process or system. Their defining characteristic is the connection between the virtual and physical worlds. 

Recently, British Expertise International hosted a webinar with Will Squires, associate director at Atkins and Darren Russell, chief digital officer at Mott MacDonald, to explore digital twin technology. A key takeaway from the event was that the technology works best when directed towards a clear and practical objective. 

In the case of Auckland Council in New Zealand, issues with water pollution were a problem for beach-goers who did not know where it was safe to swim. With the aim of improving the local environment and leisure experience, Auckland Council and Mott MacDonald worked together to develop a digital twin of local beaches. The result was a public platform called ‘Safeswim’, which maps real-time data from Auckland’s beaches to allow anyone to check if it’s safe to go to the beach. 

As the example of Auckland’s beaches suggests, understanding and engaging with users regularly is critical to the success of digital twin technology. This is particularly true of urban planning which citizens could engage with in exciting new ways through digital twins. According to Phil Christensen, senior vice-president for digital cities business development at Bentley Systems, “the purpose of [city-scale digital twins] is to make the city better to live in. If someone is able to explore the view of a project from their apartment window, and provide live feedback in context, they are more likely to feel engaged”. 

As this virtual revolution unfolds, the UK is leading the way in two key areas. Firstly, the UK is driving the implementation of the technology for urban infrastructure through the National Digital Twin project. Launched in 2018, this project is one of the first of its kind in the world and is being led by Cambridge’s Centre for Digital Built Britain. As of February 2020, Atkins together with Ordnance Survey, have been appointed to research the benefits of creating a national digital twin of the UK’s infrastructure. Ultimately, it aspires to ‘create an ecosystem of connected digital twins’ to the benefit of society, business and the environment. 

Secondly, the UK has been playing a vital role in establishing the moral framework through which ambitious projects like the National Digital Twin will operate. Based on the UK National Infrastructure Commission’s idea of ‘data for the public good’, the Centre for Digital Built Britain published the ‘Gemini Principles’ in 2018 setting out the ethical parameters for digital twins. These principles place effective functionality, transparency and the creation of value at the heart of the UK’s digital twin agenda to ensure that the technology will be used as ethically as possible. 

Increasing the use of this technology will be necessary for improving the capabilities of the global infrastructure sector in the near future. Mott MacDonald’s 2019 Smart Infrastructure Index found that 60% of asset owners surveyed made decisions based on instinct and experience, rather than being based on evidence. Going forward, understanding exactly how to use the data provided by digital twins will ensure that industry leaders and policymakers around the world can make the most of this emerging tech. The UK is well placed to lead that effort.

Find out more about digital twins and their role in urban planning at the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s website at www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk

Will Sowter is an intern at British Expertise International.