Big data: digitally representing the physical landscape

Twin–win situation

19 March 2020

The development of connected digital twins can benefit economy and environment alike, and surveyors should prepare for this important business trend

Q: Can you define a digital twin?

ME: Essentially, it’s a digital representation of something physical. But what really makes a digital twin is its connection to the physical world. Receiving data from the physical world, a digital twin unlocks value by enabling improved insights that support better decisions, leading to better outcomes back in the physical realm. At the moment our data is often poor-quality, inconsistent and siloed, so we have a lot to do to make it fit for use. If we don’t sort this out, decisions and outcomes won’t be improved.

Q: How is the digital twin different to building information modelling (BIM)?

ME: The difference is the connection to the physical world: a right-time data connection that informs the digital twin. BIM is an excellent foundation for digital twins. It has helped the industry to understand how important effective information management is, so there should be a natural progression towards digital twins and connected digital twins.

The UK BIM Framework will lead into the information management framework to underpin the National Digital Twin (NDT).

The concept of the NDT grows from the potential of connecting digital twins via secure, resilient data sharing. The NDT is envisaged as an ecosystem of connected digital twins, not one huge digital twin for everything, and the Treasury has established a task group as part of the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) to bring together other key players from government, academia and industry to help make this vision a reality.

Q: What benefits will this bring?

ME: Each digital twin, built for a clear purpose, should enable better decisions to be made faster and more cheaply: better operational decisions, better maintenance decisions, better investment decisions, better resilience decisions. The list goes on. And this can be multiplied if we connect digital twins across the built environment.

For society, this means better social, economic and environmental outcomes per pound. For the economy, it means higher-performing infrastructure, which should lead to improved productivity and GDP growth. For the environment, it should mean less waste, more re-use, less disruption, greater resource efficiency, as well as lower carbon emissions. Digital twins can usher in the circular economy.

And for business, it means a new market built around digital assets. We will need to learn how to value and manage such assets.

Q: What can surveyors do now to prepare for this digital future?

ME: Surveyors have a key role. They are good at dealing with data and information, but their methods may need to change in an increasingly information-based world. So, they will have to go digital. The vision for Digital Built Britain is huge and it is not going to happen overnight. CDBB has developed a roadmap for the first 3 years of what could be a 30-year journey, and we really need to be generating value within those 3 years.

We’re making good progress, and there are still spaces in working groups and workshops that surveyors can join. Members should contact the CDBB.

Mark Enzer is the chair of the National Digital Twin Programme and the chief technical officer at Mott MacDonald.

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