A Grenfell Tower tragedy survivor in London only realised the 24-storey building was on fire when they heard fire engines arrive. The building's lack of smoke alarms meant it wasn't until he looked outside a 17th floor window and saw fire blazing up the tower's side, alighting the cladding like a matchstick. Fortunately, this man survived, but 72 residents perished in the 2017 fire.
An enquiry into one of the UK's worst modern disasters resulted in several reform recommendations and birthed a concept known as the 'golden thread' – an accurate and up-to-date data record relating to an asset. The golden thread is now in the UK's Building Safety standards and a well-known global concept that informs a digital twin. The golden thread's aim is for asset owners to have immediate access to building information – everything from a buildings refurbishments to working smoke alarms to fire exit routes, helping asset owners mitigate risk.
Digital twins – dynamic, digital representations of a physical object or system continuously updated with data to mimic the structure, state, and behaviour of the physical object – are designed to support organisations with planning their ongoing asset operations. Digital twins are, by no means, the only answer to the tragedy that occurred at Grenfell, yet there is a strong synergy between building operation, asset management and digital connectivity of the data to allow those who require the data access to it.
Digital twins are known for many things, from maximising energy efficiency to improving traffic flow in new builds. But they can influence the way we develop and maintain existing assets, their information ultimately saving lives; for example, ensuring operational smoke alarms. It goes further than just the data that informs the twin, rather the use of intelligent Building Information Modelling (BIM) processes and digital techniques to support design, build and even maintaining a physical asset which contributes.
So, why after more than 60 years since NASA developed the first digital twins, have we not learnt how to fully maximise the use of this incredible infrastructure to truly understand and predict human behaviour, interaction, and relationships?
What needs to change in order to make better use of our twins?
It's all about the data
Digital twins are not well understood. Few grasp the impact of how data, across the design and construction process, can support the operational phase of an asset.
The way information requirements are specified on projects reveals the potential of the 'twin'. This relies on the asset owner, and their ability to harness the available technologies and processes. It varies depending on the type of asset and the type of information required to maintain the asset and its location. But there should be a focus on strategising what information is required and ensuring the twin is fully up-to-date.
The essence of digital twins is connectedness and utilising big data. A healthy twin will rarely be able to live off of one source of information – it needs multiple data inputs across industries and projects. Figures suggest that greater data sharing could release an additional £7 billion per year of benefits across the UK's infrastructure sectors, equivalent to 25 per cent of total spend.
Current contracts generally lack incentives for risk-sharing and innovation and the infrastructure sector is fundamentally based on singular projects and temporary relationships, resulting in poor knowledge transfer. Add to it the fact that the architecture, engineering and construction space is one of the least digitised industries, and it is clear that the industry has a long way to go in terms of adoption. There are also fundamental issues around security, and understanding cyber threats to assets is a key issue that is preventing this data flow and sharing to occur.
Bringing dark assets to light
Alongside greater collaboration, education is needed. Most owners have 'dark assets' – siloed infrastructure data that rarely, if ever, sees the light. It is almost unthinkable to realise that 95 per cent of captured data during design and construction is never used again.
Most owners don't know what they have and also don't know what they need. Organisations can achieve a 6:1 return on investment from digital twin implementation; however, most companies are missing out on up to 65 per cent of its possible value. Initiatives like the Centre for Digital Built Britain aim to bridge some of these gaps, yet there are still practical issues when it comes to actually reporting back on the success of these incentives.
As engineers, designers, and advisors, it is our responsibility not merely to build the technology, but also to work with and educate our clients how to use it properly. For example, a common digital twin outcome is to gain real-time data feed from sensors, drones, and the Internet of Things (IoT) and to use simulation, machine learning, and reasoning to help decision-making.
These processes enable us to analyse data and generate insight to the physical asset, all aiding in the proficiency and efficiency of the built environment. The United Nations' Sustainability Goals to support the world and its governments by achieving net zero carbon by 2030 includes enabling digital twin outcomes across the world.
Strategic advice and the Twin 'solution'
With 30.9 billion IoT devices set to be connected to some form of a digital twin by 2025 and an expected market that will grow to $48.2 billion by 2026 (up from $3.1 billion in 2020), we need an educated industry together with data-literate consultants and decision-makers. In some ways, we can offer a full solution towards a digital approach, but we also need to educate clients on what outcomes they can achieve and how.
The potential is enormous. Digital twin outcomes relating to the California wildfire areas helped fire-behaviour analysts model their predictions in a complex simulation. In the case of a hospital building in China, more than 10 per cent of facility faults and requested repairs were avoided by digital twin outcomes and diagnosis.
Singapore, the world's second-most densely populated nation, invested $73 million in its nationwide digital twin to help meet their sustainability targets. Bigger still, the European Union recently launched "Destination Earth", a project that will run for up to ten years to create a highly accurate digital model of the earth. The twin will represent virtually all processes on the Earth's surface, including the influence of humans on water, food, and energy management. We will be able to look at the past and present, as well as test and develop future scenarios.
It's critical to focus on the outcome rather than the product. Too often have we seen the digital process flawed in its approach by taking a technological focus rather than a strategic one. It is our responsibility as leaders in this field to educate on the whole-of-life approach, combining requirements around Digital Engineering, Building Information Modelling and Information Management, all of which are the fundamental building blocks to the digital twin outcome.