All Articles Infrastructure Sustainability Strong data ecosystem key to unlocking potential of digital twins

Strong data ecosystem key to unlocking potential of digital twins

Digital twins have potential to transform the built environment and help companies and cities accurately measure carbon emissions. But an ecosystem of digital twins cannot survive without rich data and an open-source platform to share it.

6 min read


Strong data ecosystem key to unlocking potential of digital twins

SumitAwinash/Wikimedia Commons

The architecture, engineering and construction industry is increasingly warming up to the concept of the digital twin — a replica of physical assets, processes and systems that can be used for various purposes. The market for digital twins is expected to reach $48.2 billion by 2026, according to Markets & Markets. And in a recent Gartner survey of companies from various industries across six countries, 75% of respondents said they have already implemented or plan to implement a digital twin within a year. 

But while the digital twin is poised to transform the built environment, many wonder how stakeholders can derive value from them. The answer, according to software-as-a-service provider Asite, lies within the “golden thread” concept illustrated in the Hackitt Report about the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London. In construction, the golden thread concept refers to an accurate and up-to-date record of the data needed to maintain and operate an asset. 

“The golden thread introduces formal processes to maintain digital information, assure accuracy, and ensure accessibility and security,” Asite says. “In a nutshell, it should act as a live repository linking all asset data. Figuring out how to achieve this golden thread of information is imperative for businesses looking to derive value from their data and is a foundational step in the deployment of a digital twin. This process involves gradually expanding the information at our disposal and using more and more data to understand how digital twins relate to the specific business needs and add value in those areas.” 

The Asite report argues digital twins work best when there is an unencumbered flow of data from the beginning of the project throughout its life span and beyond. However, fragmentation and a dearth of robust and secure methods of data exchange can lead to insufficient knowledge transfer from project to project. 

“Due to the nature of our segmented supply chains, we only consider data within our own organizational structure, rather than data of the lifecycle of an asset,” said Jennifer Schooling, director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction. That fragmentation, she says, results in siloed engagement with data that inhibits its potential. 

According to Asite, industries can successfully use digital twins by establishing new forms of collaboration and by promoting new procurement and contracting practices. Asite adds that the creation of a global digital framework that can establish how data is used, maintained and shared would allow stakeholders to get actionable insights. Industries can maximize the potential of this framework with an open environment where sharing these data-driven insights is common. 

“Creating a system to encourage data exchange is meaningless without an environment in which it can succeed,” Asite wrote. “As digital twin technology brings together a variety of stakeholders, industries would benefit from an interconnected ecosystem built around an open platform in which data flows freely. This open platform, supported by open data schemes and ontologies that ensure standardization, would enable applications to interact and get data from each other securely, allowing the ecosystem to send, receive, capture, store, share and collaborate. Ultimately, all data related to a project would live here.”

In the US, Asite is part of a group called the Digital Twin Consortium, which is looking to advance digital twin technology through open-source development. It’s brought together some big names in the AEC sector, including Autodesk, Bentley and Lendlease. A core element of the consortium’s strategy appears to be building coalitions with like-minded groups, such as buildingSMART International, the Continental Automated Buildings Association and the Smart Water Networks Forum.

In the UK, the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s National Digital Twin program is maximizing the value of the technology by creating a national ecosystem of connected digital twins that will cover across a wide range of sectors, including transport, energy, water, and telecommunications.

“By setting up a framework to establish a foundation to support effective information management and enable secure and resilient interoperability of data (i.e. data that can be readily exchanged and utilized by different systems), the insights generated by their digital twin will be used to make decisions in the real world,” Asite wrote. 

Another company making a splash in the AEC digital twin world is Cityzenith, which believes the technology has potential to help cities avoid inadvertently underreporting their carbon emissions. In a recent press release, the company cited research from Northern Arizona University that found cities underreport their own greenhouse gas emissions, on average, by 18.3%. Part of the problem, according to NAU researcher Kevin Gurney, is that heating oil statistics are difficult to obtain, and as a result, cities will often fail to include the heating oil in their total building estimates.

However, in a separate report, NAU found that previous estimates of the decline in US GHG emissions during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period were “severely underestimated.” NAU has developed a tool called Vulcan, which uses data about pollution from power plants, factories, buildings and vehicles to help cities estimate fossil-fuel emissions at specific geographic points and across large areas. Cityzenith says its digital twin software can aggregate all new data and then use artificial intelligence to develop solutions to the problems highlighted by NAU and the Vulcan team.

The software is being put to use in a number of projects, most notably the Orlando Sports and Entertainment District. The owner of the mixed-use project wants to create a “video game-like experience” where visitors can interact with elements of the development in a lifelike 3D model to see sporting event times, retail offers, parking availability and even the view from their hotel rooms or event seats. Cityzenith is also working with The Agile Fractal Grid to help New Mexico develop an integrated power and broadband network that is expected to transform life and the economy across the state. Both projects support the company’s Clean Cities – Clean Future pledge to donate its technology to help cities everywhere become carbon-neutral.

However, the larger scientific community isn’t stopping with cities and countries. This year, the European Union is expected to begin work on “Destination Earth” – an initiative is to develop a high-precision digital model of Earth to monitor and simulate natural and human activity and to develop and test scenarios that would enable more sustainable development and support European environmental policies. The project will use a cloud-based modeling and simulation platform that will integrate digital replicas of various systems and phenomena, such as weather forecasting and climate change, food and water security, global ocean circulation and the biogeochemistry of the oceans. Much like the UK’s effort, the idea is to gradually develop an ecosystem of digital twins that together will help the project reach a handful of milestones between 2023 and 2030. The final result is expected to help the public sector develop, monitor and assess the effects of proposed policy and legislative measures concerning the environment and climate.