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Evolution 4.0: Digital twins and the future of urban management

Evolution 4.0 is a monthly column that looks at the fourth industrial revolution’s defining trends and practices. This week: digital twins. Without them, we might never have put a man in space; when it comes to their potential, a walk on the moon only scratches the surface.

Linda J. Isaacson, Managing Director, Global Head of Innovation and Technology, Ferguson Partners Ltd.
6 November 2020

In the 1960s and ‘70s, NASA engineers were searching for a way to test the durability of delicate mechanical systems under conditions that were, quite literally, otherworldly. How could they be sure that their lunar modules were fit for their intended purpose given that there is no place on earth like the moon? Their solution, derived through multiple complex mathematical calculations, was to create a theoretical simulation of conditions in space. In doing so, the engineers crafted the first digital twin.

In essence, a digital twin is the virtual replication of an object, a being, a system or an environment. It is continually updated with real-time information about its physical counterpart, be that a jet engine, a human heart or a moon buggy. Leading technology research firm Gartner estimates that, by 2021, the Internet of Things will comprise 25 billion connected devices – each harvesting massive volumes of data.1 Much of that data will be channelled through, and interpreted by, digital twins.

The implications for the built environment are certain to be wide ranging. In fact, the digital twin could be paired with an entire city. This is certainly the ambition in Singapore, where an eclectic mix of datasets is already underpinning development policy. In essence, big data, Internet of Things, cloud computing and virtual reality are converging to power urban innovation in a lab setting. Virtual Singapore, created by the National Research Foundation (NRF), offers a 3D semantic modelling platform that incorporates real-time, real-world dynamics with climate, demographic, topographic and traffic data. The potential applications are myriad.2 Use of this platform enables gathering and use of predictive data to test solutions and effectively plan for the future with far less risk. 

Leading technology research firm Gartner estimates that, by 2021, the Internet of Things will comprise 25 billion connected devices – each harvesting massive volumes of data. Much of that data will be channelled through, and interpreted by, digital twins.

On a smaller scale, the prospect of digitally twinned workplaces, already a passion project for many forward-thinking facility managers, has been brought forward by the COVID-19 crisis . The value of modelling social distanced occupancy rates, airflow, elevator capacities, touchless surfaces, and footfall through the “new reality” office scarcely requires explanation. It will be vital for employers to be able to show that their workplaces are safe for employees.

This point speaks to the principal merit of digital twins: they do not simply simulate a fixed situation or moment in time; they promise perpetual, predictive analysis. For instance, corrective interventions in the operation of multi-tenanted real estate can be incremental, timely and unintrusive. A digital twin effectively enables one to see into the future and identify where and when faults are likely to occur. This allows for fully optimised, diagnostic maintenance, rather than the reactive model with which we are all far too familiar.

The potential for cost savings and waste avoidance is incalculable. What’s more, the gains are scalable. A truly city-wide digital twin would most likely take the form of a system-of-systems, a networked grid of twins, each with an individual and collective raison d’etre. From there, municipal leaders can model scenarios to make predictions regarding an uncertain future. These forecasts could include the effect of population change on public transport networks, or the impact of climate events on densely populated commercial and residential neighbourhoods.

The COVID-19 crisis has occasioned an urban exodus – particularly across Europe and North America. If one digital twin can help people overcome their back-to-workplace misgivings, couldn’t a city-wide network of digital twins dispel back-to-the-metropolis anxieties? Imagine how different the world might look today if, 18 months ago, local officials in Hubei province had been able to “wargame” a viral outbreak scenario using a digital twin of downtown Wuhan.

Imagine how different the world might look today if, 18 months ago, local officials in Hubei province had been able to “wargame” a viral outbreak scenario using a digital twin of downtown Wuhan.

Of course, it is easy to get carried away with the potential of such groundbreaking technology. In reality, the barriers to adoption are numerous and, in some cases, predictable. Data speaks many languages; without a global standard, it can be difficult, even impossible, to translate accurately. Data is abundant; but it can quickly become tired and inaccurate if not judiciously sorted and continuously refreshed. And it’s sensitive; if compromised, highly valuable competitive advantages can be lost – as can protection of our priceless personal privacy.

Each of us already donates masses of data to the infosphere. Who will take responsibility for all of this data? Who will be the data custodians? How can we be sure that they are capable and trustworthy? In effect, these are this-generation issues that we must resolve if we are to adopt next-generation technologies. While such issues deserve serious consideration, conservative instincts are rarely able to rein in transformative forces.

Digital twins are reinventing innovation and enabling stakeholders to visualize, experiment and gather the necessary data for more effective, forward-thinking decision-making. As we move toward the future, we can expect digital twins to up the game, collaborating with each other for an exponential effect. With a small step of faith and a giant leap of the imagination, we can completely transform our future.

 

1 “Gartner Identifies Top 10 Strategic IoT Technologies and Trends,”
 https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2018-11-07-gartner-identifies-top-10-strategic-iot-technologies-and-trends (Nov. 7, 2018).

2 Patricia Liceras, “Singapore experiments with its digital twin to improve city life,” https://www.smartcitylab.com/blog/digital-transformation/singapore-experiments-with-its-digital-twin-to-improve-city-life/ (May 29, 2019).