Welcome to techUK's #DigitalTwinFuture week!
Read on to learn more about the UK's digital twin ecosystem, and hear perspectives from some of the UK's foremost thought-leaders!
Major opportunities presented by the development, deployment and adoption of digital twins have captured the attention of decision-makers across industry and government for years. Yet debates on digital twins remain grounded in conceptual ambiguity and, to-date, have lacked streamlined input from digital twin owners, operators and end users. This has had knock-on consequences for the prosperity, sustainability and resilience of systems that we depend on to thrive.
During #DigitalTwinFuture week, techUK will be bringing you news, views and insights from across the UK’s digital twin ecosystem along the following daily themes:
- Monday 18 May - Data sharing, digital twin integration, connectivity & data security
- Tuesday 19 May - Decision support/ automation, simulation & prediction, data model richness
- Wednesday 20 May - Skills, user interfaces, commercial integration, public sector support
- Thursday 21 May - Resilience-building effects
- Friday 22 May - Industry call to action
If you would like to learn more about techUK’s work in this area, or learn about our new Digital Twins Working Group (DTWG), then please feel free to get in touch with Tom Henderson (Tom.Henderson@techUK.org) today or follow our @techUK handle on Twitter & LinkedIn! In the meantime, read on to find out more about changing priorities across the UK’s digital twin ecosystem!
Variety within the digital twin ecosystem
Digital twins can be applied for a range of different purposes, and it is important to understand the sheer scale of variety within the ecosystem. Predictive digital twins can be developed to cope with potential futures by supporting strategy and planning, ‘What-if?’ scenario running as well as predictive and preventative maintenance. Digital twins can also be leveraged to deal with current states, and support intervention management, real-time status monitoring and control, and diagnostics and prognostics to optimise performance and safety. Additionally, historical digital twins can be used for record keeping and to enable decision-makers to learn from the past.
Beyond diversity in purpose, digital twins can be differentiated based on variety in spatial scale. At one end of the spectrum, digital twins can be developed for individual assets. At the other, digital twins can be developed for complex networks of assets, or systems-of-systems. As you move along the spectrum in this direction, the difficulty of computation tends to increase.
Digital twins can also be differentiated on a temporal basis and reflect any point in the lifecycle of assets, processes, or systems. During the early stages of lifecycles, digital twins can be used to build and test prototypes and to accelerate the pace of experimentation. Equally, digital twins can be leveraged to guide decision-makers through decommissioning processes. Depending on the time horizon for decision support, and the available data infrastructure, digital twins can also be static or dynamic.
Technical variety in approaches to modelling also plays an integral part in determining the suitability of a digital twin. One interesting approach to modelling surrounds the use of geometric and geospatial modelling. Traditional computational and numerical approaches to modelling have also become very prevalent across the ecosystem, since NASA began using digital twins to develop and manage early spacecraft. Looking to the future, approaches based on artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities are set to grow in popularity as demand for ‘learning systems’ increases.
Finally, digital twins come in many different shapes and sizes- but few are connected or share data across organisations, sectors or geographies. If the full value of a digital twin is to be realised, this widespread lack of interoperability is a key constraint for decision-makers which must be addressed at both an individual organisation and societal level. However, joining digital twins together is hard- doing so requires trusted, secure, and resilient data sharing mechanisms. Such mechanisms are difficult to develop and will ultimately require a massively parallel and non-linear effort from actors across multiple sectors of the UK’s economy.
Realising better outcomes for people and society
Keeping variety within the ecosystem in mind, another crucial point to consider is whether a digital twin supports the delivery of better outcomes for people and society. Traditionally, the focus of impact evaluations for digital twins has been on relatively narrow economic terms, rather than holistic, sustainable growth objectives. However, as demonstrated in our recent post-COVID smart cities webinar, the recent crisis has begun to force through an increased appetite for systems thinking, the emergence of longer-term thinking beyond political cycles, increased engagement and emphasis on behavioural change, growing levels of literacy and scrutiny surrounding the accessibility and inclusion of data, as well as, the beginnings of a shift towards more agile policy and regulation driven by a need to bake-in resilience improvements across nearly every policy domain and time horizon.
In this context, recent work conducted by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and the University of Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC)- which seeks to re-envision infrastructure as a platform for human flourishing- may prove to pivotal as the UK aims to build a recovery plan for the current crisis. Similarly, research conducted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)- which demonstrates the need to extend the structural characteristics of integrated assessment models (IAMs) beyond linear estimates of macroeconomic cost- is likely to become increasingly important. techUK will continue to monitor and feed into the development of new value frameworks across the UK, which will play a vital role in securing a brighter, digital twin enabled future.
Recognising winners and losers across the ecosystem
Digital twin owners and operators must appreciate shifting end user demands resulting from the current crisis. The current situation has placed greater emphasis on whether digital twins are event driven, focused on actionable insights, or have access to information across digital ecosystems. Given the likely non-linear nature of recovery, there is also a growing need to improve ‘best guess’ models and develop digital twins that are based on at least some iteration of simulation.
This said, not all simulation-based digital twins have fared well throughout the current crisis. For example, digital twins that simulate traffic flows throughout cities using historical, rather than real-time, data inputs have proved to be less resilient in the face of unforeseen drops in citizen activity under lockdown. Therefore, a key focus for future industry engagement and research should be on these resilience gaps, and the part they could play in helping future owners, operators and end users to differentiate and improve their digital twin approach.
Systems thinking around digital twins
Looking to the future, the adoption of a systems approach is likely to be key to unlocking the value of digital twins across multiple layers of the UK’s economy and society. The first step in adopting a system approach involves clearly articulating the overarching purpose of a digital twin. In essence- what is the function or goal of the digital twin? Analysis to set direction for in this way is critical, yet infrequently supported with protocol or rigour. To isolate this purpose, owners, operators and end users should make a concerted effort to engage all relevant stakeholders to uncover and capture key goals and aspirations.
A systems approach also involves prospective owners, operators and end users having a strong understanding of the commonalities and characteristics of different digital twins, and how they relate to the problems they face. To this end, techUK’s new Digital Twin Working Group (DTWG) is already working with digital twin suppliers from sectors such as defence, finance, cyber security, infrastructure, telecommunications, aerospace, and advanced manufacturing to design, build and test a robust taxonomy for digital twins
Finally, to adopt this systems approach, owners, operators, and end users should be thinking about how they can raise the level of interoperability between different digital twins. This will involve the development of new and secure data sharing mechanisms, which can facilitate effective information exchange and use. Such mechanisms are already under development in the infrastructure sector. For example, the CDBB is currently building an Information Management Framework for the built environment. techUK will continue to support this and other initiatives, but also recognises that such efforts need to be grounded in an understanding of the specific technologies employed to build digital twins across a diverse array of technology markets. As a result, techUK’s DTWG is currently developing an industry-backed reference architecture for digital twins, that it hopes will support integration efforts, highlight convergence possibilities and risks, and provide guidance where appropriate.
Attributing value to digital twins
Ultimately, adopting this systems approach will make it easier to attribute value to a digital twin. It will enable owners, operators, and end users to clearly articulate the value that digital twins present to decision-makers, helping to attract buy-in at a strategic level and providing a foundation for outcomes-based progress long-term. In turn, an improved understanding of the value that digital twins can help to unlock could drive recognition of digital twins as genuine ‘assets’ that need to be managed effectively and securely. This would be a simple, but radical change of emphasis that could help to de-risk and accelerate innovation across multiple layers of the UK’s economy and society.
To learn more about the work that techUK is doing in this area, get in touch with Tom Henderson (Tom.Henderson@techUK.org) today!
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