Opinion Piece by Rebecca De Cicco

Creating a mirror of the world: The evolution, development and documentation around Digital Twins and the National Digital Twin (NDT) in the United Kingdom.  

Based on the work I have been doing in the smart cities/BIM Space, I felt it was important to also include support and research around Digital Twins. At Digital Node we work with a variety of differing clients all over the world to support their future requirements as businesses offering construction services and therefore it was important that we keep up to speed with the future developments, not only in the United Kingdom via the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) but also globally on Digital Twins and how they can be applied.

Some of our upcoming projects include not only BIM requirements and education around how to implement BIM but also educating clients on what comes next for the future of our industry. This includes how we use data to effectively support the way we design, build and manage assets. 

I recently delivered a webinar on the importance of Digital Twins and this was a great opportunity to draw synergies between design, build and manage, plus how we map BIM and smart cities to the relationship. Looking to the future is not easy but keeping up to speed with industry drivers and innovations through groups such as the CDBB is certainly very important on a global scale.

As the home for the Digital Built Britain and BIM Policies, CDBB is one entity that should be monitored and followed for those who work in construction as it supports not only the UK but also any other construction entity looking to transform the way they plan, build, maintain and use social and economic infrastructure for the future. 

In the webinar I gave an overview of the work undertaken by CDBB in terms of the development of the work surrounding the National Digital Twin (or NDT) and discussed the historical background of the term Digital Twin – one that many would not commonly know of or recognise.

Digital Twins are very much a new term for many in the construction industry, but across other industries the term has been used for some time. The beginning of the term Digital Twin was coined as far back as the 1990’s where work was undertaken at Yale University to develop and support something called ‘mirror worlds’ – or the relationship between the physical and digital worlds.

Industries which have been working relentlessly to support these processes are obviously those who adopted innovative approaches to the way they designed, maintained and used their assets. Industries such as aerospace, aviation and manufacturing are some of those examples, where having digital replicas or mirrors of elements allowed for greater design, accessibility and even safety for those who worked in these fields. 

It is only now that we can enforce these principles of Digital Twins as we have the digital capability to do so and the gusto and interest in construction to achieve it. Having said this, having the structure, the authority and even secure arrangements around how we digitally link elements (not just buildings and infrastructure but any physical element) to each other requires a framework around it as well as guidance in place. 

The CDBB’s Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) continue to work across this space, supporting the development of the Information Management Framework for the adoption of the National Digital Twin (NDT).  The first step however is having an understanding of the values which will enable digital twins across our sector. These values can be found in the form of the Gemini Principles

The Gemini Principles were first published in 2018 and act as the foundation of how we could possibly deliver a NDT in the UK with consistent values and processes put in place. The Gemini Principles are globally recognised and often resourced in other government reports across the world with the work they do around linking digital assets with the physical environment.

The Gemini principles state that by; connecting Digital Twins to create a National Digital Twin (NDT) this will unlock extra value to industry as a whole. The NDT will not be a huge singular model of the entire built environment. Rather, it will be an ecosystem of Digital Twins connected via securely shared data.

To develop Gemini compliant Digital Twins the Gemini Principles state that a Digital Twin must represent physical reality at a level of accuracy suited to its purpose. Its purpose may vary and these considerations would need to be understood and then implemented by the authority who manages physical assets. 

Key considerations should be made when developing Digital Twins and they may include: 

  1. The quality of the data on which the twin is based. The built environment must ensure the data is accurate and fit for purpose depending on the type of asset and its physical properties. 
  2. The fidelity and validity of the data. Checking if data is accurate and compliant as well as if it uses any data which suggests an assumption is made. 
  3. The quality of the presentation of the output. This very much relates to the development of a Project Information Model (PIM) and using the right geometrical and non-geometrical data to support how it then can become the Asset Information Model (AIM).

A number of Digital Twins have already been developed within the built environment, yet it is unclear just how far this reach is. Few Digital Twins at this time are connected or share data across organisations, sectors or geographies. Lack of interoperability is a key constraint at present and one which should be addressed when looking to implement these principles, as well as the level of skill and knowledge around these concepts. 

The Gemini Principles were supported by two other pieces of work, the Information Management Roadmap and  the Pathway Towards an Information Management Framework: A Commons for a Digital Built Britain. All three pieces of work are linked to support the development of the NDT in the UK and work toward supporting a harmonious and safe response to how we link Digital Twins and our built environment assets. 

Source: Centre for Digital Built Britain report Towards a Digital Built Britain

This piece of work is certainly now underway by CDBB and is linked very closely to the BIM Policy and Smart City Agenda (and standards) to support digital construction in the UK. The documentation around the NDT policies state that those who use, maintain and operate built assets should closely consider these requirements in order to support the development of the NDT. Although this work is progressing, we are still a number of years away from having the education, skills and resources to enable these processes and principles within the construction industry. 

The Information Management Framework details that there are requirements at the core of technical management and supporting the development of the NDT which include: 

  • Secure and Resilient Exchange of Data. Align the information shared to be safe and with a security minded approach
  • Interoperability Key to all projects with BIM in mind and also as a requirement for the smart city /Digital Twin model 
  • Linking Data and Models . Linking data and the technical requirements to be able to link data at a national level

We are certainly on our way to supporting requirements for a NDT and a Digital Built Britain but there is still much work to be undertaken. Groups such as the UK BIM Alliance and other industry groups supporting skills growth and resources are working hard to enable the industry in their adoption of BIM, but there is far more work to achieve when it comes to having an overall and common (consistent) framework as to how we work with Digital Twins.

Following guidance and standards is one way and we must work as an industry not only in the UK but on a global scale to enable greater productivity and shared resources for these purposes. 

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