Q&A: Atkins’ Will Squires on the benefits of a National Digital Twin

The Centre for Digital Built Britain has appointed Atkins and Ordnance Survey to research the benefits of creating a National Digital Twin of UK infrastructure. Will Squires, project lead at Atkins, explains why it’s needed and the unexpected insights that could result.

The CDBB has already done a lot of work towards developing a National Digital Twin (NDT), why map the potential benefits now?

It’s easy to explain why a digital twin is a good idea – a digital version of an asset, in a variety of different formats, can derive all sorts of value. However, the challenge is creating a consistent method of forecasting the potential benefits and measuring the size of the prize associated with different pieces of puzzle, at a national level.

This research project, led by Atkins, will explore the baseline benefits of connecting digital twins of critical national infrastructure, from hospitals to railway stations, to form an ecosystem of data-sharing. We will measure the potential impact of an NDT on the UK’s productivity, and the effect on future costs. The resulting baseline benefits case will highlight which sectors, networks, regions and industries would benefit most.

A digital version of an asset, in a variety of different formats, can derive all sorts of value. However, the challenge is creating a consistent method of forecasting the potential benefits and measuring the size of the prize associated with different pieces of puzzle, at a national level.– Will Squires, Atkins

An NDT will not happen overnight, we want to create a mechanism for people to understand what parts of it will give which benefits, and which technologies, capabilities or skills we might need to develop before we can realise some of those benefits. A lot of the opportunities are already here and could be realised with what is already in place.

How will you break down the benefits?

The main piece of work is the development of a “logic model” that describes the nature and scale of the benefits of an information management framework designed to link together different digital twins, using a multitude of connected datasets to create a National Digital Twin.

The logic model will identify specific benefits from actions in the environment, whether it’s a CO2 saving from improved road performance, or a gain in productivity from a better understanding of how construction companies deliver their commitments. Rather than have a list of use cases and examples of benefits, we want to show where and who those benefits could accrue to, or who might have an interest in those benefits.

Part of this is about tying together different sectors and their contributions towards strategic big picture goals. For example, a digital twin that connects energy data between the community and transport sectors has massive benefits because it opens up an opportunity for peak energy smoothing, which can reduce the net cost of energy and cut emissions.

There could be major benefits of an NDT in responding to things like the coronavirus outbreak, or natural disasters like flooding, and the ability to model and predict the impacts. At present we use a lot of simplifications and abstractions to examine these things. An NDT could enable a huge number of things to be done more quickly, effectively, and to a higher standard because you have a grand corpus of information available to test out different scenarios.

Would an individual company, for example a building contractor, be able to directly see the benefits they could achieve from an NDT?

The key thing for us is to create an extensible framework for various use cases and examples to exist in the same place.

At one end of spectrum an NDT could allow the government’s response to natural disasters to be more effective, it could improve the planning of large new infrastructure, like a new rail line or road network. At the other end of the spectrum it could help individual contractors approach the market more effectively by looking at opportunities to aggregate deliveries in the local area.

It could pick up benefits at a very granular end user level, helping people plan a trip more effectively because they understand the cumulative congestion on the road, train and at the airport.

Is it a challenge to get organisations to see the benefits of sharing their data in this way?

There are clear benefits for organisations to digitise their own assets, from improved operational savings to better supply chain management etc. But it starts to get difficult to articulate the benefits when you step outside of a single organisation.

Atkins has done a lot of work in the infrastructure coordination space. In one programme in Epsom we looked at what would happen if the gas supplier, the water company and the local authority carried out work under the road simultaneously as opposed to the traditional way of everybody working at different times. The benefits were clear, everybody saved money and there was a big reduction in disruption. 

I like to think of this as identifying different concentric “bubbles” of benefits, one bubble of benefits accrues directly to the asset owner, a second bubble accrues when different sectors connect, either on a local or a national scale. If an NDT existed, that bubble could inform how companies operate their digital twins in a way they couldn’t before.

We need to structure benefits to enable people who might be making investment decisions on building digital twins understand that there’s an amazing opportunity when twins are connected to create something greater.

Isn’t this getting people to run before they can walk given that the construction industry is still struggling to get to grips with Level 2 BIM?

Looking at potential opportunities is really important because it shapes the decisions we make today. A lot of asset owners have a forward-thinking strategy, HS2 has a very prominent virtual railway programme and has made some big bets around how they want to operate their asset in the future.

We want to tie some of the benefits of the traditional BIM world, including digitised assets and improved performance, to broader scale simulation benefits where a lot more opportunities lie.

Discussion around the digitisation of assets and digital twins over the last 18 months has accelerated dramatically. It’s a very exciting and challenging road ahead, we want to make clear the size of the prize and the scale of the opportunity.

The National infrastructure Commission has previously predicted a potential £7bn of savings from using digital twins in the UK. Do you expect to come up with a similar figure?

The benefits of NDTs vastly outweigh a prediction of a single outturn cost because they will be transformative in how we think about the built environment, about healthy spaces, about spaces that create a good economy etc. How we show the impacts and how different benefits connect into each other is what really excites me about this.

When will you publish your report?

We will be communicating initial results on baseline benefits in Q2. This is very much the starting gun on this piece of work, the intention is to go back to the industry to ask for feedback on the framework, asking: does it work? Can we improve it? And running different scenarios with asset owners to see if it is useful. That dialogue will be the really important output from this commission.        

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