Q&A: Digital Twin Hub set to progress management of built assets

The Digital Twin Hub (DT Hub) was launched this month to create a safe place for the industry to develop and share digital twins for buildings and infrastructure. Samuel Chorlton, chair of the DT Hub Steering Group, tells Stephen Cousins why it is needed and how it is progressing.

I’m hopeful that within the next six months we will have the basic strategies in place. This is a highly collaborative approach, it’s about bringing the community along with us, producing outcomes that everyone can be supportive of and keeping the membership as broad as possible.– Samuel Chorlton

Why was the DT Hub set up?

The Digital Framework Task Group, coordinated by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), published the Gemini Principles last year, which set out a high-level picture of what the National Digital Twin is and the values that asset owners, mayors and others in the built environment should adopt when developing their digital twins.

The DT Hub will take that a step forward to look at how the Gemini Principles translate into reality. It’s a form of collaborative learning community for those who own or who are developing digital twins. It includes asset owners, cities, standards organisations and academia.

The DT Hub will explore the requirements needed to act on the Gemini Principles and how we could standardise our approach. Using the approach of “learning by doing”, it will be a key vehicle for identifying the emerging best practice and turning that into accessible guidance for the other members. 

We will ask questions such as: What does a simple digital twin look like, versus a complex digital twin? How can we provide a common ontology or a common taxonomy so that digital twins from different sectors (eg a building and an infrastructure asset) can talk to each other? Is there a common language they can use to interact?

A key objective is to help align the industry so that we are contributing to the same outcomes.

In addition, we intend that the DT Hub will generate use cases and case studies that will demonstrate the value of digital twins and help to convince other organisations to follow on and develop theirs. 

What are your initial targets?

The DT Hub Steering Group has just been established, so our first task is to confirm the membership. After that, we will develop the strategy needed to support the DT Hub community. That’s going to have to be a relatively quick process because we need to ensure that the UK is able to respond and keep pace with global development and remain at the forefront of digital twins in the built environment.

I’m personally hopeful that within the next six months we will have the basic strategies in place. This is a highly collaborative approach, it’s about bringing the community along with us, producing outcomes that everyone can be supportive of and keeping the membership as broad as possible.

There are also opportunities to take useful learning from other sectors, such as advanced manufacturing, where digital twins are already used quite extensively.

What are the main challenges of making a National Digital Twin a reality?

In many respects, technology is the easiest piece of the puzzle and we are quite confident in the approach and how to leverage the technology. The prevailing culture may be the hardest thing to overcome, as a nation we have become nervous about opening up data, which is in effect what we’re trying to do here.

We will have to prove to organisations that this can be done in a secure and responsible manner and that it will release value, whilst respecting valid concerns about confidentiality. A lot of that is about instilling confidence and providing the correct standards to ensure we have the right degree of rigor. 

There is some disagreement over the definition of a digital twin, what’s your take on it?

Part of what we’re trying to achieve through the Steering Group is to help grow the consensus on what people understand by “digital twin”. That has been started via the definitions offered within the Gemini Principles, but there is clearly more work to be done to develop genuine consensus across the industry.

Part of what currently seems to confuse people is that there can be many different types of digital twins for many different types of purpose. In my mind, there isn’t one digital twin that solves all things, there are different types a business might look develop to answer different business questions, the data required to drive that is going to vary as well.

If you want me to be specific, the key defining characteristic of a digital twin is that there is a two-way connection with the physical twin – data flows from the physical twin to the digital, and then the digital twin helps to determine interventions that return to impact the physical twin.

What is the role of emerging technologies like predictive analytics and the Internet of Things?

These technologies, plus things like deep learning and big data, are increasing our ability to generate digital twins and, in some respects, lowering the barrier to entry. They can be used either to support the generation of digital twins or the analysis of the outputs. The IoT has increased the quantity, granularity and frequency of data we can extract.

How does this all link into the idea of smart cities?

A digital twin is ultimately a method of representing a smart city, based on the data that it generates. If you can get data with the right quality and granularity you can start to explore things like how to improve efficiency, social wellbeing and many other aspects. Digital twins combine numerous data sources to create a more cohesive picture, which enables you to explore things like socio-cultural effects, effects on public health and much more. 

Also, we can imagine smart cities being where the concept of an ‘ecosystem of connected digital twins’ would really gain traction. What I mean by this is that the city is where many different infrastructure sectors meet (energy, transport, water, telecoms to name just a few), so a smart city will be where the digital twins of those sectors should also meet.

Proving that digital twins can “talk” to each other across sectors will be a key part of what we want to facilitate within the DT Hub.

You also lead the Data and Analytics Facility for National infrastructure (DAFNI), which is developing the software platform to host the National Digital Twin. How is that progressing?

We are two years into development and the first version of the cloud-based platform is due to be released this June at an event in London. The aim is to create a complete platform with all the tooling needed to support modelling, simulation and visualisation and access to all the data and models users might need, plus a single mechanism to connect all those pieces together.

We are continuing to open up the platform to bring in more stakeholders and as it starts to reach a sufficient level of maturity, and the DT Hub reaches a sufficient level of maturity, the two will start to align and we will have a mechanism for organisations to connect their twins in a managed way.

It sounds like a massively complex undertaking, what resources do you have?

It’s an £8m government-funded initiative within the Science and Technology Facilities Council. The funding covers the first four years – we’re looking at subsequent phases beyond that – and we employ a team of around 20 people. There is almost no limit to what you could do with digital twins and that’s what we are just starting to explore.

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