Overcoming sustainability challenges with digital twins

The importance of maturity, alignment, and scale
Digital twin and sustainability
As our physical and digital worlds converge, digital twins can play a key role in helping society to overcome some of its most urgent sustainability challenges – like how we make the best use of space, deal with the impacts of climate change and ensure a higher quality of life for all.

Although digital twins are on the rise, the journey is just beginning. To harness their full potential, we need to work towards an interconnected ecosystem. And that brings challenges of its own.

This post is a summary of Bart Brink’s ‘Strategic Thinking’ keynote at the buildingSMART virtual summit on Wednesday 17th March 2021.

Don’t worry if you’ve missed it; you can watch the full presentation recording.

Key take-aways

How digital twins can play a key role in our future sustainability
Why maturity, scalability, and alignment are vital to this journey
Which obstacles need to be overcome before we can create the digital twin ecosystem society needs

Unleashing digital potential

Four inefficiencies digital twinning can solve

Digital transformation can help society to address many of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The growing abundance of data should help us make smarter, more informed decisions – while the growth of automation and AI should make our actions more efficient and effective.

In practice, though, there are several obstacles that prevent us from harnessing this digital potential to redefine society’s economic and climate performance. We identified four inefficiencies in today’s systems:

  1. Siloed solutions, caused by regulations or conflicting interests, prevent cross-functional insights between industries and domains.
  2. This lack of connectedness in turn can lead to poorly-informed decisions, increasing the chance of unintended consequences from digital interventions.
  3. A growing clutter of sensors and devices is making it more difficult to integrate digital systems in the physical space – and to extract meaningful insights from all the data.
  4. Individual, localised solutions can be effective in one environment but, if they lack a wider framework, miss the opportunity to have an impact on a larger scale.

Digital twins have the potential to overcome these obstacles. When based on clear guiding principles we gradually can build an eco system of digital twins, that provides the complete picture, and making sense of the complexity.

Gaining a holistic view

How digital twinning unlocks sustainability

Digital twins can drive sustainability in two key ways. Currently, they are mainly used to capture, organise and display data, to give a realistic model of the physical world. This can help us to understand and quantify what’s happening, and combine multiple data sources to see the impact of decisions we’ve made.

But the digital model can also be used as a predictive guide to the future. This can show what’s likely to happen in future, compare possible scenarios and forecast the outcome of different decisions before they’re taken.

These capabilities can have far-reaching benefits across a variety of sectors. As well as asset management, the dynamic nature of the modelling lends itself to areas like crowd and traffic management, and logistics optimisation.

Importantly for sustainability, twinning can also help to predict water network flow, balance energy grids, and build resilience in the face of the impacts of climate change.

To maximise the benefits, digital twins need to be elevated from focusing on individual assets only, to encompass whole processes or even entire enterprises or cities.

As organisations and our society mature digitally, so the digital twin can progress from describing what’s happening and why, to forecasting the future, proposing interventions and, potentially, automating transformative change. And this can be applied across the lifecycle of the asset, process, system, or organisation – creating value by connecting capex to opex through continuous innovation.

Preparing for transformation

At Royal HaskoningDHV Digital, we’ve built twins of assets, processes, and systems – from individual pumps and motors to railway networks and new terminals for airports.

But it’s when digital twins work together that the magic happens. This is the transformation we need to drive sustainable change; not just within organisations, but in society as a whole. We need to establish the right conditions for this ecosystem to flourish.

A consistent approach is essential. It’s the basic foundation that enables digital representations of the world to co-exist, and for discrepancies to be resolved in an objective way.

The ecosystem also needs to be open, transparent and fair, so it can be trusted and shared by society as a whole. And clear interoperability standards – including a universal language – will help twins exchange data and models, and enable a growing, healthy ecosystem.

Finally, it’s important that the ecosystem is flexible enough to adapt as it grows – taking account of a changing world and a widening geographic scope.

That requires a lot of alignment – between digital twin operators, and also with external stakeholders. But that’s what we’re working on in the buildingSMART digital twin working group.

I have also summarised our vision for the future in a whitepaper: National Digital Twin: Bits & Pieces.

If you’d like to join us on the journey or if you want to find out whether your organisation is ready for digital twins, please contact me.
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White paper

National digital twin: bits & pieces white paper

For an in-depth look at the technologies behind a more sustainable tomorrow, read the full paper.
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National digital twin: bits & pieces white paper cover
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