Digital Twin Destined for the Bin?

I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about digital twins. I don’t know why. Maybe they’re for the sort of people that never grew out of their The Simms phase? Maybe the abuse suffered at Architecture School has led me to believe that those hours at the literal drawing board with leaky Rotring pens, was somehow worthwhile? Aren’t they just what Building Information Modelling (BIM) promised us?

Digital twins, for the uninitiated, are virtual replicas of physical assets, systems, or processes. For buildings and cities, I define them as having three ingredients:

1.     Geometry – the size, shape and placement of everything

2.     Static data – manuals, machine maintenance records, part information, etc

3.     Live data – IoT, BMS, etc

One of my main criticisms of digital twins is that they often became dusty and outdated, failing to reflect the post-handover reality of buildings. It means that they are held in time, providing a fixed snapshot that becomes obsolete as real-world conditions change. Now that expectations for an up-to-date model are becoming the norm, more people are starting to invest in keeping their models current. This continuous improvement ensures that the twin remains relevant and accurate.

Cost is another major concern. Initially, the high expenses associated with developing and maintaining digital twins seemed justifiable only for extremely complex projects, such as space stations or oil rigs. But now, things are changing. Advances in the tech are significantly reducing the barriers to entry, making digital twin technology more accessible and affordable. What once seemed economically viable only for NASA, now holds promise for a broad array of applications, from urban infrastructure to individual buildings.

I’d love to see how NABERS might push the market to use digital twins to provide real-time energy performance. The added information about the built envelope means that embodied, as well as operational, carbon can be assessed and acted upon.

The thing that most excites me about the potential for Digital Twins is when I can add a fourth line to my definition – action. The action layer uses intelligence to provide insights that you can do something about and do something about it in an automated way. That could give the model a brain to make real-time adjustments to the building/city, integrate with Enterprise Resource Planners (ERPs) or other specific AI applications to take the twin from being a representation to a fully intelligent agent.

The closest thing we have to that, today, is those buildings and cities that have invested in the creation of an independent data layer (IDL). As more work goes into horizontal architectures, the potential for buildings and cities to have real intelligence rather than a collection of dashboards, keeps me looking forward.

My skepticism towards digital twins is rooted in concerns about complexity, cost, and relevance. However, the transformative potential of this technology in promoting sustainability, efficiency, and innovation in the built environment is starting to become a powerful set of counterarguments. As digital twin technology continues to evolve and mature, its applications will undoubtedly expand. My cynicism will continue to morph into enthusiasm as we witness more successful implementations and address those concerns – the case for digital twins becomes not just compelling, but imperative.

In Dr Marson’s monthly column, he’ll be chronicling his thoughts and opinions on the latest developments, trends, and challenges in the Smart Buildings industry and the wider world of construction. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, you’re sure to find something of interest here.

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About the author:

Matthew Marson is an experienced leader, working at the intersection of technology, sustainability, and the built environment. He was recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering as Young Engineer of the Year for his contributions to the global Smart Buildings industry. Having worked on some of the world’s leading smart buildings and cities projects, Matthew is a keynote speaker at international industry events related to emerging technology, net zero design and lessons from projects. He was an author in the Encyclopaedia of Sustainable Technologies and a published writer in a variety of journals, earning a doctorate in Smar