by Matthew Evans, Director, techUK
Matthew Evans, Director at techUK, explores how digitally twinning national infrastructure can help today, while building a national twin will do the same for tomorrow.
In December 2017 the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) released its Data for the Public Good report, in which it recommended a “digital twin” of Britain’s infrastructure be developed to help plan, predict and understand our assets.
When this report was released, there was scepticism in the tech sector about whether this was realistic and whether there was the willingness to make the changes required to deliver this from the infrastructure side. We are pleased to say that we are seeing progress in addressing these questions, and we are more convinced of the value in tackling a challenge of such unprecedented proportions than ever. We want a national digital twin – a Brit-twin, if you will!
A digital twin can most simply be described as a realistic digital representation of something physical. A more detailed description could be that it “integrates artificial intelligence, machine learning and software analytics with data to create living digital simulation models that update and change alongside their real-life counterparts.” 
They can provide comprehensive, almost real-time insights into a physical asset or service,  meaning that asset owners can better test, plan and manage the asset. If you have been on an airliner recently, you have enjoyed the benefits of digital twin technology. Rolls-Royce is a noted user of digital twin technology, using it to examine, understand and predict how an engine will react in varied contexts, including extreme conditions.
The UK already has the technological capabilities necessary for delivering a national digital twin, but this exciting opportunity does not solely rely on the technical aspect. It will require continued strong leadership and ambition from government, but will only be delivered by a coordinated, collaborative approach involving the tech, construction and infrastructure sectors. This will involve changes in business practices and processes, but the tech sector stands ready and willing to be a partner on this journey. It is also important that we bring everyone on the digital twin journey with us. Realising the full economic and social potential of a national digital twin will only be possible if we build trust and confidence in this data-driven project from the beginning. After all, it is worth remembering that the name of that NIC report was “Data for the Public Good”.
So, how do you get from an airline engine or ticket barriers on the underground to a national digital twin while building that trust? There are two challenges which are of vastly different scale. There is the need to define what a national digital twin will be and what it will require. But at the same time, we need to start driving uptake of digital twin technologies across a variety of industries. These two processes need to take place simultaneously, but we are confident that sufficient progress is being made in each to create a virtuous circle rather than two isolated tracks.
On defining what a national digital twin would be, we have the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) which hosts the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG). These bodies are helping to shape our understanding of a national digital twin and, crucially, they bring together both the infrastructure, tech and academic spheres. There is widespread agreement that a national twin will not be one all-encompassing computer model of every infrastructure asset in the country. What we are on track to see, as developed by the DFTG, is “an ecosystem of digital twins that are connected by securely shared data” .
The DFTG has also recently published a roadmap of how a framework for information management would enable the creation of a national digital twin . This builds on the Gemini Principles , which set out the values and objectives of a digital twin to ensure that they remain for the public good.
So far, so good. But what is the value for those creating digital twins at a bigger scale then an aeroplane engine but smaller than a national model? That is where we need to start small and build the business case – because it will not just be about creating a model, it will also be about digital transformation of the construction and infrastructure sectors, traditionally regarded as digital laggards .
techUK has been working with our members and infrastructure operators who are starting to seriously consider scalable digital twins. The key is that they are aimed at addressing specific business challenges, be that leakages in the water sector, air quality around the strategic road networks or having a better understanding of the demands that electric vehicles place on the distribution network. These are big questions, but by starting relatively small we can build a business case for a twin which should be able to bring additional insight and value into those businesses – as well as contributing to a national ecosystem.
Delivering the Brit-twin will be a challenge, but one that the tech sector is ready and willing to help make happen from a technology viewpoint. The industrial strategy set out a grand challenge to “put the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution” . With our “world leading data science research capability and AI expertise”, the UK has a unique opportunity to position itself as an ambitious trailblazer for the development and application of digital twin technology scalable to sizes yet to be seen around the world.
In order to do so, we need to think big while starting small. techUK will continue to engage in the work at a national level while also working with infrastructure operators and owners, and our members, to drive implementation of digital twins.