In 2018, the UK Treasury launched the National Digital Twin programme (NDTp) to enable an ecosystem of connected digital twins. Its head of programme delivery Peter El Hajj talks to Michelle Gordon about progress so far and the benefits of facilitating data sharing across organisations and sectors
The National Digital Twin programme (NDTp), run by the Centre for Digital Built Britain – a partnership between the University of Cambridge and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – was set up to deliver key recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission’s 2017 Data for the Public Good Report.
The programme has three objectives:
- Enable a National Digital Twin – an ecosystem of connected digital twins to foster better outcomes from our built environment
- Deliver an Information Management Framework – ensure secure resilient data sharing and effective information management
- Align a Digital Framework Task Group to provide coordination and alignment among key players.
While the technology behind digital twins has existed for decades, adoption has been slow in the built environment. In recent years better and cheaper access to technology has paved the way for an influx in of investment and the increasing number of organisations developing digital twins has given rise to an opportunity to connect them together and create an ecosystem.
“Digital twins still mean different things to different people,” says El Hajj, “but all descriptions share a common characteristic: a relationship between the digital and the physical worlds.
“The purpose of the twin is essentially to improve decision making and outcomes from the physical assets that we have, and the processes and systems that support them.”
As interest in digital twins continues to increase across the built environment the NDTp has achieved many key milestones over the past few years, making considerable progress on aligning key stakeholders.
“Generally, as a programme, we see ourselves as a coordinating and aligning organisation, working with academia, industry and Governance; and engaging national initiatives around connected digital twins, cyber-physical fabric, AI, robotics and manufacturing,” says El Hajj.
The first paper published by the NDTp was The Gemini Principles – a set of nine common values and principles to guide its journey. They are aligned under three headings – purpose (public good, value creation, insight), trust (security, openness, quality), and function (federation, curation, evolution).
Papers published since include the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) roadmap, which sets out the key activities to deliver the Information Management Framework (IMF) and enable effective information management across organisational boundaries; Flourishing Systems, a paper advocating a shift in vision for infrastructure that is people-focused and system-based; and Pathways Towards an IMF, a paper on the proposed technical core for IMF.
The IMF aims to establish a principled approach to information management that enables high-quality data to flow securely and resiliently between organisations. This includes the development of foundational public resources such as a common Foundation Data Model, a national Reference Data Library and an Integration Architecture.
“It is essential to work on adoption as we create the foundational resources to ensure they are a useful and practical,” explains El Hajj. “So, it is essential to continue to engage the main infrastructure investors, owners, operators and suppliers who are invested in serving the public to inform the requirements for the IMF.”
Another significant milestone of the NDTp was the launch of the Digital Twin Hub in 2019 – a collaborative community for those who own or are developing digital twins within the built environment. The community has grown to more than 2,000 members from 60 countries.
“The DT Hub is a community where practitioners can access and exchange knowledge about digital twins” explains El Hajj. “There are a number of community resources like the digital twin register and the case studies’ register, and we’ve seen all sorts of interesting examples such as city-wide digital twins managing traffic, air quality monitoring, and digital twins managing energy systems. We’ve also seen an example from the health sector of a digital twin of the human heart. This highlights the opportunities for learning from applications from other sectors.”
He added: “The National Digital Twin is envisaged as an ecosystem of connected digital twins similar to the internet but for the built environment. We are collaborating to create the common protocols that enable meaningful information integration across systems.
“What we’re trying to align on, are the common rules to sharing data, so that it has the lower cost and the friction in creating and maintaining data connections across the ecosystem are minimal.
“The overall aim of the NDTp is to offer better outcomes for all stakeholders per whole-life pound spent in the built environment, and it has been calculated that as much as £7bn a year could be saved, and reinvested in infrastructure, as a result of data sharing.”
The key benefits of the NDT are four-fold – with gains to society, the economy, business and the environment, explains El Hajj.
Transparent stakeholder engagement will ultimately lead to better outcomes for the public, and improved customer satisfaction and experience through higher performing infrastructure and services.
Higher-performing and more resilient infrastructure will in turn increase national productivity, with better outcomes per whole-life pound and enhanced information security, as well as improved business efficiency with new markets, services and business models.
Finally, less disruption and waste, combined with more reuse and greater resource efficiency is a key enabler of the circular economy in the built environment.
“So, with the built environment, if we say the customer is citizens, then people get better services from infrastructure, so better value from taxpayer’s money,” explains El Hajj. “It will also help identify opportunities between sectors, and how they can work together to reduce negative impacts and improve better outcomes for people and the environment.
“There’s a strong view that having cross-organisational data sharing is on the critical path to actually achieving net zero by 2050. So, it will be impossible to get to net zero without having the means to efficiently share meaningful information across the entire system of systems.”
The NDT could also provide access to data which could help the UK respond better to future crises. For example, a recent report from the Royal Society on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted that better access to high quality data could have led to a more effective response to the crisis.
As with any programme of its size, the NDTp has not been without its challenges, and some of the biggest barriers to be overcome centre around data sharing.
“In addition to the technical challenges, there are a number of key areas in terms of security, ethics, legal, commercial, and privacy that we must address as foundational areas as the technical.” explains El Hajj.
And what of the future of the programme?
“I hope to see the programme continue to be a mechanism or a conduit for different initiatives in the UK,” says El Hajj, “to come together and continue to develop a foundation for the public good. This happens through developing and creating useful assets and public resources to enable infrastructure to provide better services to citizens, and I think that is what the National Digital Twin programme has been driving for since it was set up three years ago.
“The ultimate aim is for the foundational resources out of the NDTp to become integrated in everyday practices to the point where it ceases to be required as a programme. We will know it has been a success when we have been able to put all the necessary building blocks in place and the value generated for people and nature becomes part of the fabric of our everyday existence.”