How a National Digital Twin could help catapult sustainability in the UK

Sustainability is on every nation’s agenda as leaders across the world pledge to tackle the ongoing climate crisis. While many sustainability solutions have been brought to the table, one that has yet to be fully explored is the role that a National Digital Twin could play in helping the UK meet its ambitious net-zero targets by 2050.

A “Digital Twin” is often touted as the latest industry buzzword, but the premise has been around for the last couple of decades, primarily used by the automotive, aerospace and utilities sectors to enhance operations. In its simplest form, a digital twin is a virtual replica of a real-world entity such as an asset, product, process or environment. This means you can model and monitor carbon embodiments and other potential toxic substances and situations, and then simulate ‘what if’ scenarios on how to counter them. In the real world, this could be applied to anything from helping to reduce a building’s carbon emissions, to easing pollution through traffic management.

Bring together all these entities across public and private organisations, and across the country, and you have the idea of a National Digital Twin that could work as one to drive more sustainable practices. However, if we have any chance of bringing this idea to fruition, there are key areas that need to be addressed now.

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Government leadership

Digital twins continue to remain an area that is underfunded and underdeveloped in the UK. This is largely due to an awareness issue. Until recently, digital twins have largely sat in the remit of academia and therefore much of the theory hasn’t turned into action. Any innovation that has been brought to the table has mainly remained siloed between organisations and sectors. To counter this requires strong, central guidance on what can be achieved through digital twins.

The Government is primed to take on this leading role, particularly the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). In an ideal scenario, we’d see it set up small scrum teams of digital twin experts to support, educate and consult organisations across the private and public sectors to first, develop business cases and proof of value, and second get them to a place where they can develop their own information management strategy to support the digital twin. This cohesive education will help to underpin a National Digital Twin strategy.

Digital maturity

Hand-in-hand with the awareness issue, is a lack of digital maturity and understanding on how to get to that point. Often, this is because organisations don’t have a clear picture on how investing in a digital strategy and better information management will benefit their business. But, to put it in perspective, KPMG found that organisations can achieve a 6:1 return on investment for digital twin information management.

So, not only can the digital twin help businesses meet sustainability goals, but it can also dramatically reduce operating costs — a win-win. When it comes to defining a digital strategy, organisations need to first start with what business goals they want to achieve overall (reduce costs, increased revenue, smarter resourcing etc.) and then map how digital and information management can help achieve these. Then, it’s about building proof of values to test the viability of a strategy and if successful, build a roadmap to scale.

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Open and shared data

Buy-in from both public and private sectors is paramount to the realisation and success of a National Digital Twin, and so too is the sharing of data. However, understandably, organisations may be reluctant to do this for a number of reasons, including wanting to protect their intellectual property and worries over security.

That’s why it’s critical to have top-down leadership from the likes of BEIS to lead the charge in outlining the benefits at a business and national level for sharing data, and secondly how this can be done securely. We’re already seeing great strides made by companies such as the Open Data Institute, which aims to building an open and trustworthy data ecosystem in the UK, to help in this education. However, there isn’t a quick fix – it will be a gradual process. But the more organisations willing to share their data at the right level, the more likely we can use digital twins to support the UK hit its sustainability goals.

Final thoughts

The sustainability credentials of digital twins are clear and launching a National Digital Twin strategy could be a powerful way to help the UK achieve its net-zero goals. However, these areas are just some of the major barriers we need to overcome to realise this. While we are seeing both public and private sector organisations take small steps forward with digital information strategies, they are predominately in silo. We need more funding and cohesive education to help organisations reach a level of digital maturity capable of supporting digital twins, and then remove stigma around the sharing of data that will fuel it.

Written by Peter Curtis, digital twin service owner at Sopra Steria

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