DesignIntelligence Media Group

Digital Twins: Sustainable Disruption

by Paul Doherty

So, we have arrived. That moment when prognosticators have said the design professions will need to automate in order to remain relevant and increase their value. Are you ready?

We have entered the Age of Smart Cities, where high performance urban environments are being created due to a perfect storm of economic conditions, next generation Information Communications Technologies (ICT) and massive urban migration that require new and existing cities to respond with powerful new programs, solutions and relationships between people, places and things. This requires not just smart technologies and systems, but smart thinking. The basic goal of Smart Cities is to improve the quality of life and the wellbeing of its citizens, as human capital far outweighs any other measure of a successful urban environment.

In order to plan, design, construct and operate smart cities, there is an emerging need for management tools based on city-level 3D visualization, referred to as Digital Twins.

A digital twin refers to a digital replica of physical assets, processes, people, places, systems and devices that can be used for various purposes. The digital representation provides both the elements and the dynamics of how an Internet of Things device operates and lives throughout its life cycle. Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical devices that data scientists and IT pros can use to run simulations before actual devices are built and deployed. They are also changing how technologies such as IoT, AI and analytics are optimized.

Thomas Kaiser, SAP Senior Vice President of IoT, put it this way: “Digital twins are becoming a business imperative, covering the entire lifecycle of an asset or process and forming the foundation for connected products and services. Companies that fail to respond will be left behind.”

Think of a digital twin as a bridge between the physical and digital world. First, smart components that use sensors to gather data about real-time status, working condition or position are integrated with a physical item. The components are connected to a cloud-based system that receives and processes all the data the sensors monitor. This input is analyzed against business and other contextual data. Lessons are learned and opportunities are uncovered within the virtual environment that can be applied to the physical world—ultimately to transform your business.

We have entered a business environment where mathematical relationships of buildings and the correspondence of their spaces, ratios and angles to the culture of the occupants are now within the realm of best practice. In this regard, music and cooking metaphors work best for design and construction. Tempo and rest, flavors and colors, all create poetry in space. How you move through space is recognition of the music of the space’s time. In the end, it all comes down to composing something that reinforces how people live. As architects, we are musicians, we are not deejays playing others’ music. We have to provide environments for humans to be humans.

With both new and existing cities, the data intelligence process begins with a proactive approach of identifying, capturing and managing a city’s digital DNA. Because the outcome is to enable city stakeholders with tools to make better decisions, 3D visualization analytic tools are emerging as the preferred method due to their ability to take highly complex amounts of data and show results in context with the actual city.

3D visualization tools need accurate, authenticated data to “build” a 3D view of the city—the digital twin. This data resides today in a city’s engineering, building, land, planning, sanitation, tax, or postal services department, or any other department where they collect and manage vast amounts of data that when viewed as a whole, create the virtual representation of a physical city. The building blocks to effectively and efficiently use this city data will ultimately reside in a city’s ability to repurpose its existing data and documents associated with the built environment, which is the authenticated digital DNA of all cities. The accuracy, authentication and integration of this city data is the key to a proactive approach to entering a path to becoming a smart city. Without proper digital DNA structure and management, the connectivity from a city’s “nervous system” to a “brain” will be problematic, inhibiting performance and the evolution of a city to a smart city.

Once this foundation of a digital visualization of a city is in place, cities have the ability to leverage this front end to begin viewing the data behind the digital, smart buildings. Today, cities acquire most of a building’s data through some basic communication of paper and digital reporting, which can be resource intensive. What is emerging in both new and existing cities is the automation of this reporting process through programs and systems like smart meters (water and power), cable television and telecommunication boxes, and building “black boxes” that can house and report on the health of a building for things like structural integrity to building automation system data. This can be viewed as buildings becoming servers of data, like in a computer network.

Best practices of “buildings as servers” installations use the core of the building and mechanical room as the location where this building data can best be captured, managed and reported. Think of a building’s core as the “spine” or backbone of that building that can be hard-wired connected to the Internet—with a redundant backup of wirelessly connected—to communicate with an intelligent operations center (IOC). Once at the IOC, the building’s data can be analyzed using the 3D city model for quick, intuitive results.

A simple example is the capturing of a building’s power consumption, which is reported in real time to the IOC, measured against benchmarks and then reported with each reporting building in a green, yellow or red indicator. If the user wants to view more information on the color-coded building, they can have access by clicking on the building. Lessons learned and best practices from operating and maintaining computer networks will be required reading for many city stakeholders to realize the benefits of having immediate access to authenticated building data. Easily mapped to a computer network, the “city as a network” brings many unexpected results that cities are only beginning to discover. Using buildings and infrastructure assets as a visualization and data foundation, the use of sensors, video and mobile devices to assist with city management becomes an easier process.

This best practice of IOCs for cities elevate the value of data coming from both A/E/C and FM. Innovative A/E/C and FM firms are rethinking their value propositions when they realize that their data is being used over a longer period of time when in the context of Smart Cities rather than just in the design/construction process or just within a single building’s use. New business models are emerging that put a portion of traditional A/E/C and FM fees into extended service agreements based on the amount of data used, like the music industry publishing model. Others are becoming data escrow agencies that provide data on an as-needed basis, ensuring the quality and authentication of a building or infrastructure’s data.

If using the cloud to conduct and automate these services in a big data environment, the costs and technology complexity usually associated with these solutions are negligible, making the business case easily adoptable. As these types of emerging business models mature and the market begins its pull cycle for digital DNA services, the rewards for innovative A/E/C and FM companies will be substantial, potentially outperforming existing fee-based contracts.

Cities are a mirror to the values of our age. Both large and small smart city solutions have the opportunity to assist in creating an urban environment for people to prosper in a welcoming, inclusive and open manner. When people, places and things begin to seamlessly and transparently communicate, interesting things begin to happen. This is the promise of smart cities.

Getting smart cities right is our generation’s greatest challenge and the best legacy we can leave to our children.


Paul Doherty is president and CEO of The Digit Group, Inc. and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.

This article is excerpted from the 4Q 2018 edition of DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Read more here.