‘Digital Twin’ is the new ‘Smart City’

By Jeremy Morley, Chief Geospatial Scientist 

‘Digital Twin’ is the new ‘Smart City’. It’s a term that has little consensus on its meaning, but critical importance for those who understand its significance and role in a prosperous future for the UK.

Earlier this month, at the Digital Twin Data Challenge, we saw academics and professionals compete to create a digital model of Bristol: a virtual ‘echo’ or projection of the city, created in digital form.

The University of Manchester shown in the emerging 3D context model based on point clouds derived from aerial photography

This isn’t a new concept. From the interwoven narratives of Lewis Carroll’s “Sylvie and Bruno” in 1893, to the 1982 cult classic action of “TRON” bringing software programs to life in an abstract digital landscape, we can fast-forward to 1999 and see Neo ‘living’ in an almost perfect simulation of the real world in “The Matrix”. Dystopian? Perhaps. But that was nearly 30 years ago. Today, this notion of creating parallel worlds is more than a possibility. It’s a reality – and a necessity.

Just imagine what could be achieved with a Digital Twin of the UK. In a society that’s increasingly digitally-focussed, there’s a surprising lack of authoritative, comprehensive and reliable digital assets that replicate any part of the UK’s national infrastructure. Not surprisingly, this is a barrier to that infrastructure’s effective operation, but if we could assemble this Digital Twin (and as long as it met certain parameters – such as consistent guidelines ensuring it was current, complete, accurate and accessible), that information itself would be a national infrastructure asset with incredible value and potential in the international as well as national arena.

Access to the Digital Twin would be the critical factor. Accessibility includes technical aspects of use such as data models and standards; retrieval (can people find the data they need?); and contractual matters such as re-use rights that wouldn’t fetter use, and a guarantee that information would always be available.

A Digital Twin of the UK would have to be:

  • structured – a federated system of systems (managed by a multitude of organisations), to reflect the complexities of physically planning, constructing, and operating that infrastructure;
  • extensible – to allow for future infrastructure developments that go beyond the road, rail, power, waste, water, and telecomms of today; and,
  • deferential – by which we mean impartial and trusted: respecting technical and legislative tools so that a balance between accessibility and security could be secured for all.

You can see the benefits: no more problems exchanging data related to our national infrastructure’s management and supply chain; greatly improved, more cost-effective

operation; greater efficiency all round – at a time when the national purse strings are only getting tighter.

Still, there are questions on technical practicalities; legislative implementation; business processes. And of course, the cost and cost allocation. Who would pay for something that delivers benefits so widely to such an extended value chain?

A Digital Twin wouldn’t have to be an exact 1:1 replica of the UK. Different stakeholders have different needs. For journey planning on a public network – such as ‘From Train Station A to Station B’ – simple nodes would suffice, but for ideal facilities management a full BIM model would be better. There’d be every shade of use in between. A station’s AR model could, perhaps, take you off the train, through the station, to the bus stop for the next leg of your journey.

Across that spectrum, one-to-many relationships would exist. Crucially, users would want to be sure they’re referring to the same objects, regardless of application or representation. It’s those identifiers in this Digital Twin of the UK that would be the key to success – and those constant, trusted identifiers could be the geographic expression of those real-world features.

Our environment is increasingly open to monitoring by sensors and control through interactive devices. We need a more dynamic and linkable representation of real-world features for many different use cases.

We couldn’t be prescriptive, if we were to support the different use cases and world views, but a unifying geospatial expression or identifier could let everyone link to a ‘core definition’ of those objects.

There are huge opportunities here. Geographic expression could become the accepted inter-linkage ensuring integrity between the dynamic elements of such a Digital Twin of the UK – in all Digital Twins, in fact. Flexible, dynamic, multiple geospatial representations of real-world objects could unlock a whole new world of potential for us all, in every sense…

Find out more from Jeremy and the OS team at #GeoCom 2017 today.


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1 Response

  1. Marcelo Vivone

    I am doing research about IoT and through this research I became aware of the existence of the digital twins and their concepts. Do you have any research branch linked to digital twins/IoT to develop in a master’s degree paper? I’d like to work with something related to this area, but I’m not sure of what I could develop. Do you have some advise? Thanks in advance.

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