In 2021, San Francisco wanted to improve mobility, air quality and public health and understand how CO2 emissions led to air-quality problems and public health issues. The city used digital twins to study the mobility patterns of people and cars and movements at the port. The digital twin helped them identify poor air quality hot spots in San Francisco to create a systematic plan for change.
At its very basic level, a digital twin is a virtual replica of a real-world object, being, or system that can be updated continuously with data from its physical counterpart.
Digital twins are frequently paired with the Internet of Things (IoT) data to give real-time insight that benefits guests, property managers, travelers, airport operations, city officials, etc.
With 30.9 billion IoT devices connected to a digital twin by 2025, digital twin technology is more than a trend; it is a fundamental part of how companies connect to their customers and create operationally efficient businesses.
In 2021, Accenture identified digital twins as one of the leading tech trends driving businesses. Referring to this as the mirrored world, the firm said that growing investments in data and artificial intelligence (AI) gave rise to a new generation of business and intelligence.
In 2022, Accenture connected digital twins with two new tech trends – the programmable world and the Unreal (making synthetic, authentic) – both resetting the boundaries of industries. While the programmable world focuses on control, customization, and automation enmeshing into the world around us, making the physical programmable and the Unreal enables AI-generated data and synthetic content to mimic what’s real.
Even in 2016, Gartner predicted that by using digital twins, real-time feedback from IoT sensors could save $1 trillion a year in maintenance, services and consumables by 2022. Research and Markets reported that by 2027, 93% of all IoT Platforms would contain some form of digital twinning capability. And more than 42% of executives across a broad spectrum of industry verticals understand the benefits of digital twinning, with 59% planning to incorporate the technology within their operations by 2028.
Lori Hufford, vice president of Engineering Collaboration at Bentley Systems, says there’s an urgency for all of us to understand how to balance our relationship with the natural world, and infrastructure plays a part in that.
“The intersection of digital twins, the metaverse and the physical world is the perfect place to invest so that teams work together and leverage talent from anywhere to reduce the impact of climate change,” said Hufford.
Hufford boils down the tech speak of digital twin technology into an easy-to-digest understanding of the technology – an infrastructure digital twin, or iTwin, is the digital representation of the physical world that’s updated continuously with information from the physical world.
“It must contain rich engineering building information modeling (BIM) data and be able to track and visualize changes in real-world conditions from IoT connected devices such as sensors and drones,” said Hufford. “Capturing and understanding this data in an infrastructure digital twin are keys to enabling beneficial change.”
What is the beneficial change? For Hufford, that beneficial change is climate change.
For instance, Hufford says that Singapore, the world’s second-most densely populated nation, recently created its first nationwide digital twin to help meet its sustainability targets. The country used Bentley Systems to accelerate and transform raw GIS, Lidar and imagery data into reality mesh, building and transportation models. “This is because any kind of data – be it from water, weather, materials, or trees, can be captured.”
“Another example is in Mendoza City, Argentina, where drones were used to capture images of the city to build a digital twin,” said Hufford. “The project helped city officials analyze the health of the trees and determine whether they were diseased or if they could be saved.”
Hufford says the company wants and is expected to be good stewards of the planet. “As our users handle a large volume and complexity of infrastructure data, we strive to develop architectures and software designs that reduce their carbon footprint.”
Ashiss Kumar Dash, Executive vice president and Global Segment Head – Services, Utilities, Resources and Energy at Infosys, says digital twins [..] can be used as a predictive guide to ‘what if’ scenarios to get to the optimal solutions that have sustainability as the goal. “The larger the coverage or scope of a digital twin, the larger is the impact.”
Dash says the digital twin facilitates a transition towards a circular economy. “Think about the sustainability need for airlines to reduce food waste on board. The inflight catering services market was estimated at $15.5 billion in 2017, and IATA published that up to $3.9 billion is landfilled or incinerated.”
“When the customer experience can be virtualized, the carbon footprint naturally reduces,” said Dash.
Bas Steunebrink, Co-founder and Director of Artificial General Intelligence at NNAISENSE, says digital twin is constructed or learned through AI techniques from data regarding the specification and operation of real-world things. “The value proposition of applying digital twinning technology to a climate-relevant ‘thing’ – a chemical plant, an airplane, or [..] a hotel – is to equip decision-makers with actionable insights that empower them to make improvements: either to the design or the operation of the ‘thing.'”
In a climate context, Steunebrink says those improvements can be less energy consumption, less wastage, increased lifespan, less emission, etc.
“Travel itself, especially aviation, is a major contributor to global emissions,” said Steunebrink. “Making airplanes closer to climate-neutral – for example, building electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft – is an effort undertaken by aircraft manufacturers that governments stimulate.”
Steunebrink believes the next stage of digital twin technology is to find improvements autonomously [..] with humans in the loop to verify and implement the suggested corrective actions. After that, he says, improvements are computed and implemented autonomously, which works best in factories and plants where the things to be controlled are other machines.
To give a real-world example, Steunebrink says Lugano, Switzerland, uses digital twin technology to build a deeper understanding of the processes intertwining the people, companies, spaces, and the environment in the city.
“This is a very iterative and incremental process where human data analysts and decision-makers will remain in the loop because the ‘subjects’ in the city are not disinterested entities like the machines in a manufacturing plant,” said Steunebrink. “But still the potential of urban digital twinning is huge, for example, for optimizing the carbon footprint of local industry and traffic.”
Steunebrink says that if Lugano uses digital twin tech to reduce congestion, emissions, pollution and other urban challenges by experimenting with different variables in the virtual model, other cities can do the same.