Digital twins are the next frontier in community and architectural development.
Fred Mills of The B1M was recently joined by Salla Eckhardt of Microsoft, Tim Johnson of Buildmedia, and David Weir-McCall of Epic Games for an informative panel on how digital twin technology is building the cities of the future. This article gives a high level primer on what digital twins are and why the panel feels now is the best time to develop the technology.
What are Digital Twins?
People often confuse a digital twin with a model, video or photo of a building and/or city. The technology is simply a live connection between the digital and the physical world and a replication of digital assets. The virtual and physical link is what makes the technology a digital twin because the object in the real world generates real time data. The digital twin simulates the physical environment, uses sensors to receive data, learns from the information, and takes information back to the physical object or community.
Digital twins are a disruptive framework for creating a digital truth about the physical environment. Decision makers have a visual of the cause and effect of variables occurring in a building or community that allows them to prevent incidents and predict problems.
Check out this video of different visual examples of data from the Pulse:
The components of a digital twin can be wildly different and is dependent on the end user. Five minutes after you buy a smartphone, your experience is different because you customize the components for your smart phone experience. Architects, for instance, have different components than a real estate developer or an urban designer. Each stakeholder links different data for visualization.
Data That Powers & Connects Digital Twins
The right data can help you take a step back to better understand infrastructure. The obvious first step is to obtain a 3D model or 3D digital representation from design phases. Google, Microsoft and other big companies make 3D models more public every day. Understanding where data is located and what is public or private data is the next step. The panel agrees that 80-90% of the digital twin process is based around the understanding and collection of data. How data is managed, automated and stored is crucial to how you make better decisions for the newly built environment.
Communities and urban planners have multiple silos of data collected from many locations. To begin, work with a developer to define a problem or problems to solve so relevant information can be collected and stored. Second, think about the best end user experience, data collection strategy and base point for knowledge. Ask questions with application designers and local community leaders. Understand how data can tie into clusters of information and collected for a base point of knowledge.
Developers can backtrack data streams to harmonize, manage and automate processes once they have an understanding of priority. IOT sensors can be installed to pull data in, such as heating performance, building usage, pedestrian flow, climate control, bus/ train routes and timing, cycling trails, traffic information, and aircraft patterns.
Transportation data is a great example of how economy of scale expands understanding. While an individual’s journey isn’t helpful, aggregate trend level information (pedestrian flow, climates, public routes, traffic, air patterns) can be impactful and help you learn to be more efficient or improve performance. When you feed information back to design, you improve buildings or a city. That loop creates important information for change.
Hurdles to Digital Twin Adoption
Every building and community is different and the variables to final output can be extreme. AEC or urban planning projects have a long life cycle and you must break the projects up into smaller pieces to obtain data quickly. Big data can be difficult without working with your developer to create a focused plan and you may need to automate manual processes or upgrade equipment.
End users are often a significant hurdle to digital twin adoption due to slow adoption of new technologies. There are many silos and communication fragmentation in both the AEC and urban planning communities, but this is also an opportunity. Designers and urban planning leaders can be a part of the end construction to bring data back to the beginning, so it can be understood by more people.
Why Do Digital Twins Matter?
We’ve built communities and buildings for centuries without Digital Twins. How will this technology help society? The panel agreed that there are impactful issues that digital twins can help solve. For example, the environment and the sustainability of the world make societies, communities and businesses better.
Digital twins can be impactful for climate change. Buildings account for 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Understanding how a community uses energy creates possible change that can make a sizable impact on our carbon emissions footprint.
Digital twins provide feedback loops to make designs and construction more precise with better cost engineering. The velocity of the feedback loop increases to make informed decisions faster. Targeted improvements mean more educated decisions for better community developments.
Urban planners and designers are empowered to use the technology tools to feel more confident in their decision making. Regional governments gain new information to improve public or state housing, hospitals, schools, and transportation infrastructure. Communities cost of ownership decreases while leaders have a greater understanding of road, water, and school capacities. Urban planning studies gain new insights on the quality of housing, schools, hospitals, and transportation.
The panel also discussed training and location information. Precise geolocation data integration creates important shadow studies, wind behavior understanding, and other key insights. IoTC sensors automate data throughout the city. Muscle memory means you gain similar experiences for better safety and more efficient work.
Digital Twins Impact Decision Making
When do you hit capacity and need to upgrade a process? Will technology make life simpler? Digital twins remove barriers so more people connect with and have access to data. Visual learning makes data less complicated, meaning more people have input in decision making. Whenever you translate data and make it more relatable and friendly to people, more people start caring and about how decisions can impact the wider world.
Empathy is gained from stakeholders, communities and urban planners. Leadership can understand early where there are safety or security issues and prepare in advance for real world scenarios. People are more apt to approve designs when they can experience them. Communities become more excited and comfortable with change when exposed to digital twins early. Studies show that exposure to digital twins makes people more informed and creates inclusivity and new perspectives.
You can’t design something once and assume perfection. Digital twins create feedback loops for better design iteration. Processes are more more refined, efficient, affordable and sustainable. Prototypes mean better understanding of how designs work and relate to the community before construction. Physical designs can be expensive. “If you think good design costs a lot of money, wait until you see the cost of a bad one.” Joshua Blankenship | Medium.
Buildings and communities today are more complex and difficult to manage due to fragmented operations. We didn’t have as much technology integrated into our building environments 15-30 years ago. Technology increases the complexities of decision making but can also help by assisting with the maintenance work, utilities operations, automating IT, and making basic decisions.
Working with Local Governments
The Wellington digital twins project was developed for the general public to understand government and stakeholder decisions. Tim Johnson is an Unreal Engine developer that lives in New Zealand. He has worked on multiple projects for the Wellington community over the past 4-5 years. The Wellington digital twin is currently in action and has grown from animation and still images to a real connection with the physical world. Johnson converted the 3D models through Unreal Engine to make the digital twin more accessible for everyone.
The panel described the Wellington project as a downloadable visual tool that is a powerful experience. People that experience this digital twin remember the information better. Johnson converted the model mostly utilizing tools that are available for all developers. He converted the model from 3Ds max utilizing Datasmith and a few custom developed tools to bring assets to Unreal Engine.
The end development is a high fidelity model that feels like real life. The sun and the environment settings make the scenes more powerful and you can fly around from above the scene and move to street level to plug in new buildings for rich detail. The digital twin technology created for Wellington shows what is possible. The experience is more than just one point of view. You can prove scenarios from any vantage point so the digital twin builds trust.
The panel suggested that 1% of citizens engage in urban planning and development without visualizations. Are locations found where community members feel unsafe?Exposing city plans to communities in advance improves engagement, gathers important feedback, and creates buy-in. Digital twins resolve issues digitally before implementation. You avoid problems by testing scenarios digitally as many times as needed before building the physical twin in the real world.
Now is the Right Time for Digital Twins
Developers are in a great position to build digital twin models due to advances in public data. We’ve had these data points for a while, now we can use those points to good use. B1M tools provide a data framework to integrate how buildings and communities are operated. The rich public information available creates a better understanding of how buildings are constructed, including information on insulation and wall thickness.
Microsoft Azure tools, such as Azure Stack and Azure Cloud, are amazing advancements for digital twins. The technology to develop digital twins exists off the shelf for virtual web application developers anywhere around the world. This data and tools are built in a very easy to understand format for better visualizations.
While one company can’t solve everything with this technology, open source partnerships exist to create exciting collaborations. These technologies are supportive of each other to make the best end user experience. The Microsoft and EPIC games partnership is a great example of how two large companies work together to push digital twin technology forward. These companies efforts are further enhanced by utilizing Unreal Engine’s worldwide streaming and the high-resolution 3D tiles from Cesium Ion. 3D tiles is an OGC community standard, powered by NVIDIA GPUs.
How Do You Tap Into Your Very Own Digital Twin?
The digitization and automation of the world allows developers to begin digital twins projects from any community. The first step is to contact a developer to help you with project set up. The right team will ask you questions to focus your effort so you can start small and expand as data collection improves. Furthermore, you should begin saving as much technology as possible into the cloud. Adopting a cloud as infrastructure creates a wide range of data that developers can utilize. You can then use the cloud as a service to sell to your customers, creating partnerships and revenue streams to expand your efforts for more data visualization.
How should you view your information? The best developers will give you many different options to choose from to view your models on many platforms. By creating a web or augmented reality version, you can expand the reach of the people that can view the models, or you can add options to jump into virtual reality (VR) to experience it in an immersive environment.
The emerging digital twin technology will improve city residents’ quality of life, both now and decades into the future. Once you understand the concepts and find the right developer, you can begin creating a live connection with the physical world and tap into the new visual data opportunities. With all of this development technology available, the panel posed the question: why wouldn’t communities explore digital twins so the technology can work for them?