Last Updated on October 30, 2023
Is a ‘Digital Twin’ just a Data Model?
Large data sets representing assets and systems are not really that new. The term ‘digital twins’ is a trendy new catchphrase. It is worth thinking about what it is and is not. A digital twin is literally a digital data set representing an asset, process or system.
But ‘digital twins’ in the planning, design and asset management spaces appears to be implying a digital 3D representation. The implication seems like a 3D model, with linked data.
Building Information Models (BIM) is often used as an example of ‘digital twins’ in architecture and/or civil and structural engineering. It used to be called CAD, and sometimes it still is. City models and GIS in town planning and asset management. It almost feels like some software companies are good and very busy marketeers.
In manufacturing, construction, planning, product sales, military tactics, asset management – digital data models are used every day to represent assets and processes in current or planned/intentional states.
Maybe the word ‘twins’ is catching – it is anthropomorphic and cute, like sweet identical daughters in matching outfits, ribbons in hair. But let’s be sure we don’t make a digital zombie, like most digital systems actually are.
We all use data models and representations to help design, plan, construct, instruct, make decisions, analyse, sell, engage, win and so on. And now we call them digital twins. OK cool. Lets not confuse the sizzle with the sausage.
The point is, for customers, that we are using technology (‘digital’) to improve their critical processes and needs.
Making a Living ‘Twin’, not a Zombie-Twin:
We want to be sure, through ‘genetic engineering’ (planning and thinking), that these ‘twins’, these reflections of reality, are an animated bundle of joy. We want to proudly display to our most important friends (customers and bosses), and not build a lifeless zombie-twin hidden in the back room where only technicians can operate and feed food under the server-room door.
Making the ‘digital twin’ a usable, enjoyable, responsive asset that your customers, stakeholders and bosses can see, interact with, ask complex questions and get refreshing, meaningful insights in real time – that is the challenge and opportunity.
Typically these data collections and ‘digital twins’ – from drawings to CAD to engineering documentation to databases – are a disparate, mis-formatted, dis-aggregated set of data owned by multiple parties. This ‘twin’ is dis-aggregated and dismembered across buildings, servers and locations. It is Frankenstein being virtually bolted together. Pinocchio before he is a real boy – just sticks of wood on strings. It is a zombie-twin.
How to Make An Alive, Interactive Digital Twin
We have been converting ‘data representations’ into living interactive digital systems for over 20 years. Integrating massively complicated and dynamic, multi-disciplinary data sets of millions of assets and multi-billion dollar projects across asset lifecycles with thousands (sometimes millions) of stakeholders. Then we are feeding it up to the C-suite (and above) plus out to customers and communities. We build interactive digital tools. But the point, the ‘why’, is to drive our customers’ critical processes more efficiently.
Over time, the 3D versions of these tools have been called virtual models, 3D models and 4D models (and more Ds), city models, project models, precinct and neighbourhood models, asset models, BIM models, interactive models, smart city models, rail models, industry training models, … and now… digital twins.
But what we see is a lot of ‘digital twins’ that have been created with 7 heads, 14 legs, no heart and 48 parents. Freddy Krueger. The ‘twin’ is dismembered with each expert clutching to their piece of the anatomy (usually because they want control and/or more money). Managing this process is intellectual property management and data workflows – the circulatory system to get the heart beating. We end up doing a lot of this, getting people working together, or collaborating, so we can actually build an interactive, integrated, beautiful living system.
Our customers demand interactive digital solutions, tools and models (eg ‘twins’), that are alive, responsive and available for complex meta-analysis at the point of the finger. In real time.
Here are three simple tests for your digital twin, to see if she lives.
3 Simple Tests for Life in your ‘Digital Twin’
- If you can’t take your ‘digital twin’ into the room with the premier and his/her ministers to support a fast-paced, thousand-questions-an-hour interrogation, you may have a lifeless digital zombie.
- If you can’t bring your ‘digital twin’, your interactive model, into the public court room answering questions in real time between the smartest barristers sparring across opposing agendas – your twin may be genetically mis-engineered.
- If your digital twin can’t sit in the centre of the sales room, engaging and inspiring customers on 60 inch touch screens – providing rich, meaningful, powerful insights and experiences into your complex products and driving sales – you may have a Frankenstein.
When your digital twin (your data model), becomes a living, interactive being – then you enjoy this responsive animated nature with rich living feedback to generate not just knowledge, but understanding.
This means you benefit from massive efficiencies in time, effort and cost, lower the risks, get full visibility, plus have more engaged audiences with better comprehension and retention of integrated, nuanced, complexity.
Make sure your ‘digital anything’ will be interactive and alive, or you may end up creating a digital zombie.
Ben is a Civil Planner and has been in the planning industry for over 25 years. He’s passionate about bringing together modern technologies and agile methodologies to make urban planning smarter. Holding a PhD in Design-based Planning Systems, Ben’s thesis explored form-based urban design and planning. In it he compared post-war reconstructive city building to places like Oxford Circus, London, and developed and confirmed a method for city planning based on space over use. Connect with Ben at LinkedIn.