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Building Britain’s national digital twin

The tech sector and wider industry are coming together to create a “digital twin” of Britain to help improve the nation’s physical infrastructure – and you can help

The concept of the “digital twin” – a virtual representation of a real-world environment – has been the flavour of the month in the tech sector recently, and with good reason.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is leading the charge towards putting the UK firmly at the forefront of the artificial intelligence and data revolution with its ambition for a national digital twin, and TechUK is delighted to be a part of the effort.

In 2017, the NIC released its Data for the public good report, which recommended the development of a digital twin of the nation’s infrastructure, processes and systems.

It appeared a distant dream. But, after a year of laying the foundations with the announcement of the Construction Sector Deal, the establishment of the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) and the release of the Gemini Principles, the ball is starting to roll in the right direction. A “Brit twin” no longer seems a pipedream.

To build on the activity and support the efforts of the NIC and DFTG, TechUK brought industry leaders and policy-makers together for our Brit twin: towards a national digital twin event to share lessons and investigate how we can contribute to making the Brit twin a reality.

There were three key takeaways from the event that will set us on the pathway to a national digital twin, as well as benefit from these technologies at a micro level:

Start simple

This was a common message that came from our members. From applying digital twins to Formula 1 or virtualising a major city such as Singapore – start simple and build up.

Funding

We will not have a big bang for a national digital twin from which we can instantly realise value. As the simple twin becomes incrementally more complex, it needs to deliver incrementally more value, so commercial companies will be able to recognise a return on their investment in the twin.

Early stage business cases for digital twins will be something very different to what the end product will be, which raises a challenge around how to demonstrate a proof of concept and validity of the early stage technologies. Funding for innovative solutions, pilots and early steps is crucial, and is becoming accessible. An excellent example of this forward planning is Highways England’s innovation fund.  

Collaboration is key

Our national digital twin will not be exactly that – a single mega-twin with all the nation’s digital infrastructure. Instead, it will be “an ecosystem of digital twins that are connected by securely shared data”. This will require unprecedented cooperation, not just within the technology sector but with the wider ecosystem of public sector actors, infrastructure owners and managers and academia.

Read more about digital twins

So, with the “simple first, fund-finding, collaborative” mindset, what are the next steps? TechUK members are doing transformational things around this, but we see a need for the facilitation of greater collaboration across the tech sector.

As a result, through a partnership with Costain Group, TechUK has launched a digital twin initiative that will look to unite relevant actors around key challenges set out by the public sector in strategies and whitepapers. Three challenges highlighted on the day included:

The list goes on, and with it, we need all stakeholders in industry and government to join us and take advantage of the opportunities for collaborating to develop a digital approach to physical infrastructure challenges. Get in touch with our SmarterUK programme and help us to achieve this.  

This year is setting up to be an exciting one for the digital twin, as we look to take it national.

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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