Sean Kearney, principal consultant in Mott MacDonald’s Information Advisory team, believes that mastering BIM’s data management will prove a valuable steppingstone towards the ultimate goal of digital twinning.
Digital twins are the new shiny must-have in infrastructure. They are digital representations of a physical asset, process or system that connects with its physical counterpart to optimise value throughout the lifecycle. The digital and physical are typically linked by mobile phones and/or sensors. For example, a city could make a digital twin of its floodwater protection system, complete with flow monitors, rainfall radars, flood maps, meteorological forecasts and pollution sensors. This data stream is crunched by algorithms on a smart infrastructure platform and the real-time scenario is made accessible to those who need to know. Cities can make quick or preventative decisions rather than responding to severe flooding after the fact.
While these advances are being piloted in major cities across the world, such as Auckland’s SafeSwim platform, it’s worth taking a quick reality check. The truth is that using digital twins to manage assets is largely aspirational at the moment. Don’t get me wrong: they are definitely the direction of travel and absolutely achievable. By 2030 and certainly 2040, I would expect digital twins to be automating decisions and driving value for many major asset owners. However, at the moment, nearly all public bodies are still starting out on this journey. In developed and developing economies alike, data is often managed on simple document systems, many of which are rarely used at all. Transitioning straight to a digital twin is ambitious, at best.
Evolution not revolution
That’s where Building Information Modelling (BIM) can help bridge the gap. As a steppingstone to digital twins, BIM can help countries to modernise their construction industries, and drive cost and programme efficiencies. Often misconceived as being a 3D tool or a piece of design software, BIM is really a methodology that helps you to gain the information you need at the right time. For anyone who is going to build or maintain an asset, BIM offers more than digital design: it helps to collate and crosscheck designs with data around risks, costs, environmental and social considerations. At its heart, BIM allows you to make decisions with data – which is also the goal of a digital twin.
I was recently involved in an international development programme that illustrates how BIM adoption can help to bring digital twins closer within reach. The BIM Pathfinder Programme is currently winding down its mission to introduce BIM to partner countries including Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and Peru. Funded by UK aid and delivered by Mott MacDonald, the programme builds on the work of the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) international development programme. In just a couple of years, we have trained over 2,000 government officials and helped to establish BIM policies in Colombia and Peru, and enhance Vietnam’s ongoing adoption.
In Colombia and Peru, we started from a low baseline, in terms of understanding and capacity around BIM. Today, there are national strategies in place and collaboration between partner nations in Latin and South America. Making the ‘sell’ has proved relatively straightforward, as government officials recognised the lost time and money from disconnected information streams. They were extremely proud and patriotic, and highly motivated to make their countries’ construction industries more efficient. BIM made sense.
Inefficiency is a cause of great frustration among infrastructure developers, wherever you go in the world. After all, any delays have real implications on the ground. So, our peers were naturally open to the potential benefits of BIM. For example, if a bus station development in Bogota or Lima can use BIM to save several weeks and a chunk of budget, then these gains can be invested in better facilities, safety equipment or accessibility, which improves the passenger experience and offers greater mobility to the most disadvantaged in society.
From a digital twin perspective, developers in both Colombia and Peru are now considerably further along the journey to building smart infrastructure than they were two years ago. They have gone from having pockets of knowledge in the private sector to having BIM policies in place that will create a big legacy in both countries. The programme has demonstrated the benefits too of helping governments to instigate BIM, instead of the supply chain. Speed of change is one reason, but also consistency, as local architects and engineers can work to an agreed standard, rather than interpreting requirements.
The implementation of UK best practice methodologies and global standards initiates a common, efficient and standardised way of working and in turn puts UK businesses in a better position to work collaboratively with partner countries on future projects.
Growing that best practice in the UK is therefore beneficial both at home and abroad. One of the CDBB’s flagship objectives is to advance the National Digital Twin programme, in collaboration with numerous industry stakeholders, including Mott MacDonald.
Our shared vision is to proliferate and standardise high-quality, secure data that can improve how infrastructure is built, managed, operated and eventually decommissioned to ensure societal benefits for all. Drawing a line of sight between digital progress and societal benefits is central to achieving a successful evolution towards digital twinning in the years ahead.
But before we fly, we must first learn to run. BIM can provide the necessary momentum.