Dr Paul Cureton of ImaginationLancaster at Lancaster University and Elliot Hartley, managing director of Garsdale Design, examine the UK’s digital twin ambitions
“[If to develop future] infrastructure is to encourage national coherence rather than a new kind of balkanisation, then its development must be guided by policies and standards that assure interoperability between all the subnetworks of the national system.”
- William Mitchell, City of Bits (1995)
William Mitchell’s prophetic book City of Bits charted early virtual convergence for cities and ubiquitous computing, and today, digital twins are the star of the moment, featuring as key strategic goals and commissions in key global performing cities as part of a technological push for smart cities and the IoT. With these developments, it is worth discussing two elements that are integral for digital twin ambition; first, City Information Models (CIMs) and secondly, barriers to accessing 3D geospatial data.
The City of Helsinki recently released a city information model as open data with a reality capture mesh and a semantic (classified) model up to LOD2. This baseline allows further planning and analytics from building energy performance, water consumption and solar energy potential. Potential for interior characteristics in the future offers an exciting development and future planned buildings as CityGML formats all help build longevity into the model. Hosted via Cesium and a web browser also creates a valuable public interface without large computational demand. IFC standards, along with VR porting all connect into an exciting digital workflow.
Helsinki is, of course, not alone in this development and its creation relies on various governmental strategic objectives and innovations. In the United Kingdom, a legacy of privatised, individual/commercial data commissions or high price points for acquisition is slowly changing as CIMs value comes more to the fore as a precursor for digital twin ambition. Local authorities such as Milton Keynes, Bristol and Cambridge, planning departments and early adopters, alongside the Connected Places Catapult et al, have explored this potential. Multiple London CIMs exist, the Greater London Authority ambition for a new digital twin and the public interface is perhaps the most exciting development.
While the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) are laying the foundations for the UK’s digital twin ambition, the primary issue remains the communication and accessibility of built environment datasets. The NIC’s report Data for the Public Good (2017) cited this very challenge.
While there have been successes, such as the Environment Agency’s open data LiDAR release, or TFL’s, many, many more useful key city elements remain.
The UK’s digital twin ambition and innovation drive within the context of a global Digital Life and Smart City innovation race is behind, in the sense of playing catch-up. We need to reverse this future through closer ‘plantech’, open data and connected BIM, while also maintaining and developing standards through machine learning and AI and, most importantly, engaging communities and audiences beyond silos.
Starting with a CIM and clear open data policy, Lancaster University is developing a model for its region through a commercial partnership. This early research-driven work provides qualitative 3D assets. With our project at Lancaster University, we’re seeking to implement much of the ambitions of larger, more well-known cities on a smaller, more practical scale focusing on outcomes.
Challenges for digital twins and CIMs are not technological ones; hardware and software providers are ready with workflows, monitoring systems and management tools, such as ESRI’s forthcoming ArcGIS Urban.
Here in the UK, we’re not deficient in official standards or guidance either, with our knowledge and expertise being exported worldwide. Primarily, the challenges the UK faces is data and an organisational problem.
Accessibility to data 2D or 3D is hindered by price and licensing. Perhaps this is where the Geospatial Commission has a role in facilitating or improving access (cost and licensing) to allow for innovation and not just for experimentation under exploratory licences.
Organisationally, there are additional challenges, from budgetary pressure limiting risk-taking innovation to knowledge transfer. The competing standards and software licensing models currently are making organisations nervous about choosing directions when it comes to digital twin ambitions.
Do they adopt open source tools, which can be perceived as requiring extra work and can be sometimes limited by a lack of widespread adoption in the workforce, coupled with cheaper yet potentially uncertain costs? Or do they adopt established proprietary systems where concerns over vendor lock-in and increased costs, which are under increasing scrutiny, are tempered by a large workforce who can use the tools?
One thing is certain: there is space for innovation here both in data acquisition with a variety of vendors producing smaller and cheaper sensors. There is also new funding and purchasing methods, which can be taken from other industries.
To achieve digital twin and smart city ambitions at a governmental and strategic level, it is imperative that we can prove outlier cities and urban areas can adopt these new technologies. Think smart cities and digital twins and too often you hear about world cities.
Too often, smart cities and digital twin discussions and marketing focus on big, broad-brush ideas. But we must always return to the main goal: improving the life of its citizens, not just in big ways but also in small ways like improving the information for commuters.
Improving links and joining up interrelated services is the mark of the true success of a smart city and digital twin technology. The UK’s digital twin ambition revolves around data coherence, accessibility and direct input from city communities, which many countries are already working on but is a future that the UK has only just started to conceive.
Dr Paul Cureton
Senior Lecturer in Design
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