Brit-Twin: Towards a National Digital Twin

  • techUK techUK
    Wednesday30Jan 2019
    Meeting notes

    techUK held an event with the National Infrastructure Commission, Highways England, National Rail and Tideway and several members on the UK's journey towards a National...

Use Cases & Real-World Applications

Four of our members, Frazer-Nash Consultancy, Iotic Labs, Dassault Systemes and Costain Group, set the scene by sharing their work with digital twin technologies, covering a variety of use cases and real-world applications. From F1, to Virtual Singapore, the speakers shared important lessons to consider as the UK looks to develop a form of a national digital twin. The two resounding themes that carried on throughout the day were:

  1. Start simple. The development process for a digital twin is evolutionary in that it will never be a complete twin. The key message was that this should not deter or discourage the current ambition for the development of a national digital twin. Even the most complicated digital twins in existence today started simple – and deliver value along their life cycle.
  2. Collaboration is key. The development and delivery of a national digital twin is not within the capability of just one organisation or company. This process and the eventual end-product will only come about through dedicated collaborative working across sectors, and within sectors, between organisations that may be competitors.


Panel 1 – Vision for a National Digital Twin

Following an outline of the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC) vision for a national digital twin from Sarah Hayes, in the first panel of the day Sarah was joined by Philip Proctor, Highways England, Kevin Reeves, Costain, Peter Vale, Thames Tideway and Phani Chinchapatnam from Network Rail to discuss their Brit-Twin vision and what a digital twin of Britain could and should involve.

The panel outlined their organisations approach, with Network Rail explaining how their digital twin journey provides an opportunity to join together things that have already been built and gain greater business insights from data. Thames Tideway described how they are already working with contractors to set the standards, requirements and deliverables they need. The importance of organisations in having a clear digital strategy which focused on what they have and what they may need, to achieve the end goal, was seen as key to driving this forward.  The NIC saw their role as evangelist for digital twins and ensuring a diverse set of stakeholders are involved.  Highways England shared that while collecting and publishing data is not new to them, they would still describe themselves as data rich and information poor – and that digital twins are a way to help address this challenge. . 

Sarah emphasised whilst a national digital twin is a long term ambition, there are important small steps that can be taken now by organisations towards this vision. Phil Proctor explained that while Highways England does collect a significant amount of data, there is still a  an awareness of what they are not doing that could support or feed into the development of a national digital twin. Capturing, managing, trusting and then automating the data was seen as key. Network Rail explained how a data marketplace enables data coming from different parts of the railway network to be opened up.

In terms of progressing a national digital twin, the panel focused on the need to start with a digital strategy, with understanding the amount and quality of data you have as key to its development. On how you can build flexibility into model design and make sure unknowns are identified, Sarah cited the Gemini Principles which the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) recently published. A collaborative approach was seen by the panel as paramount in being able to progress.

The panel were asked how organisations could add data into a national digital twin projects and become more engaged. Panellists highlighted open European calls looking to solve specific issue as a way to engage. Competitions, including the Highways England’s Innovation Portal and the Thames Tideway “The Great Think” innovation hub, were also highlighted.

In terms of making a digital twin a reality, the discussion had identified that a change of mindset, and funding were key. The next question built on this by unpacking what new skills people will need. The panel shared the widely acknowledged need for more data science and AI experts and the need for awareness and ownerships at board level in more organisations than ever. Network Rail highlighted how they are already working on this with their Digital Academy that is training engineers to use the new systems coming into place.

Finally, the panel was asked what they are most excited about in the future.  The opportunity to improve people’s quality of life, digital twins become just part of business as usual, pilot projects demonstrating what could really be achieved and the collaborative future we are heading towards were all noted.  


Panel 2 - Delivering a National Digital Twin in 2019? 

After a busy networking lunch where attendees got a chance to experience digital twin technology demos from Costain, Open Text and Iotic labs, the final panel of the day discussed how to deliver a national Digital Twin in 2019. Chaired by Katherine Mayes, techUK, the panel, Dr. Peter van Manen, Frazer-Nash Consultancy, James Kidner, Improbable, Alexandra Bolton, Centre for Digital Built Britain and Matthieu Francoz, Dassault Systemes shared their thoughts, and answered questions, on making a National Digital Twin a reality.

The panel were asked what the UK needs to do to be able to capitalise on the opportunity and move forward. Funding was seen a key to encourage SMEs to become involved and to take pilots forward. While government have a role here in learning from cities such as Singapore that have driven investment in this area, the panel also highlighted the need to encourage people not engaged to fund projects. Case studies demonstrating the economic and social benefits of projects are needed.  The importance of encouraging data sharing was raised with the panel explaining that it isn’t a shortage of data that is holding us back (examples were raised of open data provided by TFL and Highways England) but the compatibility of datasets.

While too early for regulation in this area, the development of the Gemini principles was seen as useful but there was still more to do to encourage people to get involved by demonstrating the transformative value of digital twins tech.  Communication and transparency about how citizens lives can be transformed were seen as key to “speed up decisions”.  On the importance of cyber security when developing digital twin technology this was seen as an “integral” part of the work that needs to be at the forefront.

Asked how we are going to move to a federated ecosystem of digital twins the panel stressed the need to get the underlying framework right. There was agreement that the business case is challenging but highlighted the role of an “anchor” customer that can testify to the value and show the way. It was the panel’s belief that as soon as large part of industry start seeing dividend from digital twins then other organisations will start deploying them at pace.

In closing the discussion the panel were asked for their call to action to move the UK closer to a  vision of digital twins. Collaboration, focus and funding were the three main issues the panel agreed were importance to move forward.

If you are interested in getting involved in techUK's work, including the collaboration with Costain please get in touch with  

  • Matthew Evans

    Matthew Evans

    Director | Markets
    T 020 7331 2034

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