02 Dec 2021
by Dr Kevin Macnish, Nick Wild

Guest blog: Ethics, Digital Twins and the Gemini Principles

Digital Twins need to be ethical. They present an opportunity to revolutionise industries as if they meet their potential, they will change how we experience, use and benefit from infrastructure and services. But we need to recognise that there are ethical risks and benefits associated with digital twins that, if we do not address, will undermine the potential to create value for industry and society.

To advance the conversation around the ethics of digital twins, Sopra Steria and the Centre for Digital Built Britain have held a series of workshops with key stakeholders of the National Digital Twin Programme to identify key ethical considerations. These workshops built upon independent research conducted by Sopra Steria, and recognised an array of ethical considerations for each of the nine Gemini Principles, the principles underpinning the National Digital Twin Programme[1]. Read on to explore the summary of the main ethical considerations that have emerged from this work, organised against the categories of the Gemini Principles: Purpose, Trust and Function.  


This group of Principles states that a digital twin must have a clear and transparent purpose which demonstrates how a digital twin will improve outcomes for society (economic, social, environmental, safety and security). A clear definition of value is needed in the conversation here, a conversation that must ensure adequate representation across all stakeholders. Value will be interpreted differently across a range of perspectives and if unchecked could perpetuate or increase discriminatory structures in society. Transparent feedback loops that contribute to the decision making process will help validate that true value is achieved by digital twins. 


If they are to succeed, digital twins must be trustworthy. For this, they need to support an ‘ethics by design’ approach which ‘bakes in’ data ethics fundamentals. One key factor here is upholding privacy, especially when dealing with sensitive information, whilst encouraging a policy of openness to data and insights. An agreed approach to holding digital twins accountable against criteria such as privacy, or data minimisation, data ethics and security is essential.


Digital twins must function in support of their purpose and be available to users when required. Effective information and security management are essential. Starting with an ethical approach will enable a federated environment to help improve society for all. To take this forward, though, an agreed governance approach that encourages and can accommodate active learning, iterative development and an ever-changing society must underpin that ecosystem.

We discussed these themes and issues in more depth during the session ‘Digital twins: Are we ready for the responsibility?’ at the techUK Digital Ethics Summit 2021. Dr Kevin Macnish, Digital Ethics Consulting Manager at Sopra Steria and co-editor of Big Data and Society (Edinburgh University Press, 2020), was joined in a fireside chat by Mark Enzer, OBE, CTO of Mott MacDonald and Head of the National Digital Twin Programme, before joining a wider panel discussion. A video of the session will be available shortly. 

You can also find out more about these themes and issues in Sopra Steria's new report 'Digital Twins: Ethics and the Gemini Principles 1.0.0

[1] https://www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk/system/files/documents/TheGeminiPrinciples.pdf


Dr Kevin Macnish

Dr Kevin Macnish

Digital Ethics Consulting Manager, Sopra Steria

Dr Kevin Macnish has been interviewed widely, including on BBC national television and radio and has spoken at both the House of Commons and the House of Lords in relation to digital ethics. In 2018, Kevin published The Ethics of Surveillance: an introduction (Routledge), in 2020 Big Data and Democracy (Edinburgh University Press) and he is currently working on Surveillance in Times of Emergency (Oxford University Press). Kevin has published more than 40 academic articles and chapters on the ethics of privacy, AI, and cybersecurity, and is a frequent speaker at international trade and academic conferences. He is a visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, where Kevin gained his PhD in digital ethics, and a member of the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ Research Advisory Board.

Nick Wild

Nick Wild

Digital Ethics Consultant, Sopra Steria

Nick has extensive experience helping organisations understand the digital ethics considerations within different technologies and contexts. Recently he has been working in projects to define ethics in digital twins across industries. He brings his previous experience as a consultant in the public sector and training in user research to his current work in digital ethics.