What does the UK’s Infrastructure Strategy mean for our world-leading digital twin ecosystem?

Last week, the Government announced the National Infrastructure Strategy, outlining intentions to deliver radical improvements in the quality of the UK’s infrastructure, to ‘level up’ while strengthening the Union, and to put the UK on the path to net zero emissions by 2050.

Recognising the critical, underpinning role that infrastructure plays in supporting the UK’s economy, this strategy cited issues such as ‘stop start’ public investment, insufficient funding for regions outside of London, slow adoption of new technology, policy uncertainty that undermines private investment, and project delivery plagued by delays and cost overruns as long-term issues holding back advances in the UK’s infrastructure.

To address these issues, the Strategy emphasises the need to build back ‘fairer, faster and greener’, and laid out numerous proposals around:

  • Boosting growth and productivity across the whole of the UK to level up and strengthen the Union
  • Putting the UK on the path to meeting its net zero emissions targets by 2050
  • Supporting private investment
  • Accelerating and improving delivery

Notably, the Strategy signaled intentions to trigger the adoption of digital twins across the infrastructure sector- a step which techUK believes could deliver transformational benefits for citizens, the economy, society and planet.

At a more granular level, the Strategy set out a plan to breed digital twin thinking within the construction sector (which contributed £118 billion to the UK economy in 2018), and pledged continued support for the creation of a National Digital Twin (NDT) and the adoption of the CDBB’s Information Management Framework (IMF).

techUK backs this continued support for developing a NDT of the UK’s infrastructure systems and built environment. We also welcome the Government’s focus on the ineffectual exchange of data between infrastructure owners as one of the central challenges currently hampering digital twin adoption and integration.

With this in mind, techUK’s Digital Twins Working Group (DTWG) stands ready to provide targeted advice around the Government’s approach, and we have four key recommendations around how the Strategy could be strengthened.

One key area relates to the need to develop a more systematic and embedded relationship between digital twin technology suppliers and infrastructure asset owners. Building long-lasting and meaningful connections between these two ecosystems will help decision-makers to assess the amenability of challenges in the infrastructure sector to digital twin solutions, helping to drive greater clarity with respect to vision, language, and project purpose. The NDTp has made a promising start in this domain (initiating the DT Hub and supplier register) but techUK advocates bringing a wider, more diverse supplier base into consideration, recognising the need to spur higher levels of competition and consumer sovereignty in the fledgling market.

Additionally, techUK welcomes continued support for the development of  secure, resilient data sharing frameworks to drive digital twin interoperability across the built environment.  techUK’s DTWG will be working over the next year to consider how to enable voluntary data exchange and industry-led digital twin integration. Here, approaches grounded in meta data and semantic modelling appear particularly promising, and could prove to be key for organisations seeking to  abstract away complexity and in order to spur digital twin integration at a national level.

Thirdly, techUK welcomes the emphasis of this strategy on long-term infrastructure development and addressing systems-level, cross-cutting issues via a NDT. However, the long-term adoption of digital twins could itself be hindered by a lack of coherency in the way that risks and uncertainties are communicated to decision-makers- both in terms of their technical accuracy and commercial ownership. Again, techUK is working closely with our members to understand where effective approaches have been implemented around the world to capture and relay risks and uncertainties to influential decision-makers, looking at the work ongoing at the European Comission’s Destination Earth (DestinE) initiative as one interesting approach.

Finally, techUK welcomes the complementary focus on capability and leadership, acknoweledging the need to accelerate investment in major project expertise and delivery skills, and to improve the skills base across the country.  Looking to the future, however, it will be equally important to provide explicit guidance on how infrastructure owners can collect evidence of savings and performance improvement derived from digital twins, integrate multidisciplinary skills, and build accessible, comprehensible libraries of use cases.

Without these mechanisms in place, radically re-orienting the UK’s infrastructure sector towards the adoption of digital twins will be extremely hard, and the Government’s ambitions to access, integrate and unlock digital twins may fall short.

In sum, techUK welcomes the support for the UK’s digital twin ecosystem provided in the Strategy, but suggests:

  • Enhancing interconnections between infrastructure asset owners and digital twin suppliers from a wide range of sectoral backgrounds
  • Considering the incorporation of complementary data sharing mechanisms that enable organic, industry-led digital twin integration
  • The provision of guidance around capturing and communicating risks and uncertainties attached to digital twins
  • Working with industry to understand the nuanced forms of capability and leadership needed to realise digital twin adoption at scale

If you would like to learn more about the work that techUK is doing in this space, get in touch with [email protected] to find out more.