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Digital twins ‘can support decarbonisation of infrastructure’

Operating ‘digital twins’ of infrastructure assets can provide construction and engineering companies with access to data they will need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, an expert in infrastructure law has said.

In a research paper published by the UK Institution of Civil Engineers, Anne-Marie Friel of Pinsent Masons, together with colleagues, highlighted digital twins as one technological solution that can help infrastructure companies understand where they can achieve reductions in GHG when developing or operating infrastructure assets. 

“There is general consensus in the infrastructure industry on the potential economic and societal benefits that can come from increased access to data,” said Friel. “Such access can help to improve outcomes for energy efficiency, transportation, customer services, emissions reduction and healthy living. Opening access to data and managing its use will be critical to achieving optimal outcomes on reducing emissions.” 

Digital twins are a digital representation of a physical asset or the service delivered by it, used to make decisions that will affect the physical asset. Any changes to the physical assets will be reflected in the digital twin. They can be used to model and analyse how assets change over time and under various conditions, by combining machine learning and advanced analytics with an understanding of real-world conditions. Data collected from the asset, together with contextual data, can be fed into digital models and made accessible to many levels of user, allowing it to be managed, analysed, tracked, and shared. Connected digital twins involve the sharing of such data across organisations.  

In the context of climate change, Friel said connected digital twins have the potential to be used to drive investment decisions in support of climate resilience within connected infrastructure systems, optimise an asset for energy efficiency, or monitor an asset’s impact on the natural world, among other examples. However, she said digital twin projects will only be as effective as the quality of data input to the underlying technology platform – and that the value of collaborating needs to be demonstrated to would-be participants – including how they will access the benefits and value created. 

Beyond that, however, there is also a need for a legally enforceable, consent-based, data-sharing model to be put in place – one that appropriately recognises the value of the investment made by data providers and avoids them placing undue limits on the data they share, Friel said. 

“The governance framework will require a clear statement of purpose, a clear and transparent set of rules on how the connected digital twin will operate, reassurance that data will be secure and dealt with in accordance with the purpose as agreed, and a transparent decision making process balancing the interests of all stakeholders,” Friel said. “Engagement with stakeholders in the details of governance and also their understanding of how the connected digital twin will be developed and deployed is key.” 

Friel said the data rules will need to address issues such as the nature of the data that will be collected, managed and used for climate-related purposes; the identity or class of the persons or organisations with whom it will be shared; and how the decisions will be taken as regards use of the data within the digital twin and the extent to which stakeholders and participants will be consulted and have a role in decision making.  

Contractual provisions will also need to be put in place between data providers and data users to complement the data rules. 

Sarah Cameron, an expert in technology contracts, said: “The arrangements for data provision and data use will need to address different scenarios as appropriate. There may need to be tiered access rights to different data, for example access to specific insights rather than raw data, for security or sensitivity reasons. Contract terms may therefore range from simple data licence terms through to more sophisticated forms of data-sharing agreement which address data accuracy – reliance on the quality and accuracy of data is of critical importance.”  

Friel added: “The right of a data provider to withdraw its data from the digital model will need to be balanced against the rights of a data user, which may have a continued need to use that data or the model within which it is contained.” 

Pinsent Masons and other stakeholders from across industry, working together with the UK’s Digital Twin Hub, are exploring what governance and trust models are best to support the use of connected digital twins to deliver sustainable value for our communities.

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