Digital Twins could avert tragedies like Grenfell, say industry experts

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton February 26, 2021
Digital Twins – using rich data and visualisation techniques to model things – could help us make smarter, more sustainable decisions for our communities.

Bola Abisogun
(Bola Abisogun)

Digital Twin technology could have saved lives at Grenfell, and perhaps even averted the tragedy completely. That's the claim of Bola Abisogun, OBE, Chairman of DiverseCity Surveyors, a 27-year veteran of the construction industry who is committed to battling inequality with data and informed engineering.

The 2017 disaster, in which 72 residents of the Grenfell Tower in Kensington, London, lost their lives in an inferno, has become a byword for inaction and greed by private contractors, the use of cheap, combustible materials in buildings, and councils' lack of insight into the supply chains behind social properties. It's a problem that exists in towns and cities throughout the world, particularly affecting minorities and economically disadvantaged people. 

In the UK, the long tail of Grenfell is still with us. This week MPs blocked an amendment that would have protected leaseholders in England from having to pay for fire safety defects caused by the lethal combination of cut-price developers and lax building regulations.

But for Abisogun, the big picture is that creating Digital Twins - using rich data and visualisation techniques to model things (from objects, spaces, buildings, and communities, to cities, states, nations, and even the planet) - could help us make smarter, more sustainable decisions for our communities. In this way, we would address inequality, poverty, and social stigma. He says:

As we begin to unpack this use case for social housing [...] my view is very simple, retrospectively: had that tower had a black box, and we know what that stands for in an aeroplane, I think the emergency services would have had a different challenge. And I don't think 72 people would have lost their lives. I'm being factually correct in terms of the likelihood of what a digital twin solution could have achieved, had it been in place for that particular building.

As virtual/data models of a physical asset, digital twins could give the right people the right picture - in granular detail - and help them plan ahead. (My recent report on geospatial data reveals another element in this.) But that demands a setting aside of some organisations' desire to horde data in their own interests, rather than open it up for the greater good. 

Abisogun says:

A tragedy of Grenfell is complete, granular visibility of how broken and fragmented some sectors are. Collaboration, sharing of data, and innovation just don't happen. Where it does there are pockets of excellence, but they're often so obscure no one knows about them.

This lack of insight into ageing properties - which in the UK are legion - and into the supply chains propping them up is key. Because of poor data, councils are "haemorrhaging money", says Abisogun. 

Digital Twin solutions will deliver better quality homes with improved whole lifecycles, with lower operational expenditure over the asset's life, and potentially delivering a material reduction to homelessness - if we focus on the under-utilised and empty assets. 

Another use case: we need to connect all of the different procurement models that exist. We need to analyse and data-mine the metrics, turn those metrics into KPIs, and demonstrate the social branding [sic] that actually a lot of people have just been overlooking for years.

These are low-hanging fruits. The big one here, if we get it right, is we will be able to actually eradicate, or at least significantly reduce, both digital and energy poverty across social housing.

Net Zero 2050

Abisogun speaks with real passion on these subjects, having grown up in social housing himself and seeing the stigma that is often attached to it. And because he graduated with a BSc in 1994, having written a process-level Digital Twin. He has worked with Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and expert systems to help resolve construction disputes - clearly a man who knows what he is talking about.

He continues:

It is why I am challenging not only myself, but also the profession and the wider industry, to get this right within this particular use case. For me, stigma is personal.

I'm looking to some of the market intervention that exists today, first as a direct consequence of the Grenfell tragedy. The Building Safety Bill talks about information management procedures that need to be in place, and adopted and maintained by the duty holder. 

The challenge for me with digital twins is not in the new builds. The challenge is in the existing buildings, the existing footprint, the existing fabric. How do we allow the existing footprint to complement the aspirations of the national Digital Twin?

As touched on in that last point, the good news is that these ideas are broadly recognised by the government under its Net Zero 2050 carbon reduction strategy. Among other things, this mandates the creation of a national digital twin, in the form of a UK framework for sharing information.  

Neil Thompson is Head of the Construction Innovation Hub (CIH) and Vice-Chair of the Digital Twin Working Group at techUK. He says that Digital Twins are vital for meeting Net Zero objectives, but demand a culture change in many industries - and arguably, help supply it.

How else are we going to create a culture around evidence-based decision making and using digital-supported decision making to support it? And how else are we going to physically capture the context in order to make those decisions and supply information at the right time? 

This leads into how are we going to open up data to the appropriate stakeholders, so we know that the right people are getting the right information at the right time to make the right decision? How are we going to make data connected and interoperable? Because technology is not just about humans communicating with each other, it's also about how technology communicates with other technologies.

Digital Twin Hub

Moves are certainly afoot to make all this happen. Abisogun and Thompson were among the speakers at techUK's launch of two national initiatives. First, the organisation has just published a landmark report, Unlocking Value Across the UK's Digital Twin Ecosystem [LINK], which sets out strategic recommendations for industry and government.

And second, the Centre for Digital Built Britain's (CDBB) National Digital Twin programme (NDTp) has unveiled a new Digital Twin toolkit for organizations, backed by the online hub of best-practice case studies that it launched last year. 

Sarah Hayes, Change Stream Lead for the NDTp, explains:

"We have been tasked to enable the national digital twin by building an information management framework to enable the secure sharing of data across organizations and sectors. 

"It's really important that we've got government, industry, and academia in this, because it's not just an information management framework for industry or for government. It's really for all actors, to be able to share data across sectors. 

"We set up the Digital Twin Hub last year, and we now have over 600 organisations registered. So, I would ask you to visit the site, have a look, and register if you haven't already."

The CDBB is a partnership between the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Cambridge University. Amanda Solloway MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Science, Research and Innovation, says:

I'm particularly proud of the work of BEIS, and the Centre for Digital Built Britain, in setting the foundations to enable data compatibility between public and private sector organisations. 

We're showing here the development of the Information Management Framework [IMF], which once in place, will provide a common language by which organisations will be able to share information from digital twins in a way that is effective, resilient, and secure.

With the IMF in place, we will be able to design and deliver our infrastructure more efficiently and effectively for better outcomes for our citizens, and will also improve our use of resources, reduce waste, and increase resilience - all key in helping to reduce carbon emissions from our built environment.

My take

Great news. But the Grenfell tragedy reveals that, at heart, we are not talking about connected things, but about something far more important: lives, especially ones that are overlooked. 

Abisogun says, "We have to pray that we all use our moral compass, because we're talking about people, we're talking about human beings. It shouldn't be that because they exist or reside in social housing that they are treated as ‘the other'. That's just not good enough, especially in 2021, particularly on the back of Covid."

In other words, we are all now at risk: ‘other' has become everyone's reality. That should really focus policymakers' minds, if a needless, horrifying, preventable inferno has failed to do so.

A grey colored placeholder image