skip to content

Centre for Digital Built Britain

 

Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor of Computer Science and Executive Director of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton, was instrumental in the development of the World Wide Web. A contributor to the CDBB report The pathway towards an Information Management Framework: A ‘Commons’ for Digital Built Britain, Dame Wendy Hall considers the challenges and the promise of a National Digital Twin.

Information management was key to the development and success of the World Wide Web and interoperable technologies aligned through specifications, guidelines, software, and tools enabled its full potential. Linking data such that computers and people were able to connect and work together was what Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web, called the ‘Semantic Web’.

While these ideas have existed for many decades it is remarkable to see them come together in the mission to create a system as complex and extraordinary as a National Digital Twin; a mission impossible without the use of a really sharp information architecture – which requires ontologies and the use of linked data in ways that we only dreamt about at the beginning of the Web.

Let’s not underestimate the vision or the task – this is a moonshot. It is quite rightly a vision that fires up the imagination, but keeping our feet on the ground is also necessary; a National Digital Twin, an ecosystem of digital twins, is going to be a huge challenge to build in order that it is fit for purpose to deliver benefits to people, is secure, resilient and adaptable to change. A socio- technical project, a National Digital Twin is much more than the infrastructure and assets we build. It encompasses the people who live in houses, the children who go to schools, the elderly reliant on the care system – people who use and depend upon this complex, interconnected system of infrastructure. We must not lose sight of this purpose.

This needs a plan as well as a purpose. In order for this vast collection of digital twins to be able to connect and become a system of systems, we must ensure the information architecture is correct – and that is what excites me as a mathematician and builder of things. We must act too; if we all simply hypothesise about what could be then nothing will happen. But if we build things, people will come.

We must start with some pragmatic building blocks, the most important of which are technical standards. If we don’t establish standards, and the accompanying governance, people will not be able to share a common vocabulary for exchanging data and ideas and models.

The Web, and the internet on which it was built, grew because of the standards, and those standards were open and universal – which was crucial, as it will be to this project. An open standard decentralised approach – designed to be greater than the sum of its parts – will enable benefits to be shared. When Tim Berners-Lee proposed the standards for the Web, no one wanted to adopt them because everyone had their own information management system and didn’t want to share their data with others. People just couldn't see the benefits; it’s not until the concept actually begins to emerge and everything is linked up that the benefits are truly visible. Not every organisation will want to build a digital twin platform for their city – they will want to be able to use one that someone else has built; commercial enterprises to support the development of digital twins will flourish.

We can learn from experience. During the COVID-19 crisis the internet enabled people and organisations to do things they couldn’t otherwise have done. Imagine lockdown happening 20 or 30 years ago? It doesn’t bear thinking about. But even with the support of digital communications, the lack of a joined-up system caused many problems. The simple idea of getting PPE to the people that need it from the suppliers that can supply it failed us as a nation because we don't have the required information architecture. We don't have an effective way of exchanging information between different types of siloed systems: transport; power; communications; healthcare; and emergency services are not linked – and they need to be.

Before COVID-19, there was the Grenfell Tower disaster which threw these challenges into sharp relief. Even the basic question of which other flats had this sort of cladding could not be answered. These are questions we should be able to answer. Building a National Digital Twin will require government stimulus, but it also requires a lot of people who want to make it work – top down and bottom up. This is one of the most important endeavours we as a country can undertake in order to grow again as a more equitable and sustainable economy, and to build in the resilience that we need to withstand global challenges such as climate change, net zero and resource constraint.

We have the expertise. We have the British Standards Institution. We have a timely opportunity to reset the future. Let’s make this happen.

Contact: Dame Wendy Hall