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Published in the International Journal of Construction Management and titled, ‘Digital twins in infrastructure: definitions, current practices, challenges and strategies’ a new paper features interviews with top UK infrastructure executives to provide a valuable overview of current digital twin practices in the sector by summarising definitions, benefits, and challenges.

It also sets out the potential for digital twins to bring significant opportunities for the infrastructure industry “to develop new ways of designing, constructing, operating and monitoring infrastructure at a time when much of the world’s civil infrastructure is ageing and showing signs of deterioration”.

Written by Dr Didem Gürdür Broo, former Research Associate at the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC), the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology and CDBB, and Dr Jennifer Schooling, Director of CSIC, the paper is based upon a study to consider how digital twins can help the infrastructure industry to deliver and operate sustainable and smart infrastructure assets while conserving physical resources. It includes interviews with nine UK infrastructure industry executives who “have been part of different industrial committees on digitalisation and occupy roles to transform both their organisations and the industry to become more data-driven, smart and sustainable”. The domains of the infrastructure organisations interviewed span city, environment, water, transportation, natural gas and electricity.

While the interview sample size is small, the authors point out that the real population size of executives in the infrastructure sector who head up organisations that have digital maturity to develop digital twins and experience in delivering digital twins is also small. The insights from the study identify the common and differing views on digital twin development and show that each infrastructure domain and organisation approaches digital twin development from a different angle – some as a concept that provides the next step in digital transformation and others as the real-time realistic representation of an asset. While definitions differ, all the executives interviewed agreed that digital transformation and digital twins would benefit the industry “enabling value from integrated data sets to ultimately allow the industry to build, construct, deliver and operate infrastructure assets faster, better, at lower cost and more sustainably”.

Executives, who all lead digital transformation in the biggest infrastructure projects of the UK, also identified the key barriers to the adoption of digital twins as digital transformation, cultural transformation and bridging the skills gap. As part of the interview process, participants were also asked to name key future trends and technologies and whether they see the future of the infrastructure industry evolving towards more data-centric, digital twin-driven operations. Technological trends cited included: industrial Internet of Things; robotics; augmented/virtual reality; smart/live sensors; concrete 3D printing; photogrammetry and defect detection; artificial intelligence and machine learning; interoperability; digitalisation of current documentation; blockchain; and automation. Non-technical trends were also referred to including the circular economy, resilience, carbon- free infrastructure, systems thinking, moving away from black-box solutions, cultural change, upskilling the workforce and acquiring talent.

The paper sets out strategies to address key barriers to digital adoption including focus on providing equal opportunities to the current workforce to improve their digital fluency and skillsets. Strategies are summarised as “informing individuals within the sector and other organisations of the benefits of digital twins to improve their adoption and realisation; identifying and clarifying goals of the transformation; communicating cultural attributes; paying attention to transparency and accountability; establishing culture risk management programmes; and improving the attractiveness of the industry by offering favourable labour market conditions, excellent work environments, wellness programmes and benefits”.

The authors conclude that while digital twin implementations in the smart infrastructure sector are still in their infancy, the leaders in the sector agree on common benefits and challenges to taking the industry’s digital transformation to its next level.

• See Didem Gürdür Broo and Jennifer Schooling (2021): Digital twins in infrastructure: definitions, current practices, challenges and strategies, International Journal of Construction Management, DOI: 10.1080/15623599.2021.1966980

• This research forms part of the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s (CDBB) work at the University of Cambridge within the Construction Innovation Hub (CIH) and supported by the EPSRC/Innovate UK Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (Grant Numbers EP/N021614/1 and 920035). The Construction Innovation Hub is funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Fund. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council