Digital Twins: A Key Enabler in Our Race to a Sustainable Future



AUTHOR: COLIN DOMINISH

The world is starting to quickly refocus efforts to respond to the unavoidable consequences of climate change. At Lendlease, efforts are under way to ensure we can reach net zero on carbon by 2025, and absolute zero on carbon by 2040. It’s not lost on us that the building and construction sector accounts for approximately 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions (WBCSD 2018). One of the key enablers to address the challenge this presents is the use of the latest technology. This article describes some of the approaches Lendlease Podium is using to tackle the challenge head on. We take a look at what a digital twin is, how that relates to net zero outcomes, and what needs to happen for us to get there.

In 2020, Lendlease teamed up with Microsoft, Dell, Ansys and the Object Management Group to form a Digital Twin Consortium with the vision to create global standards and use cases for the technology. The Consortium defines a digital twin to be a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity. Digital twin systems transform business by accelerating holistic understanding, optimal decision-making, and effective action. They use real-time and historical data to represent the past and present and simulate predicted futures. To be effective, they are motivated by outcomes, tailored to use cases, powered by integration, built on data, guided by domain knowledge, and implemented in IT/OT systems. The foundational elements of the definition are captured in the first sentence: the virtual representation, the real-world entities and processes it represents, and the mechanism by which the virtual and real-world entities are synchronized.

So how can Digital Twins be used to combat climate change and provide a more sustainable future?

On a macro scale, and to become climate neutral by 2050, the European Union launched the "Destination Earth" initiative, which will start in mid-2021. Destination Earth is expected to run for up to ten years. During this period, a highly accurate digital model of the Earth is to be created. This Digital Twin of the Earth will map climate development and extreme events as accurately as possible in space and time. Observational data will be continuously incorporated into the digital twin enabling greater accuracy of the digital Earth model to monitor and predict current and future trajectories. In addition to the observation data conventionally used for weather and climate simulations, the researchers also want to integrate new data on relevant human activities into the model. The new "Earth system model" will represent virtually all processes on the Earth's surface as realistically as possible, including the influence of humans on water, food and energy management, and the processes in the physical Earth system.

Space-tech is increasingly providing inspiration and connectivity to the earth-bound world. Today Lendlease is developing Digital Twins of buildings in order to simulate and understand how they can operate most efficiently in their use of resources such as concrete, steel, energy, water, and waste. By doing so, we can select the most sustainable and least resource intensive materials in which to construct the building, to reduce the impact on climate change across the entire value chain. We can know how much energy needs to be produced to operate a building effectively before it is built, so the building uses the least amount of resource possible. We can undertake modelling of the use of renewable energy (for instance, solar and battery) and incorporate that information in the design of a new building so it can operate off grid. We can project the nature and volume of waste products created by the building and model out ways for that waste to be most effectively reused or disposed of. The Digital Twin can then be used to manage the day-to-day operations of the building after it is constructed – ensuring it is operating within the sustainability levels that were decided upon during the design phase. This can even include modelling how COVID safe practices will apply – with patronage data utilised to determine how many people can use the building facilities safely at any given time.

For any change to occur, someone needs to take the first step. Lendlease has taken a leap forward on recent projects, developing how digital twins can be used for buildings during the design phase, and even the future role of digital twins in generating insights to improve how buildings will operate sustainably into the future. The design and construction phases include the introduction of data capture technologies to feed operational data back into the digital twin, so the building can be optimised throughout its entire lifecycle. This data can stay with the building regardless of ownership, usage or upgrade. Whilst not a common part of the design process for most organisations, it is quickly becoming evident of the value of including a digital twin at inception for new building projects.

Based on the latest report on climate change produced by the UN IPCC in August 2021, the challenge we all face from climate change is only increasing pace and is now ‘code red’. To address things while we still can, the pace of technological change also needs to ramp up. The use of digital twins is one of those technologies that is yet to be fully deployed in ways that will assist with the greatest fight of our lives. And yet it is clear what we require to make the transition, and in doing so, save our planet for our future generations.