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What is a digital twin?

Fri Feb 12, 2021
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Sophie McKee from Slingshot Simulations explains what a digital twin is and how it could help us to plan our lives

What is a digital twin? What can it do for you and your data project? Sophie McKee from Slingshot Simulations (who created a digital twin of Leeds city centre to understand the challenges faced around air pollution in the city) explains all, using – wait for it –memes from The Simpsons.

What is a digital twin?

A digital twin is a digital environment that reflects on, mirrors, and evolves ahead of the physical environment. Or more formally:

A digital twin is a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity – OMG Digital Twin Consortium, Dec’ 2020

You put information into it – choose how you want to see that information – press play and see the results.

It is a way of using data to map out different scenarios visually without being overwhelmed by numbers.

It has the potential to be organic – the more information you feed it, the digital twin will keep evolving and growing and adjusting.

How do I get a digital twin?

As the name “digital” implies, you need a computer, tablet or mobile device.

Currently, most digital twins are available through companies that own or make the software to create – this can be expensive and the resulting software complicated.

Using open data means that digital twins can be available to you simply by having the internet.

What can it do for me?

Ultimately a digital twin of real-world entities and processes allows us to see all possible outcomes from a single decision before we go ahead with it. They make trial-and-error sustainable.

This means that key decision-makers in our society can try out different scenarios without having to disturb our every day lives.

Digital twins can serve completely different parts of our environment, economy, and society in very different ways and at varying levels of complexity.

If you can’t afford the money or the time needed to make an important decision you can use a digital twin to try different methods without wasting time or money.

How do you make a digital twin?

Step 1: Imagination

We cannot limit the development of digital twins based on what is possible. Digital twins can be created and defined by its solutions rather than what it does in technological terms. This requires imagination on our part to figure out what issues we want it to solve rather than be told what we can do with it.

The amount of data we have is comparatively gigantic to the amount of ideas around how to use it, and this can come from being intimidated by the amount of data we have and seeing it as a mess of numbers rather than meaningful information.

The complicated design of technology can often make us feel like we are serving it, rather than the other way around, but by using our imagination and not limiting ourselves to what we think is possible, we can tell digital twins what we need it to be, which sets us up with a shopping list of what data you need to make a
digital twin.

Step 2: Feed it Data

After the initial idea, digital twins begin and end with data. The more the better.

And you must feed it data. If you don’t give a digital twin data, and continue to feed it data, then it won’t evolve and transform with the environment it was told to
digitise.

A digital twin is not a magic 8-ball. Its about forecasting, not fortune-telling. If you haven’t given a digital twin crucial information for your simulation then it won’t take that data in account when showing the results… it can’t read your mind but it can read your data.

Step 3: Feed it more Data

The primary advantage of having more data in a digital twin is the ability to create context. A digital twin is more than just simulating an element for prediction and information: it’s about simulating an environment in a way that tells the best story to you.

Some of the best novels are ones that have a detailed backstory behind the narrative. From character biographies, history, fictional laws and mannerisms, all these extra details contribute towards a more immersive world that sparks conversations and ideas for years after they were written.

Whilst not fictional, digital twins possess the same capability: giving it more data about the wider environment helps tell a better story about a specific subject and offers us the ability to look at individual projects in the context of a wider model.

This offers a powerful evaluation ability compared to just assessing an individual project, executing it, and then stepping back and seeing what that does to the rest of the ecosystem in retrospect.

Just like Homer Simpson in this image, there is no limit to how much you can feed it – it will simply get bigger!

Step 4: Build it

Digital twins are not at the point where we can simply drop stuff into it and let it spit out a twin – we need to tell it what we want more specifically.

One way to understand how to make a digital twin is to see it like an activity that resembles a hybrid of connect the dots and paint-by-numbers.

When you put all your data in and tell it to get started, the digital twin’s simulator will look at all the data you gave it and begin by arranging the results on a page and connecting them all up to form an initial sketch of what the twin will look like, very much like connect the dots.

But at this point this is just an outline of our digital twin, so the simulator will do a more in-depth exploration of the data and start assigning the data specific shapes and areas within the initial sketch and give the same types of data within that sketch a number. From there it can start to “colour it in” based on the shapes and numbers it assigned, just like paint-by-numbers.

When it has completed you will have a finished work of art – a fully functioning digital twin.

It’s a sort of oversimplifying the agent-based modelling method. For digital twins to be built by anyone, we need to strip away all the fancy PhD level words and tell it like it is: very few people will know how to do agent-based modelling, but everyone is capable of doing a paint-by-numbers, advanced or simple ones. Once we start talking about technology in less pretentious terms, anyone will be confident enough to create a digital twin.

Step 5: Play

Once you have created the digital twin, you now have the opportunity to tweak it, edit it, and try as many different scenarios as you want.

Many of our digital twin interviewees defined them as a ‘virtual testbed’ and this is exactly what you can do with it once you have created it.

A digital twin can continue to evolve if you continue to put new information into it, so you can re-make it, play with it and re-run it as much as you want so you can explore all possible options and make more informed decisions.

Digital twin dos and don’ts

Do share your data

One of the biggest issues facing digital twins today is that there are mountains of data squirrelled away in private organisations: totally unavailable but infinitely valuable.

Like most things, there must be a balance. Whilst we should be encouraging people to share, no one brings their fine china to a pot-luck dinner. And there are some things that cannot be shared. However, if companies do not make more of their data accessible then we are going to have elements missing in our digital twin… or in the case of Homer Simpson, it’s like ordering Neapolitan ice cream and only getting vanilla and strawberry.

When it comes to these types of data platforms the data is not the platform’s property, its other peoples. Data doesn’t simply appear in a digital twin, we have to provide data to go with it and the more data we share, the better the Digital Twin will be.

Do design digital twins for people who will actually use it

Digital twins look great, but this runs the risk of pushing them into a trending fad. New software is often acquired by networking and connections which can result in only one person out of an entire company who knows how to use it and the remaining 99% of the organisation being told to use a piece of software they don’t know how to use or why they need it.

For digital twins to integrate into society we need to put it into the hands of the practitioners: the people who end up using it on a day-to-day basis and design it for them rather than the technologists or the CEOs.

Do use it to unify existing software

The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the need to start listening more to our teams and what they need out of their working space. Whilst this refers primarily to the physical working environment, with more and more technology being developed, we need to start designing our software environment with the same responsiveness.

If you kept adding extensions to your home, it gets to a point where you wonder whether it’s easier or more efficient to buy a new house – the same applies for software. Rather than cramming another program into employees computers, it might be better to have just one piece of software that can bring all your requirements together.

A digital twin has the potential to unify software and provide an environment that allows for consistency in result and appearance whilst taking in information from other sources. That way you can re-house your software environment in a brand-new building – A digital twin. All the same stuff inside, but one unchangeable unit that allows for evenness in outcome and only one piece of tech you need to use.

Don’t make it realistic

We need digital twins to be immersive not realistic. Photorealism opens creators up for error, should one thing element not be 100% realistic, as it “trips” the user up which dissolves the immersion and you may lose the ability to gather genuine interactions between people and place.

There must be a willing suspension of disbelief. If we allow the data to be placed into an environment that looks similar to reality, but isn’t, our brain will accept this and move on, as what you will see will be generated by real data. If Aristotle believed you could, you can.

It’s this kind of belief that has informed how we have designed our 3D world at Slingshot. By making the digital twin cartoon-like it allows the data being modelled to speak for itself rather than being overshadowed by poorly rendered photographs and clears the path for the data to better inform.

Don’t isolate a digital twin

Whilst we’re living in a world where more and more barriers are going up, we need to make way for technology to help us collaborate and come together in other ways.

Whilst we create digital twins around a specific project or space, we should always design a digital twin with the awareness that there is so much more that it could connect to.

Don’t assume its just for corporate use

We can benefit from digital twins on an individual level. One thing companies can unanimously agree on is a digital Twins ability to impact society drastically, especially the way we move and behave in our communities and wider environments.

We are always as a society looking for sustainable solutions to wasteful problems and a lot of this must start at home and with the home.

We all create data on our personal devices everyday which makes us individually eligible to make our own digital twin. We often don’t know what or why we have all this data, which brings to light another role for a digital twin: a recycling plant by which we can contribute what we already have around us and process it in such a way that produces new options and information from existing resources without having to waste resources in order to find the solution.

Digital twins should be perceived as another type of search engine. An information management system that we can access and manipulate from the comfort of our own homes.

Summary

The best way to summarise digital twins is that is must start with people not the product. Whether it’s based on wanting a digital twin of people in a place, people in the anatomical sense, or for people to learn from, if we are not placing humans at the centre of digital twins then it will struggle to gain traction or find a purpose beyond modelling.

Being able to generate a digital twin of an environment that allows us to reflect on what we’ve done previously, to what we’re doing now, then to what we could be, is a huge opportunity to start regaining control of our environments and start telling our own story based on our vision for a people or place.

Being able to forge new paths for society based on informed decision-making and analysis of all possible scenarios is a digital twin’s greatest weapon and is an opportunity that should be accessible to all and not to be missed out on.

How Slingshot Simulations is using digital twins to tackle pollution

The ‘Breathing City’ project is demonstrating how the use of open data can create a digital version of a city, i.e. a digital twin, to improve the wellbeing and safety of urban populations and provide valuable insights to educate society on the impact of pollution.