The Role of Digital Twins in Driving Sustainability: A Three-Horizon Approach

Digital Twin

The built environment is experiencing a transformative shift as it confronts the challenges of climate change and strives towards a more sustainable future. Historically plagued by fragmentation and low productivity, the construction industry is now recognizing the urgency to address these issues. In this blog, we will explore the potential of digital twins in driving sustainability and advancing the circular economy in the construction sector. We will also discuss the concept of three-time horizons, which outlines the evolution of digital twins and their role in shaping the industry's future. A paper was recently published providing a more detailed perspective on digital twins, which can be found here.

Digital Twins and the Urgency for Change: As the extraction of raw materials continues to strain the environment and contribute to rising CO2 emissions, it has become imperative for the construction industry to adopt innovative solutions. The circularity gap report for 2023 has identified the built environment as one of the key sectors that have to do more. It cites that the industry contributes to over 40% of global emissions and, perhaps more alarmingly, the global economy is now only 7.2% circular, and it's getting worse year on year—driven by rising material extraction and use. Given this planet's finite number of raw materials, the focus has to switch to recycling, reuse, and, of course, the application of technologies to help the cause.

Digital twins and other emerging technologies like AI, IoT, and cloud computing promise to enhance efficiency, reduce waste, and address carbon emissions. These technologies hold significant potential in transforming the built environment by enabling better asset and facility management, spanning lifecycles, and facilitating informed decision-making for long-term asset performance.

Horizon One: Current Reality: Industry standards are on the rise but are not extensive. Nor are digital twins – they are used to solve specific use cases. Standards and digital twins are needed to address productivity and sustainability challenges in the construction and asset operations industries, which predominantly rely on traditional and fragmented approaches. Standards and connected services can help because they provide the foundation for adopting digital technologies, including digital twins. Without standards, the industry will continue to operate in silos and run the risk of disconnected workflows that are limited by proprietary data formats. The current reality is that standards are being developed and available, and they demonstrate real value in real projects. There are also many use cases showing that digital twins already demonstrate huge value today. Read how the Siemens building used standards to build their digital twin.

Horizon Two: Evolution of Connected Digital Twins: The evolution of digital twins will mark a significant shift in the industry. Where Digital Twins today are typically used in isolation, such as on a project or an asset like a building, in future, they will be applied to a city or connected set of systems. This unlocks greater benefits by helping us optimize design and performance at a much larger scale. Equally, in asset operations, for example, digital twins can be connected to and provide real-time insights into asset performance, aiding maintenance decisions, including predictive and prescriptive actions. Connected digital twins transcend organization and sectorial boundaries, as described by the CBDD. This means data is federated and connected across systems to help make timely decisions and, most importantly, interventions when required. However, more clarity and definition are needed on several fronts, spanning the key technical capabilities, enabling regulations and infrastructure, and timeframes for the widespread availability of these connected digital twins. The 7 perspectives were developed as part of the working group paper which aimed to seek some definition around the topic.


Horizon Three: Future Vision: Given the urgency to tackle climate change and the concurrent efforts to adopt standards and make digital twins more defined, there appears to be hope on the horizon. If Horizon Two can be defined and use cases applied at scale, then standards and digital twins will mutually support one another. At a national or city scale, standards like IFC can be the foundational element to the entire ecosystem, allowing digital twins to help with a circular economy, recycling, product data definition, and so much more. This means digital twins will aid asset owners, city planners and the like to make better decisions for our planet. It is, after all, in everyone's interest to make our economy circular.

Embracing the Circular Economy: To address resource depletion, waste generation, and carbon emissions, the construction industry must adopt circular principles. Designing for disassembly, reusing materials, and implementing efficient recycling systems are essential to minimizing resource consumption and reducing environmental impact. Digital Twins can help us design for disassembly, optimize material consumption and plan for recycling, and help us model and refine how to minimize the overall environmental impact of our buildings and infrastructure. Embracing the circular economy conserves natural resources and presents economic opportunities through cost savings, job creation, and the development of innovative business models.

Conclusion: Digital twins are at the forefront of transforming the construction industry. By leveraging the opportunity and ensuring they can be applied to the circular economy, the industry can address the urgent challenges of climate change and contribute to a more sustainable planet. As the initiative progresses through the three horizons, the widespread adoption of digital twins is key to unlocking the full potential of a connected and sustainable built environment.

Join me at the buildingSMART Summit in Lillestrøm, Norway between 18-21 September 2023 and find out why "Digital Products" and "Digital Twins" will be themes for the event.

Learn more here:

Author: Aidan Mercer, Marketing Director, buildingSMART International

Circle Economy (2023). The circularity gap report 2023 (pp. 17, Rep.). Amsterdam: Circle Economy