are real-time digital replicas of the physical world. Since first being developed in the early 2000s, they’re increasingly being used to model, manage and maintain much of our built and natural environment.
By combining data sources, including data from government agencies, 3D models and real-time data from monitoring and sensing devices, digital twins let us home in on the inner workings of places and spaces. They also give us an idea of how new infrastructure or policy changes could play out before being enacted in the real world.
Digitally representing an entire country or region might seem like something out of a science fiction novel. But it’s happening, now. Singapore has already done it
, and Luxembourg is building one
. Digital twins are also being developed in New South Wales
Closer to home, Canterbury is looking at creating a digital twin. Wellington City was recently visualised
in a digital engine that lets users explore transport statistics, cycle sensor data, car park availability, and climate change projections.
A federation of digital twins
It’s likely that a national digital twin for Aotearoa New Zealand would consist of multiple different digital twins that all ‘talk’ to one another.
Scaling many standalone digital twins into a national digital twin will be a challenging feat. The Infrastructure Commission notes that “industry and government will need to come together
to set the direction for the technology, the data it uses and the culture that will enable it to provide meaningful productivity benefits”.
It’s helpful when thinking about data that would likely be available in a national digital twin to picture a layer cake. The top layer is where people could situate themselves in the ‘here and now’ of the built and natural environment – maybe even using an avatar! Geospatial information, including buildings, streets and transport networks would feature as layers. So would much of the country’s open government data
For reasons of privacy, security and commercial confidentiality, it’s unlikely that all data on all built and natural features would be publicly available. A public – private interface would regulate access - where password-protected data would sit in the national digital twin - available only for use by approved agencies and organisations.
Key to the establishment of a national digital twin will be a willingness by agencies to share their data in a common, connected data environment. Processes and standards would have to be set up to make sure that real-time information is consistently classified and flows into (and out of) the twin from many different places.
Setting those data standards, deciding what is (and isn’t) public, and who gets access to what layers would form a large part of the effort in getting a national digital twin off the ground. That must be done with fairness, sensitivity, and respect for intellectual property top of mind.
As custodians of many large nationally significant datasets, efforts would most likely be led by government, but multiple stakeholders from across the public and private sectors would have to collaborate to make things work. Industry would play an important role.
There will be no one-size-fits-all for a national digital twin. In all likelihood, features of the twin would be customised, or turned on or off, depending on user context and needs.
Central and local government could use special features in the twin to improve decision-making, slash planning costs and simulate the impact of new policies on residents and the built environment. Engineering firms could use it to model detailed, virtual versions of real-life assets, such as buildings and structures. Utilities companies could use it to improve operational efficiency and stress-test critical infrastructure systems.
The question isn’t why create a national digital twin, but why not!
In a recent news article
, the Infrastructure Commission says digital twin technology “has the potential to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the country’s infrastructure planning, delivery and asset management practices”.
They’re spot on. One of the best-known digital twins that WSP in New Zealand has been involved with locally is a digital model of the Toitoi Arts and Events Centre in Hastings.
Complete digital information about the Centre is available to Council staff at the click of a button, including building make-up, condition and performance – viewable from every angle. Clicking on building elements returns a wealth of asset management information – including age, condition, expected lifespan, manufacturer and more.
The upshot for the Council is no more cumbersome asset management spreadsheets, and an easier, much more efficient way of managing the historic building.
Of course, Toitoi is a standalone digital twin. It represents a single building in one part of Hastings. Imagine if the entirety of our built and natural environment in all towns, cities and rural areas could be digitally rendered in the same way. There would be a host of benefits.
The World Economic Forum says there is "enormous untapped potential
" in applying digital twins "to address global sustainability challenges and accelerate the achievement of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals". They help do this by enabling more energy-efficient design, and being safe, virtual testing grounds for green, climate-friendly innovation.
Digital twins help establish a new way of approaching sustainability by design. In a great local example, the 3D geometry of City Rail Link’s digital twin is helping designers, engineers, and constructors better understand what type of material to use where, quantities of materials needed, and their carbon impact.
Then there’s economic value and cost savings. A report from economics consultancy AlphaBeta says there is a $46.6 billion economic opportunity
associated with digital transformation in Aotearoa by 2030. Elsewhere, Infrastructure NZ suggests that smart data use in infrastructure could reduce the country’s maintenance spend
by $5 - $7 billion over 30 years.
In today’s hyper-connected digital world, we’re awash in data. Pick a part of the built or natural environment and it’s almost certainly being measured and recorded in a dataset.
From inventories of our roads and pavements, to hectares of forest. From residential and commercial buildings, to rainfall, temperature, sunshine and wind records. Bringing these together in a national digital twin would give public and private sector agencies a window into what digital models already exist – helping avoid duplication of effort.
With a culture of innovation and global reputation as an R&D testbed, there’s a real opportunity for Aotearoa to take a leading role in the development of national digital twins. We should start with our own, of course. But, from there, the sky is the limit!