Unlocking user insights for developing digital twins
Digital twin (DT) technology is burgeoning into a core area associated with the Industry 4.0 wave. Digital twins are most commonly understood as a realistic digital representation of physical assets, processes, or systems in the built or natural environment (Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge, 2018). In particular, the connection to the physical twin is what distinguishes a digital twin from other digital models. The global digital twin market is expected to reach USD $35.8bn by 2025, and the DT concept has made notable impact on areas such as (smart) manufacturing and Industry 4.0.
Research in DTs has grown considerably. A significant proportion of existing research explores how digital twins can provide novel, technical capabilities for existing industries – from engineering and construction to urban planning and policymaking. Starting in the physical world, researchers have been exploring how live data can be collected from assets such as sensors and devices, to then be synchronised via the Internet of Things. This data can be utilised to build models, from which digital twins begin to emerge.
There is increasing recognition of the benefits that digital twins can potentially bring. For instance, DTs of built environments can be used to monitor the conditions of different physical assets – e.g. buildings, energy grids and more –, alert decision makers when (and/or before) these assets need maintenance, and even to predict asset performance (Lamb, 2021). In the natural environment, digital twins can be used to monitor ecosystems and processes, which can then for example help forecast and eliminate waste, create a more circular economy and more reuse of materials, and more.In November 2021, UK’s National Digital Twin programme launched a Climate Resilience Demonstrator (CReDo) – a pioneering climate change adaptation digital twin demonstrator project that showcases how connected-data and greater access to the right information can improve climate adaptation and resilience across infrastructure (Digital Twin Hub, 2021).
Given the emergent yet complex nature of this technology, much of the existing research on digital twins is currently situated in the (data) engineering and manufacturing worlds – where a lot of emphasis is put initially on assets and entities. These areas of research are significant, particularly for the development of digital twin technology itself. However, it is equally important in the design and development of a digital twin that a service-oriented approach be taken, which centre stages how these technological developments would actually impact and benefit the needs of service users and help them perform the jobs they need to get done. Such research is currently lacking in comparison, and less attention has been given to how DT and related technological developments would impact and benefit the needs of service users.
A service-oriented approach to developing DTs and emerging technologies is particularly valuable and vital, to prevent a situation of “a solution searching for a problem”, and to ensure that the technology developed will be able to relieve end users’ pain points and/or enhance their service experience. Taking a service-oriented approach shifts the limelight towards the service delivery as a whole. Rather than seeing digital twins as an “entity” to be further developed, and investigating how particular assets and materials may integrate from the physical world to digital twins, we would argue that digital twins can be conceptualised as an enabling technology to innovate for service delivery.
Taking such a lens would allow for different types of questions to be asked, and in so doing, unveil a different domain of insights that may not have otherwise been possible. For instance, one of our projects are exploring how digital twin technology can be used to address the specific pain points and needs of users, and be used to create new models of service delivery to the end users. Starting with the end service users first, instead of the technological dimensions, brings a fresh perspective on the types of data that will be needed, what the digital twin will be “of”, and who the possible beneficiaries are (rather than owners of the digital twin “entity”).
Perhaps most important, a service-oriented approach would consequently allow organisations to form a better understanding of, and to begin planning for how DT technology will impact their digital transformation and service transition journeys. For instance, how would DT technology impact and benefit the needs of their service users? What would this mean for organisations which may then need to plan for a service transition process? What implications this may have for the design of the future built environments? Starting with an understanding of user-centric needs and implications for service transition can ultimately enhance future service provision, new models of service delivery, and also impact the future built environment.
Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge. (2018). The Gemini Principles. https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.32260
Digital Twin Hub. (2021). CReDO: Technical Overview. Retrieved 10 November 2021, from DT Hub Community website: https://digitaltwinhub.co.uk/projects/credo/technical-overview/
Lamb, K. (2021). Modelling across the built and natural environment interface: Conclusions from an interdisciplinary workshop (p. 27). Centre for Digital Built Britain, University of Cambridge.