Digital twins have been around for decades. But they are new to the built environment and bring an untapped opportunity for property and people – but only if we can look past the hype.
Digital twins – or virtual replicas of physical assets – helped engineers and astronauts rescue the Apollo 13 mission, clean up the Fukushima reactor destroyed by the tsunami in 2011 and refine the performance of Formula 1 racing cars.
But few building owners have taken their BIM modelling to the next level – until now.
Investa Property Group has three digital twins replicating 567 Collins Street in Melbourne, and Sydney’s 151 Clarence Street and 60 Martin Place.
“When you start to unpack what the digital twin means, there isn’t anyone who had done it before in the commercial office sector,” says Nathan Lyon, Investa’s head of building technology.
Building a smart backbone
Investa embraced digital twin technology to limit the loss of valuable information generated during construction, Lyon explains, which was “a real pain point for us”.
“Across the industry, we hear stories about construction teams finishing a project, handing it over to operations and six months down the track they can’t find drawings or information to operate the building.”
Investa’s digital twins mirror every floor, wall, stair and lift – even doorhandles – and record everything from the original architect’s drawings through to the warranties and service histories associated with plant and equipment.
Live data gathered from sensors and Internet of Things devices transforms the abstract drawings into an interactive and “absolutely invaluable tool,” Lyon explains.
The digital twin for 567 Collins Street in Melbourne, for instance, maps more than 57,000 building items in the asset register and takes feeds from 14,000 live data points in the building.
Lyon says digital twin technology is transforming building performance and the tenant experience across Investa’s $12 billion office portfolio. Digital twins are the “backbone” that can help landlords uncover “meaningful and actionable insights” that make for better spaces and stickier tenants.
Are tenants asking Investa for their building data? Not many, but enough for Investa to know the requests are heading their way, Lyon adds.
A panacea for data problems?
Digital twins aren’t just a tool for adjusting the air conditioning or storing data. Digital twins are the first step to harnessing a host of smart building innovations around automation and artificial intelligence, says EY’s managing partner for real estate across the Oceania region, Selina Short. But the technology is currently at the “peak of the hype cycle”.
“Digital twins have massive potential to provide rich insights and make real-time decisions, but there are huge expectations that this technology will be the panacea of all our data problems.”
Short points to the “practicality of mass implementation” as companies look to roll out the technology across portfolios of older stock, with various systems and ownership structures.
“We know that the two biggest hurdles ahead in the intelligence building race are scalability and stakeholder complexity. How we effectively scale digital twins across the ecosystem is a big challenge.
“But Australia’s property industry has built ecosystems to address other complex issues, like sustainability. We need to apply the same approach to the digital twin challenge,” Short explains.
Investa is focused on the big picture and taking an industry-wide approach to digital twins, Lyon adds.
“We are looking broader than our existing portfolio, because we acquire and dispose of assets all the time – and that means developing an open protocol and industry-wide interoperability,” Lyon says.
A tool to build greater trust
Adam Beck, executive director of the Smart Cities Council, urges industry and government to “think big and bold”.
“The property industry is at a really critical moment in time with digital twins. There are no standards, lots of scattered activity and lots of misinterpretation,” he says.
“A digital twin is much more than a digital replica of a physical thing, Beck adds. Pointing to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which tracks eroding community faith in institutions, he says “digital twin technology is a platform for building greater trust, transparency and accountability – but these words are never used when defining or discussing digital twins”.
“The digital twin has the potential to direct investment in sustainable assets and citizen services with precision like we’ve never seen” enhancing productivity and wellbeing, while accelerating action on climate change, Beck says.
“For Australia to be truly competitive in the digital world, we have to value data. Everyone says data is the new oil. But oil has a value and, at the moment, data has none.”
Just as car companies are cashing in on the consumer data they collect, Beck says digital twins can help the property industry extract and value the data generated from building assets.
Lyon’s key piece of advice is to combine the digital twin with a clear commercial objective. “Like anything in the proptech space, you need to know what you want to achieve before you invest time and money”.
The technology landscape moves quickly, so the critical success factor is to “identify partners with similar values and objectives”. And invest in an innovation culture, Lyon adds.
“You need to have an organisation that is willing to change and adapt, otherwise ideas and insights gleaned from the digital twin just sit in the box”.