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September 2020
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How Digital Twins Can Transform Government and Society

Sascha Giese, Head Geek™, SolarWinds

By Sascha Giese, Head Geek, SolarWinds

Imagine being able to design a digital version of just about anything in the real world, infuse it with data, and use the knowledge it provides to create or improve its real-life physical entity. This is the concept behind “digital twins,” which first emerged in an industrial and manufacturing context. Since then, it has grown to describe the creation of digital replicas of physical devices, entities, people, processes, and places. By creating a digital twin, activities such as product development may be cheaper and quicker, and performance may improve.

The Endless Possibilities of Digital Twins 

Today’s digital twins are more than simulations—they use real-world, real-time data to power replicas. As such, the growth in technologies such as the internet of things (IoT) have helped accelerate their use. It’s an exciting concept, and as our capacity to build more powerful and complex IT systems has increased, so has the ability to develop digital twins for bigger and more complex use cases.

These use cases include testing aircraft engines and landing gear components using sensors on real-world equipment to generate the data necessary to make performance and durability predictions. In Formula 1, teams use digital twins to measure a huge range of informative data points to improve reliability, performance, and safety. Some organisations also use them to support their software development process, improving efficiency and reducing time to market. These uses all add up to a growing market; and according to Grand View Research, this market will be worth more than US$26 billion by 2025.

Applied to the government across the board, the scope is truly enormous. Imagine the possibilities, for instance, of creating a digital replica of an entire city and using this replica to plan transportation infrastructure. This is particularly important in the current era of rapid transportation technology changes and the need to change public policy to improve the environment over the long term. The emergence of autonomous vehicles, for example, is a transportation concept in which no one has much experience. As a result, digital twins are likely to become an important planning and prediction resource for government bodies needing to understand, predict, and maximise the benefits of this rapidly emerging trend.

As Gartner put it in its “Hype Cycle for Digital Government” report last year, “In the midterm, governments will use digital twins for automated command-and-control operations that will require fewer staff to respond to incidents. Over time, digital twins will be used to test scenarios related to policy and legislation. That’s when this technology becomes truly transformative.”

One day, we may see entire government functions and infrastructure created as digital twins. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data, and IoT will contribute to the development of more complex, accurate, and reliable digital twins. Some expert commentators predict digital twins will be used to understand, predict, and manage public health issues. In the longer term, we may all possess a digital twin of our own bodies, which will be used as a preventative healthcare tool and to help us recover from illness and injury. Clearly, the principle will be of interest to those with the job of funding and delivering public healthcare systems, which are already stretched thin by a growing and ageing population.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

Despite the potential of digital twins, there are various technology and process hurdles to overcome. Securing data from the real device to the network, from the network to the digital twin, and from the monitoring stations viewing this data is tremendously important. If the data can be viewed, copied, interrupted, or manipulated and reinserted surreptitiously, then serious problems are likely.

There’s also the issue of cost. Creating the infrastructure, whether done securely or not, represents a duplication of efforts and budget, which begs the question of whether the investment will reduce costs sufficiently to pay for the new twinning technology. Similarly, scaling digital twinning to a large environment—particularly when security is critical—requires a large and highly available network on which you can communicate reliably and store the twins’ data.

In practical terms, however, governments have been increasingly committed to the study, development, and use of digital twins. In the U.K., for example, organisations such as the National Infrastructure Commission have argued strongly in favour of creating a digital twin of our national infrastructure. This work was taken forward by the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) and others with the objective of developing the National Digital Twin programme, which has since delivered an initial roadmap. Clearly, there’s much more to come, and future generations will work with and benefit from digital twins on a routine basis. It’s yet another exciting and transformative digital trend to watch closely.

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