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Digital Twins for a Safer Built Environment

As a native of Turin Italy, I was horrified at the Ponte Morandi bridge collapse last year. As a child and as an adult I have travelled over that bridge more times than I can imagine and have often pondered the what-if scenarios. What if it had happened when I or my loved ones were travelling on that bridge? As a chartered construction professional, I ask myself, what could have been done, what should have been done and what can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?

Having access to a digital twin with an integrated understanding of the way the bridge was designed, built and performed over the last 50 years and being able to run “what if” scenarios would have allowed us to have a much greater understanding of the structure and its limitations in its context. This is where I believe a digital twin of any built asset is a step in the right direction.

The digital twin has been proclaimed by many as a milestone innovation in the construction industry, with huge benefits to constructors and owners of assets through efficiencies in manufacturing and operation but also to attracting users of the spaces they replicate. However, digital replicas can take a broad range of forms depending on its purpose, use and application sparking debates among professionals on what they actually are and what represents a ‘true’ twin.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has identified a growing interest from its members on this topic and has produced a white paper titled “Digital Twin for the Built Environment – An introduction to their opportunity, benefits, challenges, and risks” which I had the honour to bring to life from its early conception over eight months ago. The industry needs clarity around digital twins for the built environment, how they should be perceived, their potential, and why they should be embraced as an opportunity to be the launchpad to bring our asset creation and operation processes into the era of technological innovation.

From a personal perspective, I see digital twinning supporting us in building a safer and more efficient built environment and ultimately helping us to avoid incidents such as the Ponte Morandi disaster. The incident has particularly affected me, as it brought back many childhood memories and as a construction professional, it was extremely hard to watch, and like many, I felt hopeless.

The Ponte Morandi incident reinforced my sense of purpose in improving our built environment with the adoption of technology. Like many new journeys, it will come with challenges, but the key to its successful implementation I believe is to appreciate the process at each step, moving forward towards greater insights, improving our clarity and decision making supported by data along the entire lifecycle of the product.

As construction professionals, we bear the duty of care to design, build, maintain and operate safer and more sustainable built assets, and digital twins like many other technological advancements can support us to fulfil that duty.

I truly believe that digital twin adoption increases an asset’s agility to immediately address new challenges faced by current and future generations.

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