Digital twins for sustainability

Picture of Amber Harrison

Amber Harrison

Two minds are better than one

As the calendar turns over to another year, the Paris Agreement’s urgent call to keep global warming at no more than 1.5°C by reducing global emissions by 45% by 2030 seems closer than ever. Meanwhile, the latest IPCC report warns we only have a narrow window to make necessary changes — and change takes time. The report also calls for more ambitious and accelerated action for successful adaptation to the impacts of climate change. It’s a landscape ripe for insight and innovation — so how can technology help?

Do digital twins hold the answer?

IBM describes a digital twin as ‘a virtual representation of an object or system that spans its lifecycle, is updated from real-time data, and uses simulation, machine learning and reasoning to help decision-making.’

The concept may sound a little dry, but the potential is vast. Many kinds of processes or systems can be tracked by linking real-time activity through sensors and data points. Add a layer of artificial intelligence, and the opportunities increase. For example, performance data, modelling and predictive behaviour, and forecasts — as well as opportunities for improvement. Digital twins are already well established and applied to great effect in Formula 1 racing, airport operations, and manufacturing.

Digital twins are a valuable market. A recent report estimated the global digital twin market at USD11.1 billion in 2022 with an expected annual growth rate of 37.5% from 2023 to 2030.

Grand View Research

Putting potential into practice

One project that has put a digital twin to good use is Growing Underground. It’s a farm that produces microgreens, located in tunnels under Clapham in south west London. Already an astonishing project, the farm is using technology to improve yields while cutting energy use. They do this with a Cambridge-based digital twin that analyses data from 25 sensors based throughout the farm. The analysis helps forecast the environment for each day, and the system learns from the results, thereby increasing precision. It also offers the opportunity to simulate hypothetical situations and the potential outcomes.

Water modelling is another area where digital twins are beneficial. Extreme weather conditions are increasingly common, so understanding where floods and increased wastewater impacts are likely to happen means proactive steps can be taken. The same principle applies to managing leaks and blockages, and predicting water supply demands.

The built environment is an ideal candidate for sustainability improvements through this innovative approach. In a project in Limerick by software consultancy IES, a digital twin was created of five buildings within a specific district. The initiative considered and modelled interventions to reach net zero. These included operational measures, retrofit initiatives, deep renovation and integration of renewable energy as potential options. It’s a process designed to be repeatable so that other communities or cities can benefit.

There’s no doubt that the potential of digital twins can be transformative for sustainability. More work will be needed to refine the process and make it inclusive and accessible for all countries, but the possibilities are limitless.

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