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Striving for Sustainability with Digital Twin

Alison Rose (AR), Chief of Place, Space and Communities Division, Geoscience Australia, and Melissa Harris (MH), Chief Executive, Land Use Victoria, in an interview with Geospatial World, talk about how digital twins are gaining pace in Australia for governance, development and sustainability

Alisson Rose and Melissa Harris
Left: Melissa Harris; Right: Alison Rose

Today, Digital Twin seems to have become the buzzword in multiple industries. What makes this technology so special and how is it making work processes transparent and more efficient?

AR: The Digital Twin technology is transformative because it can show an immersive, interactive, virtual reality of the world around us — how it was in the past, how it is today, and what it could be like in the future. We see many examples globally, like in Europe, North America and Asia, of nations forging ahead with sophisticated and easy-to-use spatial digital twins of their major cities. These nations are deriving significant benefits from embracing this technology — particularly around confidence in decision-making, reduced stakeholder risk and cost savings — by applying the ‘design once, build many’ concept. In Australia, COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital technology, including digital twins, which helps businesses and governments better understand and manage complex processes first virtually and then in the real world. Many jurisdictions in Australia have embarked on building their own digital twins, particularly in two of the most populated states, New South Wales and Victoria.

Australia is a highly urbanized country, yet many of our nation’s challenges occur in and around our regions and in the interactions between cities and regions. The Digital Twin technology is important to Australia because we see the opportunity to apply it to model changes and create impacts in the wider landscape beyond our buildings and cities. We are partnering across Commonwealth, State and Territory governments, including through the Australian and New Zealand Land Information Council, to develop a national approach to digital twins. This partnership is critical, given that we face challenges that do not stop at the state borders. There is a growing desire among decision- makers to have access to the same trusted, authoritative base.

Can you give an example of how Australia is using the Digital Twin technology for good governance and development?

MH: The Government of Victoria recently announced a record investment in the Digital Twin technology and spatial innovation, committing AU$ 37.4 million ($26.9 million) to the Digital Twin Victoria Program. This innovative new program will harness cuttingedge Digital Twin technology, rich 3D and 4D spatial data, Artificial Intelligence (AI), sensor data, and more, to revolutionize how we plan, model and consult on the built and natural environments. For the first time in Victoria, high-quality datasets, intelligent analytics and future-ready infrastructure will come together in a single state-wide transformational program. It encompasses seven workstreams — advanced Earth Observation, enhanced disaster response, utilities, asset management, faster subdivision registrations, automated approvals and the Digital Twin Victoria platform. The combined power of these workstreams will help facilitate better, data-driven decisions about the impact of change on our communities and the environment. The Digital Twin Victoria Platform will house the most comprehensive collection of rich 3D spatial data ever assembled for Victoria and will provide a collaborative digital workspace for all government departments across planning, transport, infrastructure, and land management. The platform has been built using TerriaJS technology from CSIRO’s (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) data and digital arm, Data61. An example of the transformative projects that will be enabled by Digital Twin Victoria is the eComply pilot, which explores howto make the historically complex task of housing approvals faster, easier and cheaper. The eComply tool uses Digital Twin, spatial intelligence and Machine Learning (ML) to assess digital building designs’ compliance with the Small Lot Housing Code. The eComply pilot is already demonstrating the value that the Digital Twin technology can deliver to unlock regulatory red tape by taking weeks off current building approval times and delivering over AU$ 30 million ($21.5 million) in benefits.

Digital twins allow us to view the future, where we can virtually model and predict how changes to our environment will interact with current and future surroundings. This allows us to assess the impact that different Digital Twin designs will have socially, economically and environmentally

How can a digital replica at the national level help in ensuring sustainable development?

AR: Digital twins allow us to view the future, where we can virtually model and predict how changes to our environment will interact with current and future surroundings. This allows us to assess the impact that different Digital Twin designs will have socially, economically and environmentally. I believe that the greatest sustainability insights will come when we connect multiple digital twins to give us an integrated virtual picture with all its complex social, economic and environmental interdependencies. Once this is achieved, we will be in a position to model and forecast the various ramifications of different design decisions on the environment that are felt far from the source of the initial change, especially if we enable modeling at the local, regional and national scales. When we think that these models and forecasts can be re-run many times, and the inputs adjusted in countless ways, we can then identify and choose the most sustainable options. This will give us an unprecedented evidence base that enhances confidence in the decisions we make.

How can project-based Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) help in building and maintaining efficient digital twins?

MH: The Government of Victoria is taking a leadership role and helping industry groups work together to set the agenda and stimulate the discussion on what’s important and worth the effort. We are taking a co-design approach right from the start to make sure that we build a platform that meets the needs of users and stimulates growth in capability, innovation and skills. This means public, private and research sector stakeholders coming together to make Digital Twin Victoria their own. In fact, the project is set up in seven workstreams, of which the platform is only one. These individual streams encompass a myriad of projects that contribute to an efficient ecosystem supporting the Digital Twin.

The Digital Twin Victoria Program will harness cutting-edge Digital Twin technology, rich 3D and 4D spatial data, AI, and sensor data to revolutionize how we plan, model and consult on the natural environments

How can public policies help leverage the true potential of the Digital Twin technology?

AR: There are several recent Australian government initiatives to help increase the uptake of digital twins across the country. First, Australia has embarked on an ambitious Digital Economy Strategy to make the country a leading global digital economy by 2030, along with an Australian Data Strategy to support use, value, custodianship, sharing, and security of both public and private data. Location information and digital twins are the key components to realizing this goal, as collectively the state governments of Australia hold a wealth of authoritative data on the country’s geography, population, infrastructure, health, employment, land, and environment. A crucial aspect of our public policies is focused on opening up capabilities for decision-makers to connect, access and analyze those data assets. Continued government support for digital and location information is critical to the success of digital twins. Having location data concepts, such as digital twins embedded in the Australian Data Strategy will help ensure there is continued recognition, drive and support behind the importance of location information. Second, improvements in data sharing will also be key to the success of a National Digital Twin in Australia. This is why many in the spatial sector welcomed the signing of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Data Sharing by the National Cabinet on July 9, 2021. The agreement mandates all jurisdictions to share public sector data with one another as a default position in a way that is secure, safe, lawful and ethical. The agreement recognizes data as a shared national asset and aims to maximize its value to deliver better policies and services for Australians. The agreement applies to a wide scope of public sector data, including location information. Future work will likely focus on sharing of data between digital twins and related technologies. Finally, the 2021 Australian Infrastructure Plan sets out the infrastructure challenges and opportunities for the next 15 years and the solutions required to drive productivity growth, maintain and enhance our standard of living, and ensure our cities and regions remain world class. The plan recommends that sectors involved in infrastructure adopt digital as a default position to accelerate the use of digital twins and other related technologies. It also recommends that 100% of government-funded projects incorporate a Digital Twin within the next 10 to 15 years.

Spatial data represents the Earth (spaces, places, and locations) and its features using geometric and topological constructs for object representation. Hence, it creates digital twins of the built environment and helps integrate diverse datasets to derive insights and patterns from multiple sources. Spatial data and digital twins share similar elements and characteristics: data capture, integration and interoperability, data standards, methods and procedures, automation, computation and analytics, modeling, simulation and prediction, data visualization, communication and sharing, and the technology platform for deployment. These make them intertwined, making spatial data an integral part of the Digital Twin ecosystem.

Can you give examples of a few challenges in building and maintaining these digital models?

MH: With so much data and so many possibilities, a key challenge is prioritizing use cases. This is why we are very focused on developing a strong strategic approach early in the program, so we make sure we are putting our efforts in the right places, working closely with stakeholders, co-designing with our users, and making sure the Digital Twin delivers on their needs. The geographic scale of spatial digital twins is also a significant challenge. Large scale, high resolution imagery and point clouds are expensive and remote areas that require sensing technology can lack nearby fundamental infrastructure such as power. A further challenge is that spatial digital twins are the aggregation of datasets from different providers, many of whom are at different stages of their digital journey, which means that data governance, availability and performance can be inconsistent. Digital Twin management is also really complex, especially with a distributed data model. A broken data feed can impact a range of users, and the cause is often beyond the control of the owners. Working with partners to ensure standardized solutions serving data is the best approach.

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