• Naina Gazula, Senior Manager |
  • Colin Earp, Partner |

Digital twins: Catalyst for transformative infrastructure

Future demand for infrastructure continues to grow exponentially – imploring governments to identify ways to not just deliver more, but to deliver smarter and faster. Enter digital twins: the key to delivering next-generation infrastructure as well as meeting its efficiency, equity, and resilience requirements.

Society’s demand for core services is outstripping the capacity of the infrastructure required to deliver them.  This is impacting the economic, commercial, and social development of our communities – large and small.

Increasing costs, shortage of skilled labor, tightening public budgets and supply chain pressures are not the only challenges influencing the delivery of infrastructure. Modern infrastructure is now expected to fulfil multiple roles, from equitable service delivery through to managing climate impact – creating the need for material change to the traditional ways of infrastructure delivery.

As a result, governments are finding themselves faced with the question of “do we simply need more infrastructure, or more innovative infrastructure, or find alternative solutions to infrastructure?” - the answer to which is 'all of the above'. The future success of infrastructure delivery will be predicated by the ability to leverage diverse and complex data to support how infrastructure is planned, delivered, integrated, operated and maintained. Enter the digital twin.

The value of digital twinning for infrastructure

Digital twins came to maturity two decades ago with simulated modeling in manufacturing. In infrastructure, a digital twin is a digital representation of an asset or process from the physical world, enabling an increased ability to gain deeper insights and make better decisions through processing vast volumes of big data, identifying intricate patterns and correlations, and automating decision-making.

From upstream capital planning through to asset operations, digital twins can be used to drive better infrastructure decision making by providing more intelligent scenario planning and options analysis. A digital replica of a roadway with sensors to monitor road traffic, for example, could help operators identify existing traffic bottlenecks, enabling future decisions that help reduce traffic, wait times, and redundant investments.

Research suggests that governments can achieve approximately US$9 return on investment for every US$1 spent on digital twins for infrastructure. KPMG professionals see UK’s National Underground Asset Register (NUAR) as an example of a digital twin, which reports a return on investment of 30:11. Digital twins could help governments reduce design costs by 50 percent, cut construction permitting times in half and reduce overall maintenance costs by a fifth2. That means infrastructure gets delivered faster, at a lower cost and higher quality.

The value of digital twins grows exponentially as systems and inputs integrate. But it is only when digital twins start to communicate with each other, that complex relationships between assets and opportunities for system optimization, such as by enhancing public safety response, healthcare or city planning, are revealed.

Governments must take the lead

Creating a collaborative digital twin ecosystem requires market trust, common policies, standards and legislations, as well as up-front investments and centralized coordination to provide the platform that unlocks the collective benefits.

As individual organizations may  currently not have the incentive, capacity or authority to coordinate the industry reform required for this change, governments are often the only entity with the appropriate motivation and political capacity to correct the market failure and drive progress on the digital twin agenda at an aggregated level.

Defining the conditions for success

Digital twins offer a high value and return on investment opportunity. But what does it take for government to create a sustainable digital twin ecosystem and an environment that encourages uptake and utilization? A look at existing digital twins across jurisdictions suggests there are three important conditions for success:

  • Solid technical foundations
    Foundational digital twin mechanisms, including roles and resources, core processes, and a technology enablement backbone, are critical for accelerating adoption of digital twins. 
  • Quality data
    Accurate, standardized, up-to-date and accessible data sets are essential to informing better infrastructure decisions. And that, in turn, requires regular data sharing, enhancement and maintenance, guided by appropriate legislation and governance standards.
  • Practical use case application
    A careful selection of use cases with a relative ease of implementation is the key to translating strategy into actions, testing technical delivery capabilities, understanding stakeholder requirements, engaging industry leaders and forming a ‘coalition of the willing’ from public and private stakeholders.

A path to digital twin maturity

Harnessing the full potential of digital twins is multi-faceted. KPMG professionals believe that successful governments progress through four distinct levels of maturity: Developing Foundations, Accelerating Adoption, Delivering at Scale and Embedding as Standard.

Level 1: Developing Foundations

What does it look like?This initial phase focuses on developing the foundational digital twin mechanics such as establishing a common language and platform, driving participation within the market and creating a unified framework for engagement and information sharing to provide a tangible approach to implementation

What’s a good example?

  • Policy. The Government of Ontario in Canada launched the Accelerated High-Speed Internet Program (AHSIP), which was supported by the Building Broadband Faster Act, 2021 (BBFA) – a legislation that enabled data sharing between municipalities and private sector providers to accelerate broadband deployment3.
  • Independent common platform. The UK developed an independent common platform, the Centre of Digital Built Britain, where the group was responsible for establishing a common language and creating a unified framework. This has enabled the development of key aspects such as the Gemini Principles, the Pathway towards an Information Management Framework (IMF) and the Gemini Papers4.
  • Ecosystem collaboration. The State of Victoria in Australia created a coalition of the willing and invested AU $37.4million to set the digital foundations and enable collaboration between the government, industry and community through shared open data, technology and algorithms.

Level 2: Accelerating adoption

What does it look like?This phase focuses on identifying and encouraging adoption within select high-value sectors and use-cases to help catalyze the value of the digital twin – ultimately driving private and public sector collaboration, helping to reduce costs, increase asset delivery and operational value.

What’s a good example?

  • The UK’s NUAR was an initiative designed to increase safety, reduce construction costs and accelerate permitting; with a return on investment of 30:1, making it a high-value application in the utilities space. The pilot tested the functionalities and demonstrated the value of NUAR – resulting in the launch of the MVP in 2023 and a commitment to be fully operational by the end of 20255.
  • Digital Twin Victoria highlights some early applications of their digital twin such as smarter infrastructure delivery, fast-track smart cities and support environmental and disaster management6.

Level 3: Delivering at scale

What does it look like?The focus of this phase is on building scale, industrializing use-cases across sectors and increasing private sector involvement to unlock the long-term digital value of government-built assets and data. Use cases in this phase are often more complex due to integration requirements, but more valuable due to the insights unlocked.

What’s a good example?

The UK has three distinct examples of driving scale and helping digital twin thinking permeate across the ecosystem:

  • Incubator to implementation. Having completed its five-year mission as an accelerated incubator in 2022, the CDBB has migrated its thinking on digital twins into the Connected Places Catapult to support stronger engagement with multi-sector industries7.
  • Standards thinking. The Digital Twin Hub was established as a network for finding digital twin partners and collaborators – available to all government departments around the world (not just the UK), thereby creating a valuable community to support the delivery of digital twins9.
  • Integrated twins. The TRIB Transport Digital Twin Vision and Roadmap to 2035 focuses on creating an ecosystem of connected digital twins for multi-model UK transport networks, thus unleashing the true power of twinning. This includes harnessing the ability to optimize traffic flow, providing live updates on EV chargers and reducing infrastructure maintenance8.

Level 4: Embedding as standard

What does it look like? In this final phase of digital twin adoption, two things take place simultaneously: a) a standardization of how digital twins are embedded and applied, and b) an evolution in the definition of digital twin technologies and capabilities. In the former, digital twin applications have become standard practice among infrastructure stakeholders. In the latter, emerging technologies can augment and disrupt existing digital twin capabilities and unlock new value levers for the next wave of digital twin outcomes.

What’s a good example? Although many jurisdictions are moving towards embedding a standard, a federated level of adoption has yet to be achieved. In the future, there will be a continuous evolution beyond the current standard as emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, become prevalent and are embedded into the next generation of digital twins – thereby restarting the maturity lifecycle.

What winners do: lead from the front.
In conclusion, digital twins could unlock immense value for society, governments and the wider infrastructure sector. But governments will need to take the lead; here are four areas how governments can get started, to help create a robust and sustainable digital twin ecosystem.

  1. Clear policy. Set a clear vision on how digital twins can add value to federated infrastructure delivery. Create data sharing policies and legislation accordingly to help ensure data availability, privacy, security and responsible data handling, using Ontario's BBFA guideline as an example9.

  2. Collaboration frameworks. Develop a common language, design standards and data management frameworks at the sub-national level and leverage existing work from the UK's Gemini Principles and Information Management Framework to make digital twin development more consistent, interoperable and easy for everyone involved10.

  3. Accountability and orchestration. Establish an independent organization and clear leadership at the sub-national level to coordinate everyone across infrastructure sectors and groups—private, public and academic—to help ensure efficient governance, holistic stakeholder engagement and maximum value through system optimization.

  4. Foundational wins. Invest in developing foundational and reusable digital twin ecosystem capabilities such as common development tools, centralized data sets, stakeholder engagement models and data governance frameworks. These should be created upfront to maximize returns in later stages of the rollout, following examples like NUAR in the UK11, Digital Twin Victoria12 and Ontario's AHSIP13.

With contributions from Julian Watts, Peter El Hajj, Chris Zhan, and Susanna Zhao

  • Naina Gazula

    Naina Gazula

    Senior Manager, National Digital Infrastructure Lead

    Blog articles
  • colin earp headshot

    Colin Earp

    Partner, Global InfraTech and Digital Infrastructure Leader

    Blog articles