NZ Fry Up: National digital twin on the agenda, with smarter construction one benefit; Digital communications minister taking charge

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National digital twin on the agenda

There are some hefty projects on the New Zealand government’s books: health reform, water reform, Resource Management Act reform, and climate change response. And then there is the $12 billion spend on infrastructure. What’s the overarching vision? Who knows—well maybe some people know, but that’s not good enough, says Thomas Hyde, chief digital officer at engineering consultacy Beca.

Hyde is advocating for a national digital twin, a simulacrum which will let people see what all these reforms might look like and how they fit together. The advantage being that trying out different scenarios in a virtual environment—essentially gamifying the planning stage or “Minecraft for adults”, as Hyde puts it—helps avoid costly mistakes. It also tackles siloed thinking, where people are only focussed on their area of development, such as broadband or transport, and don’t work together to create a coherent vision. A national digital twin can also speed up decision making, with Hyde noting that the “Waterview tunnel [in Auckland] took 17 years to get through the process to agree; the actual building of it was relatively simple.”

Speaking to a TUANZ (Technology Users Association) audience this week, Thomas described a digital twin as “a virtual representation of a real thing. It looks like a real thing and it behaves like a real thing.” His example was Google Maps, an app containing information on all the routes which is augmented with real-time traffic data to provide people with the best possible way to get from one place to another.

There are national digital twins being created in other countries, such as the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), which is a partnership between the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the University of Cambridge. When Computerworld New Zealand asked Hyde if this was a blueprint for a New Zealand version, he says he’d want to see wider participation in the creation of a national digital twin here.

“I absolutely see this as an ‘NZ Inc’ approach, with delivery agencies like Waka Kotahi, local bodes (such as Auckland Transport and Watercare) and industry partners. It does feel like a central entity such as the Infrastructure Commission sponsoring the establishment and running of it,” he says. “My personal view is that it should be a more practical hands-on implementation than the CDBB, with a small team of people brought together to provide master planning decision support to start with.”

Hyde estimates that the cost of a national digital twin is a “few million dollars”, but that it in the context of multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects, this is “not a lot”. He notes that Singapore has spent about $70 million on creating a city-wide digital twin.

Construction sector to benefit from a digital twin

One of the first sectors to benefit from a digital twin would be the construction sector, which, Hyde says, hasn’t changed in 20 years. He says most projects are still bespoke, so there is an opportunity to bring in more industrialised processes to make the sector more efficient and sustainable.

“What if we could see across the whole country how much concrete is being lined up to be poured, what’s the opportunity to ‘green up’ that supply chain, how could we reduce the carbon footprint from that concrete, how can we start automate the fabrication process around that?” he says.

Hyde also notes that while there are large construction firms in New Zealand, generally they have small teams working on their own with small contractors who have very low digital maturity. Hyde cited a Centre for Digitally Built Britain study that showed that every £1 invested in digital could potentially secure as much as £6 of labour time savings, while at the same time boosting the UK government’s efforts to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“The evidence also suggests digital could enable cost savings across different stages of the asset life cycle, ranging from 1.6% to 18% depending on the life cycle stage,” Hyde says.

Digital communications minister taking charge

It all sounds very sensible, where do we sign up? In terms of next steps, Hyde thinks it’s “an organisational challenge, not a technical one” and that first up is finding a home in the government.

He was encouraged by Digital Communications Minister David Clark claiming responsibly for creating a national digital twin at the TUANZ event this week. This was after Infrastructure New Zealand, which first mooted the idea last year, came to Clark after shopping it around several government agencies. “I said it was probably my responsibility to pull this together. Someone has to own it in government.”

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