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Digital Twins: From Data to Management

Image courtesy of Willow

Originally developed by NASA, digital twins are quickly taking over the commercial real estate industry as the must-have tool for big data and efficiency from construction through the asset management life cycle. The industry’s biggest players are increasingly on board with digital twins, but for the uninitiated, a digital twin is a powerful technology that converts all quantifiable aspects of physical structures into living, learning and evolving virtual replicas. It is the most intuitive way to store, organize and access the incredible amount of data generated by the various complex systems that make buildings “smart” for owners, facility managers and other built environment professionals. And yes, to answer your question, you can get a really futuristic-looking digital replica in 3D or in a 2D layout.

The goal with digital twins is to give built environment professionals real-time insights to strategize and optimize various aspects of a building’s operations. The technology is ultimately supposed to open up new horizons for sustainability, tenant experience, efficiency and risk management, as owners and operators will have complete transparency and a single source of truth on big data from across a facility’s complex systems. Owners can solve problems before they happen and identify previously impossible integrated strategies. For example, if there’s a corner of the 29th floor that tends to be a bit warmer than the thermostat’s set point, the digital twin should let you know whether the source of the problem is with the air conditioning unit that serves the space, the fan that provides cooled air to the entire floor or the nearby south-facing window that isn’t sufficiently shaded or insulated.

But how do you get from the collection of this massive amount of data to something that you can actually use? This part is not simple, and not all digital twin technology can help you develop a bespoke solution for your property suited to the way your firm works.

Clean Data & Customization
The original digital twin models were essentially virtual dashboards of building systems and management data. In other words, the technology-enabled digital twin was originally a replication platform. Today, however, they do much more — or, at least, they should.

One of the major hurdles is establishing clean, easily navigable data. The best digital twins solutions don’t simply compile data and sort it; they tag, structure and normalize that data so that it’s accessible and able to integrate seamlessly with third-party technology. This is the important part. Many of the technology systems installed in today’s buildings are notoriously difficult to pair with other solutions.

This is an issue, because the real insights are to be found in the development of a holistic digital approach that allows the digital twin actually to work in tandem with a bespoke series of other proptech solutions to develop analytics and insights that drive informed, agile decision-making.

You can think of it almost like having a smart phone. The phone performs its basic functions for any user, but apps personalize it to the needs of the individual user. Digital twins aren’t that much different. Your data should be easily integrated to your customized suite of data services, whether it’s climate control, fault detection, cost management, safety, leasing activity, meeting room management, visitor security, access controls, water reduction or any number of details geared for your team members that make your building hum, whether it’s a commercial office, apartment tower or something less traditional, like a football stadium, airport or data center. Without that, the data can be difficult to maneuver and act on, even with a virtual replica.

It is true that digital twins are the next step in the evolution of sustainability, safety, risk management, efficiency and user experience in the built environment, but getting that granular mass of data is only half the battle. Putting that data to work is what will ultimately optimize your building for performance, and that is the goal.

Ian Siegel has a passion for leveraging technology to improve how major building projects are designed, constructed, maintained and operated. In his role as a digital project director with Willow, Siegel is leading Willow’s Digital Twin delivery team on several new construction projects throughout North America for Brookfield Properties, Oxford Properties and The Durst Organization.