Transport infrastructure as a system of systems : developing an interconnected Digital Twin of UK Roads

4th Jan 2023

To achieve the digitalization of the UK built environment, in 2018 a 5-year partnership, the Digital Built Britain Program, between the University of Cambridge and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was created to transform the UK infrastructure industry. As the program developed, it became clearer that one of the main paths to achieve the digitalization of our economy was through the development of a National Digital Twin, i.e. an ecosystem of connected Digital Twins that can foster better outcomes from the built environment. Throughout the Program, until its closure in September 2022, a series of guidance documents (Gemini Principles, Flourishing Systems, and An Integrated Approach to Information Management) was finalized to assist the digitalization of the country’s-built assets, highlighting innovative ways to deliver more capacity and ensure improvements in the way our infrastructure delivers social and economic services.

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Digital Twins and their current applications 

A Digital Twin can be defined as a virtual representation of an object or system that covers its lifecycle and provides real-time data regarding present and future conditions. Concretely, three elements compose the system:   

  • a physical asset or a system of assets that come together to provide a service, 
  • a digital asset, which form depends on the use of the data and usually consist in either raw data, a schematic representation, or an immersive visualisation,  
  • a stream of data that connects cyber and physical assets to monitor present conditions and through simulation, machine learning and reasoning to test future scenarios. 

The need to develop and use Digital Twins comes from the limits of the current methods used to map the built environment, through drawings or static 3D models that only capture a snapshot of the infrastructure’s conditions, and inaccurate data usually collected from third parties which can delay responses. Digital Twins allow to create a live, constantly evolving replica of the physical asset and to understand operations, mistakes, and disruptions.  

As the National Digital Twin Program has highlighted, the use of Digital Twins in our built infrastructure can provide benefits to:  

  •  Society: making the stakeholder engagement process more transparent and improving the quality of public services provided through an enhanced infrastructure performance; 
  • Economy: a resilient, cost efficient and secure infrastructure will enhance national productivity and virtual trialling will reduce risks and create an environment for innovation to take place; 
  • Environmentdecreasing disruption and waste, increasing reusable solutions and greater resource efficiency will foster the circular economy through the built environment.  

Digital Twins in the transport infrastructure  

Digital Twins have been used in the transportation industry for the past 20 years, primarily to plan supply chain logistics, in the development of new road schemes to understand the connections between new routes and the existing infrastructure, or to create virtual representations of single assets, like bridges or junctions, to monitor conditions and improve maintenance. 

As part of the 2021 New Digital Roads Strategy and the future Road Investment Strategy, Highway England has announced the project to develop a Digital Twin of the UK strategic road network (SRN) to better monitor maintenance issues, reduce time and costs in site inspections and reduce emissions by 50%.  

Connected Plus, a consortium commissioned by Highways England and responsible for all operations on M25, has already completed a 3D version of the motorway using drones’ technology and realizing the largest mapping exercise to date in the country. 

As highlighted by National Highways the aim for the future is to increase the use of Digital Twins to improve design and test the strength of the SRN for road users and operators.  

Digital Twins, in fact, contain detailed information about the road layout, drainage systems and signage and would combine these with predicted traffic flow models, incident management plans, and, once operational, live and projected traffic flow data. 

However, the potential advantages of implementing Digital Twins go beyond a focus on road maintenance and operations, which only take into consideration drivers and users of the roads. Better planning and thoughtful solutions are possible when Digital Twins of the larger built environment are connected to form a Digital Ecosystem. 

Enabling Digital Ecosystems 

A Digital Ecosystem is achieved when different Digital Twins from the transport, energy, telecommunications, waste management and water infrastructure are connected to each other, and interoperability is ensured so that two or more systems can exchange and use information.  

As it emerges from the white paper “Flourishing Systems,” creating a digital ecosystem means integrating people, connections, sustainability and digitalisation. 

Integrating Digital Twins will make it possible to manage and develop the transport infrastructure as active and responsive part of the wider built environment.  

In addition to the benefits of implementing Digital Twins, Digital Ecosystems will open for local improvements in the transport infrastructure as they will:  

  • enhance cross organisational collaborations between local authorities, providers, contractors, and users to provide composed responses to economic changes and global issues at lower costs and lower risks;
  • adapt solutions to local socio-economic dynamics, considering mobility, accessibility and location of housing sites and economic centres when planning for multimodal transport systems that accounts for local needs. This will allow to consider not only road users, but also adjacent communities and the impact of the road infrastructure on their lives.  
  • allow to test and plan for solutions with reduced environmental impacts as we move towards the Net Zero target. In this sense, having a digital ecosystem will enable decisions to reduce carbon footprints to be taken according to location, conditions of the current infrastructure, and so that targets to reduce emissions are set in an approachable manner that considers how local communities function, the availability of a sustainable transport network locally, and reliance on car dependent travels. 

How do we enable Digital Ecosystems?  

 As much as the benefits sound promising and guidance and regulations have been updated, there is still a lot of work to do to implement successful Digital Ecosystems. Some issues seem to arise when it comes to information management and digital leadership.  

In 2021, the Center for Built Britain published a guidance document to enable effective information management in the Integrated Approach to Information Management.  

Yet, to realize the benefits of a Digital Ecosystem there is a need for a strong management and leadership force with actors that allow for information to be used in a way that:  

  • grants that public benefits are achieved and distributed throughout society  
  • commits to Net Zero, setting feasible and substantial targets   
  • develops a transport infrastructure that is accessible and that accounts for communities’ needs.  

In the current fragmented scenario where contracts and rules of engagement make it difficult to collaboratively undertake innovation and changes, how should an effective digital leadership be developed?

Discuss with us on CIHT Connect.

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