Digital twins: a new view of assets and portfolios

Digital twins offer the opportunity for better understanding and maintenance of assets and portfolios, but work must be done to create a new information management landscape and greater collaboration


  • Terry Stocks

31 July 2020

The concept of a twin is not new, but in the context of assets, a twin is the linking and referencing of information between two entities. One of those entities will be the physical asset, the other the traditionally paper assets, including drawings, operational instructions and schedules. A digital twin, in its simplest form, creates this link through a digital medium, enabling more efficient access and intelligent outputs for all stakeholders.

Built environment professionals will be familiar with the issues of accessing as-built information for an asset, be it newly constructed or existing. Assets with a full set of updated and referenceable information are not the norm. The likelihood is that the older an asset, the less reliable the data. The concept of a digital twin is to create a base data set for an asset, and for that data to be updated during the operational lifespan.

Information about a single asset is useful, however, information about a portfolio of assets and information on how those assets are accessed and used by the general public and occupiers allows for a greater degree of benchmarking and trend analysis to be undertaken between assets. At present, data sets at this level remain on client systems where data and information exchange can be controlled and security easily managed. Data is at its most powerful, though, when it is shared widely, enabling whole asset owner groups across sectors to benchmark and plan based on wide and trustworthy data sets, including how people interact and travel to those facilities and the wider area.

Challenges and progress

The report Data For The Public Good, produced by the National Infrastructure Commission and endorsed by the UK government, outlines the impacts data has and could have in driving efficiencies in our planning, operations and decision making at asset, portfolio and national planning levels. However, the more widely the data is shared, the more potential issues there are. These can include problems created by different ontologies, also called asset naming strategies – if things are not named in the same way or referenceable as being the same, then the full value of the digital twin cannot be realised – security, access platforms, and protocols.  

There is work ongoing to create the environment for a digital twin; the Cambridge University Centre for Digital Built Britain is working to deliver a developed road map with the aim of progressing to a National Digital Twin, ‘an ecosystem of connected digital twins, securely sharing infrastructure information to support better outcomes for us all’. The current asset delivery and operational landscapes don’t lend themselves to the creation of open and shareable information. Procurement environments can be cost-based and even when they are based on collaborative forms of contracts, in reality, subclauses or weighted quality/cost scores – in favour of cost – can drive non-collaborative behaviours.

The current capital delivery and facilities management markets are often not aligned. The data provided at capital delivery handover does not align with the level of information a facilities management (FM) provider requires. FM providers are therefore forced to survey completed assets to gather such a level of information and tend to classify their collected data to suit their own organisational systems, which goes against the aspirations of a digital twin. 

Progressing towards a National Digital Twin is not going to be a quick journey, but building owners, operators and service providers can benefit now in their own organisations.

Service providers can also reap rewards by being ready to accept delivered data and use it in their own software platforms. The foundation for this is the adherence to the UK BIM Framework standards, guides and resources which are based on current national and international standards.  

Government Soft Landings (GSL) has recently gone through a re-launch and is now better aligned to the UK BIM Framework approach. The soft landings process is detailed in BS 8536-1 Briefing for design and construction: Code of practice for facilities management (buildings infrastructure) and BS 8536-2 Design and construction: code of practice for asset management (linear and geographical infrastructure).  

GSL is about thinking of the end at the beginning, which means considering what information needs to be collected, what format it needs to be collected in and how it should be accessed in operations in order to enable the delivered asset and service to be as envisaged. This element is essentially the BIM owner’s information requirements, which help shape the project brief. The asset delivery, when aligned to the UK BIM Framework and GSL process, tests and challenges the design development through delivery and ensures the data and information handed over to operations is validated and structured. The whole process drives a level of transparency and collaboration that is missing in current delivery models.  

"The current asset delivery and operational landscapes don’t lend themselves to the creation of open and shareable information"

Providing the golden thread

The UK BIM Framework advocates the delivery of data in a structured, assured, complete and accessible format. The data should be held on the building owners’ systems and accessed by the FM agent or other service providers. In this way, the client benefits from owning an accurate and updated data set for their assets and can test building performance against their aspirations and expectations. This data set, while being a form of delivered digital twin, will also provide the data ‘golden thread’ discussed in the Dame Judith Hackitt report, Building a Safer Future.

The report, commissioned following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, outlines the importance of transparency, starting with the stated intent of the design with regards to safe building standards, to delivery and continuing through operation. The government response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report has been shared in industry papers and consultation, and legislative changes are to be laid before parliament shortly. A comprehensive digital approach to delivery will support their compliance.

Another element of the report is the Building Safety File, a document to be developed during the design stage, validated through delivery and handed over and updated in operations. The file will be accessible to the building owner so that they can evidence they are complying with their responsibilities. Meanwhile, the building operator can update the information to record work done and, more importantly, provide evidence the work was done to the required quality. Having a set of core specified data that accurately reflects the current state of the asset provides the data golden thread and therefore goes a long way to maintaining and evidencing a safer building.

The benefits realised as a result of the digital twin model will depend on the relative data awareness and adoption maturity of the client, delivery team, operator and other relevant stakeholders. During design the digital twin model can be used to simulate outcomes, helping to make decisions on the drawing board that will impact the whole operational lifecycle. The operator or FM provider can bring the model and data into their own operational practice – deploying sensors for example – to drive better decision making and inform the client about operational optimisation.  

Undertaking dynamic planned maintenance, rather than the current cyclical approach, could decrease maintenance costs and increase operational continuity. A better alignment between all parties associated with an asset, including users, will change the current relationship norms and allow for better outcomes.

As the digital twin approach matures and new information management landscapes are developed to enable the safe and open sharing of data, large-scale benefits can be realised at a national planning level and beyond the assets themselves. This means supporting delivery of national carbon targets, increasing industry efficiency and delivering a wider value from our national assets. The government’s Transforming Infrastructure Programme and the Department of Transport’s Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy outline the changes required.

As professionals we should be working together now to promote the UK BIM Framework and GSL approach. As a result, we can start to create asset-level and portfolio-level digital twins and build the foundations of a national digital twin that will improve strategic planning, project delivery, and operational and business outcomes for all.

Terry Stocks is director – UK head of public sector and education at Faithful+Gould

Related competencies include: Data management

"The operator or FM provider can bring the model and data into their own operational practice"

Related Articles


go to article Car park guidance fire safety around EVs


go to article Data integrity key in golden thread and building safety


go to article New technology can support natural capital valuation