Creating a Digital Twin for Ireland

This is a copy of an article which was published in the Sunday Business Post on 24 May 2020. 

Disaster planning, emissions reduction and economic regrowth together with the three social challenges highlighted during the last election, of health, housing and homelessness, are issues which are currently dominating government formation talks. How these issues are addressed will define politics and society in Ireland as the country recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.  Some sectors have already been identified for emissions reform. Any reduction, for example, in the national herd will not be achieved without unpalatable political choices. The challenge for policymakers is to achieve required reductions in emissions with the least disruptive consequence for any one sector. A possible approach for the government to consider is the creation of a digital twin for Ireland, so that decisions and their consequences can be modelled and examined before being implemented.

A digital twin combines the multiplicity of internet of things, systems and public databases and consolidates these into a single portal, creating a “digital twin” of the country,  city or rural area. The simulation allows planners to create a virtual representation through which the impact of proposed changes, for example on construction, traffic, environmental conditions, public safety, energy consumption and building occupancy, can be modelled.  

“The digital-twin technology is there for the government to use and it has become more urgent now, post- covid that Ireland develops this unified approach,” said J.-C. Desplat, Director of the Irish Centre for High-End Computing. Digital Twin is a modelling approach which requires high-performance and complex computing which ICHEC is the national provider of. “If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is the inter-dependencies of government departments and agencies and we need to build on this co-operative approach to quickly restore the economy and to ensure we have adequate disaster planning for any future national emergency such as a pandemic” he continued.

The term 'Digital Twin’ was first coined by Dr. Michael Grieves from the University of Michigan in 2002, to mean a virtual or digital representation of any physical asset. It is used across industries today from engineering, to retail, to car manufacturing to improve and optimise processes.  A Digital Twin integrates systems and public databases into a single portal. It is a digital replica of potential and actual physical assets, processes, people, places, systems and devices that can be used for scenario modelling and testing.

“Creating and exploiting digital twins for planning purposes has become a widely used tool internationally,” Desplat continued. He cites the example of Glasgow in Scotland, where STG£24m was invested in the Glasgow Future Cities project in 2013. The investment was aimed at using technology to improve urban planning and addressed issues such as public safety, transport, health, and sustainable energy. Results included increasing active travel (walking and cycling), smart, low-energy street lighting, and more efficient use of public and social transport. An assessment of the project carried out by independent consultants in 2014 concluded that one of the key challenges the project faced was encouraging data sharing across citywide agencies. However, once this barrier was addressed, it “ left the city with a digital platform which is integrated, modular and scalable, and which offers extensive new opportunities for ongoing innovation”. 

“A digital twin would allow decisions to be made in a way which minimises the impact across sectors and livelihoods. A Digital Twin for Ireland would give policymakers and planners the tools to examine options in near real-time.” Desplat said. “Advances in Edge computing and analytics will improve the capabilities of digital-twin modelling, and Ireland wants to be ready for this,” he said. 

The path to bring Digital Twins to the level where their output can be used reliably for strategy formulation and  policy making is arduous but perfectly manageable with current technologies and skills base both in Ireland and at EU level. High quality models do already exist for most “components” of the Digital Twins. The real technical challenges are to bring those within a coherent framework (the “model coupling”) and ingest highly heterogeneous data sources (the “data assimilation” and “data fusion” stages). In other words, the coupling of these models and their ability to combine data from multiple sources (sensors, computer models, observations, data repositories, etc.), rather than the models themselves, are the key challenges.   

Partnership and Collaboration

At EU level, the European Commission and the European Space Agency have both recognised the strategic importance of such tools and are already pressing ahead with initiatives to support their active developments. The former recognised these decision support platforms as key to delivering the Union’s Green Deal, while the latter has launched its Digital Twin Earth Challenge to stimulate applications which combine AI and Big Data from Earth observation Data to provide forecasting on the impact of climate change and responding to societal challenges.

“While participation in these international efforts is important for Ireland, we will also need to develop a national effort focusing specifically on the island of Ireland, exploiting our relatively modest scale in terms of area and headcount to allow for more complex models,” Desplat said. “This dual approach would also enable us to pursue the development of such capabilities in areas of key importance to Ireland, such as, urban development/housing crisis, smarter agriculture towards greener targets, transport, and so on.”

ICHEC recognises that to develop a Digital Twin for Ireland, will require real-world sharing of data for applications across agencies and building consensus around such an inter-agency approach will be challenging but perfectly achievable. The recent experience of Covid is, Desplat believes, a game-changer. “We are presenting a vision for how Ireland can be best positioned for future pandemics as well as for the immediate challenges of reducing our emissions and solving the problems of health, housing and homelessness. The tools are there and advances in technology coming around the corner, in AI, and Quantum, will increase this capability. Ireland has a domestic high-performance computing capability to exploit in this area.”

Inter-Agency Forum

ICHEC is proposing the establishment of an inter-agency forum where the merits of a unified digital twin for Ireland can be discussed by all stakeholders from the Departments of the Taoiseach, Agriculture Food and the Marine, Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Housing, Planning and Local Government, Transport, Tourism and Sport, as well as bodies such as the Central Statistics Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, Teagasc,the Marine Institute, Transport Infrastructure Ireland and the National Transport Authority among others. Such a forum would also need the input of policy advice bodies, such as, The Economic and Social Research Institute, the Institute of International and European Affairs and the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner so that the practicalities of  data sharing and the regulatory and compliance issues around data protection could be addressed with ICHEC leading on high-performance modelling and model coupling. 

It is an interesting proposal and in the current situation one which would offer a unified approach to resolving some key policy issues.

“In the end, the data is there and being used across the public service. What we are proposing is aligning this information in a unified solutions based platform. As Covid has shown, with inter-agency cooperation much can be achieved in a very short time-frame. We do not need to wait for an emergency to address significant social issues or ensure the appropriate readiness of Ireland’s disaster management capabilities,” Desplat concluded. 

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