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Digital Placemaking Category

A Fifth Twin for Bath: an Augmented Digital Twin?

by Stephen Hilton

Aix-en-Provence in France is one of four places that are twinned with the City of Bath. The others are Braunschweig (Germany), Kaposvar (Hungary); and Alkmaar (Holland). What if there was a fifth twin - a “Digital Twin”? This was the idea that, in early 2020, we started to explore with support from Bristol+Bath Creative R+D.

Digital Twins are virtual models that use data, often generated by internet-connected sensors (IoT), to visualise how physical locations or assets operate. They increasingly aim to be “Smart”, incorporating Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enable advanced modelling and testing of scenarios.

The genesis of Digital Twins can be traced back to the work of NASA in the late 1960’s (for example, see here) but it is Michael Grieves of the Florida Institute of Technology who is credited with their use in manufacturing. The idea has continued to gain traction with Industry and policy makers over the last decade. For example, Gartner placed Digital Twins at #5 in their top-10 strategic technology trends (2017) and the Centre for Digital Built Britain launched a National Digital Twin Programme Hub in 2018.

Digital Twins are closely aligned to Information Management. They are more easily deployed, at least in theory, in industrial sectors where standards already apply, for example, Construction, Engineering, Utilities, Logistics, Automotive and Building Management. The Centre for Digital Built Britain’s Gemini Principles (2018) seek to establish a language and values to make data sharing easier in future. The nine principles focus on Purpose, Trust and Function. They suggest Digital Twins must: provide benefit to the general public; enable performance improvement while creating value and providing insight into the build environment; enable security and be as open and transparent as possible using good quality data. In addition, a federation of digital twins must be based on a standard connected environment with clear ownership, governance and regulation, while adapting as technology evolves. Successfully applying these principles is complex and the Connected Places Catapult also identified the need to build greater Digital skills amongst place-based leaders as a significant barrier to wider take up (Digital Twin Competency Study, Sept 2021).

The application of Digital Twins across the “messy” creative sector is inevitably less well developed but there are some examples of Digital Twins being applied to product design (for example, see). It was, however, the creative sector’s wider strengths in data visualisation, storytelling and creating experiences that initially caught our imagination. Could these strengths harness the Gemini Principles to help shift the Digital Twin opportunity from 2D to 3D to immersive experiences?

The High Value Manufacturing Catapult Centre’s 2018 report on The Feasibility of an Immersive Digital Twin noted that 80% of participants in the study believed that immersion would be a valuable delivery mechanism for Digital Twins. This was particularly true when, dealing with complex data sets that have an interdependence, context is crucial to the data navigation and decision-making, and engagement with mixed stakeholders, audiences and simplified dissemination is critical to the message delivery.

Our Vision was for an Augmented Digital Twin. This would be a dynamic, virtual copy of the City of Bath with an Augmented Reality interface. It would enable multiple stakeholders to emulate and experience how city systems work, in the present and in the future. Uniquely, we envisaged the Bath Augmented Digital Twin as a way to stimulate the city’s creativity and imagination, becoming a platform for exploring future city trajectories, informed but not limited by data.

Uniquely, we envisaged the Bath Augmented Digital Twin as a way to stimulate the city’s creativity and imagination, becoming a platform for exploring future city trajectories, informed but not limited by data.

In consultation with our collaborators, Bath and North East Somerset Council and Limina Immersive, we sketched out three initial use cases for the Bath Augmented Digital Twin, which we’d hoped to further develop. These were:

· The Underground City: an interactive AR city map of the area in and around Bath Abbey and the Roman Baths, including the many historic vaults, caverns and passageways that lie beneath the ground. The opportunity that excited us was to enable professional stakeholders and the public to immerse themselves in the historic development of the city, including places that are hidden from view or not physically accessible.

· The Managed City: a footfall map demonstrating real-time usage and flow between key city centre locations. Our aim was to better understand peaks and troughs in footfall and model how different interventions, such as targeted social marketing or public realm improvements, might help disperse or flatten out demand.

· The Resilient City: a mobile augmented reality tool to allow city data layers to be activated in real-world settings, for example, visualising spatial, real-time energy use or heat loss, solar potential, traffic movements, air pollution, noise pollution, flood risk etc. The aim was to better inform multiple stakeholders about the stresses that future city development will need to address and to test the effects of radical and innovative actions such as evaluating planning constraints for listed buildings, restricting vehicle movements, increasing local (micro) energy generation, planning infrastructure, planting more trees or naturalising river channels.

So why did the project fail? The answer is simply bad timing! In March 2020, just as the first wave of COVID-19 hit the UK, we were poised to bring together, for the first time, a group of c30 stakeholders from Industry, Academia and National and Local Government. There was a degree of excitement at the prospect of working with Bath, to build a Digital Twin literally from the underground city upwards. Our commitment to engaging the region’s creative sector was equally compelling for many – an opportunity to push the boundaries on what had been done before. The Pandemic made it impossible to get people together physically and Zoom seemed, at that time, a step too far. Alongside this, as the pandemic continued, the priorities of our collaborators’ inevitably shifted and key personnel moved onto other things. The Bath Augmented Digital Twin remained on the virtual drawing board.

Could we start again now? There is certainly still market interest in Digital Twins but this is increasingly as “connected” rather than stand alone models. For example, earlier this year, the Digital Catapult cited Connected Digital Twins as an important future technology trend in their Digital Future Index 2021/22 predicting a global market value of £48.2bn by 2026. Echoing this opportunity, the European Commission also recently announced its Destination Earth project, “DestinE” to build a Digital Twin of the entire Planet, using connected supercomputers around Europe.

The context for cities like Bath has also shifted significantly. The pandemic has forced nations and their populations to lockdown. Disconnects have arisen, which Brexit has also added to. Until recently, Bath was one of the UK destinations most visited by international tourists, but as Global travel remains disrupted, these familiar visitors are now largely absent. In addition, the shift to greater home-working continues to impact on vibrancy of urban centres and the Climate and Ecological Emergencies feel more present everyday. A “Green Digital Twin” might bring some new insights and value – but perhaps, there is also a wider opportunity for places to reconnect?

Town Twinning grew up in Europe after WW2, promoted by the Council of Europe as a gesture of cooperation between places. It is predicted that as many as 500 cities around the World could be using some form of Digital Twin by 2025 (for example, see here). Could Digital Twinning build on the spirit of the original Town Twinning movement by becoming a new way for places to reach out and connect through an act of post-pandemic, post-Brexit digital solidarity? Could co-created shared immersive Digital Twins connect people and places who may no longer be able to be physically present together? In this way, the “Augmentation” of the Digital Twin that we originally envisaged remains valid - but what would be added to the model is empathy and understanding rather than simply data.