As architects, designers, engineers and developers, we pride ourselves on early adoption of technology, embracing 3D modelling, modular housing, drones and augmented reality to compete at the cutting edge of the industry. It’s ironic that while we’re obsessed with digital innovation, much of the construction and building industry is still largely analogue.

Go to a construction site, or facilities management or a building’s maintenance office, and you’ll find files, folders, paper, email, USBs—thousands of pieces of information, all stored in different formats, passed through multiple hands.

As an industry, we still have work to do to truly understand and capitalize on the transformative power of digital technology, like so many other traditional industries have gone before us.

The word disrupt is often used, sometimes feared, but if Uber or Airbnb have shown us anything it’s that these “disruptions” are simply age-old ideas with a new twist, offering more openness and transparency.

There are some universal challenges that plague the construction industry: getting an accurate, real-time view on a project at any given time is difficult; going over budget and overschedule is common for large-scale projects; and dispute resolution on claims which generally cause delays in construction—all erode trust between owners, developers and contractors.

There is a new capability that can help address some of these entrenched challenges within the construction industry. This technology is known as a digital twin.












The benefits of seeing double
The digital twin is an exact virtual replica of a physical building or infrastructure asset. It captures all the building’s data—from design, project delivery to maintenance logs—simply, into a single and secure platform. Alongside this static data is a plethora of smart building and IoT sensor data, which is all then collectively harmonized and visualized contextually using the 3D geometry of the building.

This technology is not new, but its application in the built environment is.

It first hailed from NASA, where it was used to run simulations for the Apollo 13 Mission. NASA used the results of the simulation to come to the decision to slingshot the craft around the moon.

Leap forward to today, and we have seen digital twin technology evolve to embrace big data and Internet of Things to decipher an exponential amount of information, to the benefit of industries across multiple sectors and disciplines including aviation, oil and gas, and manufacturing. It also allows organizations for the first time to test and learn using new technologies or scenarios without causing interference to a physical environment or at a huge expense.

Put in the context of the property and infrastructure industries, it has the potential to truly revolutionize the status quo.

It’s about saving time, money and making lives easier
We’ve acknowledged that the built industry has been a little slower to maneuver and our industry does have a few challenges that are unique.

We face a few more hurdles than the average industry. Building an effective digital twin for a building or a complex infrastructure asset (an office tower or a railway system, for example) goes beyond just technical skills. It takes deep industry knowledge, true partnership and a services-led approach. From working with subcontractors to define the data standards and compliance needs, to creating, capturing and integrating static data (such as 3D models, asset registers, operating and maintenance manuals) with dynamic live data such as sensor and IoT data—this is a significant and complex endeavor.

Developers and owners can lose millions of dollars through re-works, delays and contractual disputes. In fact, McKinsey estimates that 98 percent of megaprojects suffer cost overruns of more than 30 percent; 77 percent are at least 40 percent late. Many in the industry believe that we have reached the limits of established technology like BIM systems.

A great example where a digital twin is going to revolutionize a development is Queens Plaza Park in New York City. The Durst Organization partnered with Willow to create a digital twin of the new development. It will capture more than 50,000 data inputs from Queens Plaza Park, including digital plans, 3D models and equipment, and asset information during the construction phase, to live and real time data, such as elevators and air conditioning, as soon as the building is operational.

For the thousands of contractors working on the construction of what will be Queens’ tallest building, this technology is game changing. It will fast-track Durst from using USBs and paper to inputting crucial building data into one system, creating a singlesource of truth for contractors, building managers and owners.

This kind of visibility of information across the entire building lifecycle is meaningful to the way in which buildings are constructed, managed and owned, and probably more significant is its potential to not just reshape the construction industry but also the built environment and the lives that it is designed to enhance.

You’re only as smart as the data you capture
The built environment is a living, breathing data-generating ecosystem. Everything from the lights, to the lifts, to the air vents and every individual arriving and departing, is producing information. Capturing this and harnessing the insights will be a game changer for everyone involved from design to development.

Broaden this out to large scale infrastructure and put it in the context of a rail network. Strukton, one of the largest rail businesses in Europe, has worked with Willow to develop a digital twin of its network, enabling it to manage every element of the network to minimize downtime (stoppages or delays across the network) to 99.8 percent. Think for a moment about what this means for profitability, customer experience, managing and maintaining the network by being able to pre-empt issues before they become issues—the slowing of door closures on a single carriage indicating a maintained check may be required.

The idea of smart cities has been bandied about for years, with no real consensus of what the term means. From architecture that creates more livable environments to urban design that better connects people to their surroundings—it’s all part of it. But without a digital twin platform to capture and organize all data from varied sources, the concept of smart cities is all a bit, well … conceptual. A truly “smart city” starts with smart buildings and smart infrastructure. It’s about connecting people to each other and the built environment.

Power from search and blockchain
One of the biggest ways digital twin technology is going to disrupt the industry is through its search function. It doesn’t sound like the most exciting aspect, but it’s going to make people’s jobs easier. When Backrub launched in 1996, nobody could have predicted in less than 10 years it would have renamed itself Google, redefined how we interact with the Internet and become one of the most influential companies in the world. Search is powerful and it’s going to reframe the way we think of smart buildings, smart cities and smart infrastructure in the future.

For example, within Willow Twin the Explorer 3D viewer enables building managers to pinpoint information on manuals, equipment and assets exactly within a 3D view of the building. Let’s look at another practical example. If you know that 25 per cent of fire dampers in a building need to be checked every year, how do you know which 25 per cent have been checked and when? With the Willow Twin, you have a permanent and searchable record of who checked what and when. It is an indisputable digital record and maintenance history. Compared to analogue records, or even digital records in the form of spreadsheets, a cloud-based, app-agnostic platform offers asset owners greater transparency.

Emerging technology blockchain offers greater transparency, for standards and compliance which enables owners and contractors to manage and even avoid disputes over contractual obligations. For example, through blockchain smart contract technology, thyssenkrupp Elevator can now manage new contracts designed with trust with their contractors. Both the building operator and contractor can see the exact availability of each elevator, the maintenance which has been conducted on each elevator and response times to alerts. All residing in the Willow Twin, this data-led approach to sharing information across the supply chain fundamentally changes the way building managers and contractors work together.

It’s all about services
We’re finally at a point where digital twins are a must have, rather than just a nice to. We’ve reached the tipping point where the technology is powerful and affordable enough to make it scalable. Digital twins have been made possible by three mega trends—processing power available at scale through Microsoft cloud services such as Azure Digital Twins; high speed connectivity with increased bandwidth, and sensor technology improvements and reductions in cost.

The digital twin platform is about so much more than just creating digitally-enabled buildings. It takes deep industry expertise and services including architecture and digital engineering, to connecting people and devices to the built environment and it will change the way we create places that people live, work and play.

Digital twin is a platform. The real value and innovation will come from the services that are developed on top of it. For us, we believe diversity is critical, so we’ve opened our APIs to let third party developers create new and innovative services on our platform. There are some amazing apps that have been developed, both in-house and by our partners. From data security to customer service—it’s an ecosystem that is constantly growing.

The next great innovators in this industry will be those developing digital twins and new plug-in services, and the visionaries who implement them. In an industry with such a rich heritage, it’s invigorating to be here—at the cutting edge of technology and the precipice of truly innovative disruption.


Shaun Klann is president of Willow. He is currently overseeing U.S. and European operations. His tenure has touched some of the world’s most iconic examples of building intelligence with landmark references that include the creation of smart building standards for the U.S. and Canadian federal governments, the world’s largest deployment of building analytics, and the industry’s first blockchain-enabled smart contract for building maintenance.

This article is excerpted from the 4Q 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly. Read more!