Digital twins

Could digital twins revolutionise social housing?

Every sector knows the importance of digital transformation. From aerospace to construction, automated processes and digitally enabled collaboration tools have gone from being a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have’. The pandemic has, for each of us, put the digital journey into sharp focus. For the housing sector, digital twins - virtual representations of physical spaces - have been a key part of that digital journey for some time now.

At a virtual roundtable, housing sector leaders explored the benefits and challenges around digital twins and while it was agreed by all that getting started is a major challenge, it was also clear that digital twins have huge potential to deliver savings, make homes safer and greener, and improve the resident experience.

Taking inspiration from other sectors

Housing providers have endless possible data points that need to feed into a digital twin, and often this data is held in legacy systems with no defined standards. Technologically advanced sectors such as aerospace and defence provide a clear example of the benefits to having consistent standards.

As well as the overwhelming amount of data to consolidate, organisations also need to find financial breathing room to implement any strategic project. Budgets are already stretched simply trying to stay compliant with various regulations.

These challenges are similar to those faced by any organisation undergoing digital transformation. The focus for many in the housing sector should be on finding a way to get started that will convince boards and other stakeholders of the immense benefits.

Huge potential for better outcomes

Despite the challenges, the discussion brought forward some inspiring ideas for how digital twins could help social housing organisations achieve more?

On a practical level, one participant told a story of how sharing the data with a resident made them turn their heating down. They could easily see the effect a few degrees on the thermostat would have on their heating bills, carbon footprint, and on the comfort of other residents in the building. Nudge theory has the potential to drive strong behavioural changes in residents thanks to the information available through digital twins.

On a more strategic level, digital twins will help organisations meet and exceed new standards and legislation. Compliance can be expensive, but an accurate digital twin will give detailed insights into where to focus efforts.

Ultimately, digital twins have the potential to make housing organisations more effective at delivering greater outcomes for residents. They could increase safety, help people reduce their bills, and improve transparency between organisations and residents by showing people exactly what’s happening in their building in real time.

Beginning the journey

One participant explained how they had started trials gathering data with a 3D camera. While not as accurate as a laser survey, it is much cheaper and a good way of starting to collect data. Other participants are starting geographically – focusing efforts in one area, rather than sending people out to a large number of locations at once. Collecting data during a routine visit (for example, a boiler service), could make this even more cost effective.

The conversation explored just how much human input is needed to get the data for a digital twin. Some data can be gathered quickly and cheaply. For example, to complete a visual inspection for electrics, staff only need very basic training. But other data requires specialist knowledge – a Quantity Surveyor has to complete years of training.

It’s clear that some aspects of data collection can’t be trusted to machines. For example, when safety teams walk around a site, they might notice fly tipping or other dangers that current technology wouldn’t pick up. Building the datasets for a digital twin will take many staff hours. Starting small is the best way to get going, adding more data streams when budget and time allow..

Tools and techniques

In other sectors, from healthcare to aerospace, there are clear standards that organisations and their partners and suppliers must stick to. But social housing is nowhere near that level of standardisation. Many participants felt that while some attempts have been made (by HACT for example), legislation is the only real way to build a consistent set of standards in the sector.

The range of systems which organisations use adds more complication. As well as managing housing, many are involved in care, some have commercial properties, and some even manage properties for other organisations. Each area of the business typically uses its own software to manage assets and information.

Many seem to favour a back-to-basics approach for getting data in order – partnering with a strong technology supplier and standardising and consolidating information, rather than adding new layers of complexity.

Fortunately, the tools are already out there; organisations just need to evaluate the best solution for their needs and be open to any new standards that may emerge.

Final thoughts of the roundtable
  • While organisations might think digital transformation is a nice-to-have but not essential, other sectors have proven otherwise. It’s the ‘unknown unknowns’ that provide real value. 
  • Start from the ground up. It’s important to begin with the core structured data and get it validated by skilled people. Organisations will then have a solid foundation to build on. 
  • Look for immediate financial impact. Find a use case for digital twins that will bring a quick win and then use that to give yourself room to invest in other areas. 
  • Keep a clear purpose in mind and focus on the outcomes. Bring everyone along with you on the journey and get buy in from across the organisation and residents.

Digital twins present an exciting opportunity for the housing sector. Many can see the potential for digital transformation to help residents save money, reduce their impact on the environment and enjoy better living conditions. The question is not whether to start on the journey, but how and when.

The same challenges housing organisations are facing now have been faced – and overcome – by those in other sectors. It’s time for the social housing sector to draw on those experiences, come together to develop standards and work towards a digital future.