The United States Is Already Playing Catch Up With Digital Twins
Digital twins are digital models of physical objects, locations, and even living organisms. Experts in urban planning, healthcare, product development, and education use the models to accurately recreate and simulate how these physical objects operate in their natural environments.
Governments across the globe are pursuing the potential benefits of using digital twins by launching national or regional digital twin strategies, and some have already kickstarted their production process. The United States, however, has had a lackluster response to the emergence of this technology, currently lacking any comprehensive roadmap for adoption, which translates into a low adoption rate at the federal level. The federal government should prioritize using digital twins in upcoming infrastructure projects and work with state and local governments to incentivize them to create digital twins of their territories.
Digital twins differ from past conventional modeling technologies because the digital model links with Internet-connected devices—such as sensors—to gather, process, and simulate data in real time. Users can quickly adjust parameters in the virtual model and relay the results to the physical object for testing. This capacity for quick tinkering and experimentation makes digital twins particularly effective in helping users identify the conditions that lead to the most efficient outcome in a safe and timely manner.
Governments use digital twins for many purposes, including to monitor vital infrastructure, conduct simulations, and streamline urban planning processes. By using digital twins to make data-driven decisions, governments can minimize the disruption of essential services. For example, a report by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission estimates that using digital twins with smart meters could save the government up to £2.70 per every pound spent, as it would help optimize water networks and better support targeted maintenance and renewal efforts. The report also cites digital twins as a tool to better predict and pinpoint rail service disruptions, which cost the UK economy between £1.3 to £1.9 billion a year. Cities across the world are also using digital twins to better identify public safety hazards, map crime hotspots, and determine areas that need more government services.
Governments have started to develop digital twins of their territories and their vital infrastructure, such as power grids, roads, rail lines, or water infrastructure. For example, the United Kingdom launched the National Digital Twin Programme in 2018 to gather information on the potential uses of digital twins and obtain recommendations on how to scale the adoption of digital twins in the UK. The European Commission stated in its virtual world and Web 4.0. strategy that developing digital twins will be a crucial step in the transition to the spatial computing era. It also highlighted that the European Union is already investing in local digital twins, digital twins for the ocean, and its electricity grid. In the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are deploying digital twins to plan and monitor various major infrastructure projects. Singapore started developing a digital twin of the country as early as 2012 and announced its completion earlier this year, making it the first digital twin of a whole country. Earlier this year, in South Korea, the city of Seoul started rolling out the first phase of its Metaverse Seoul project, a virtual experience in which users can explore a digital replica of the city and access public services like virtual consultation for civil complaints, issuing government documents, and paying taxes.
While federal agencies have started looking into the potential uses of digital twins, the United States lacks a comprehensive adoption strategy. A 2021 report by Accenture highlighted that about 24 percent of federal executives reported that their organization would experiment with digital twins that year, and only 13 percent of executives said that their organization would be scaling up digital twins that year. The Air Force, Navy, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have recently started developing digital twins or manifested interest in creating digital twins. These are positive developments and a strong signal that the U.S. government is beginning to notice the potential benefits of using this technology. However, compared to the comprehensive adoption plans that other governments have in place, with some of them already deploying tangible results, the United States is already playing catch up.
The federal government should ramp up its adoption of digital twins to prevent the gap from widening. There have been calls for a national digital twin strategy, which would help kickstart the process. However, there are additional steps that could make the adoption process faster. For example, the federal government should prioritize the use of digital twins in the planning process of future infrastructure projects and make sure that these future contracts stipulate that the product delivered should not only be a physical object—such as a road, a power plant, or a railroad—but also a functional digital twin for future use. The federal government should also work alongside Congress to secure a line of funding to promote the creation of digital twins at the state and local levels. As other countries have shown, planning and developing digital twins is a time-consuming process. Further delaying the adoption of this technology would be a mistake that could take years to ameliorate.