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’. For the housing sector, digital twins (virtual representations of physical spaces) have been a key part of those digital transformations.
At a recent virtual roundtable hosted by Civica, housing experts explored the benefits and challenges around digital twins. While it was widely agreed 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.
Setting the standard
Housing providers have endless possible data points that need to feed into a digital twin, but often this data is held in legacy systems with no defined standards. Unless data is collected and managed effectively, then it is of little practical use.
Leading manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and defence provide clear examples of the benefits of having consistent data standards. As well as the overwhelming amount of data to consolidate, organisations also need to find financial breathing space to implement any strategic project. After all, most budgets are already stretched simply trying to remain 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 ways to get started that will convince boards and other stakeholders of digital twins’ immense benefits.
Digital twins – ensuring better, safer, greener homes
Our roundtable experts offered some tangible examples for how digital twins could help housing providers. On a practical level, one participant told a story of how sharing 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.
At a more strategic level, digital twins will help organisations meet and exceed new legislative standards and rules. Compliance can be expensive but an accurate digital twin will give detailed insights regarding how efforts should be focused.
Ultimately, digital twins have the potential to make housing providers more effective at delivering better outcomes for their tenants. They could increase safety, help people reduce their utility bills, and improve transparency by showing tenants exactly what’s happening in their building in real time.
Beginning the journey
How should housing providers begin their journey towards digital twins? One roundtable participant explained how they had started by gathering data with a 3D camera. While not as accurate as a laser survey, it’s much cheaper and a good way of starting to collect data. Other participants are starting geographically, by focusing their efforts in one area rather than sending lots of people to numerous locations all at once. Collecting data during a routine visit, such as 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 – to complete a visual inspection for electrics, staff only need very basic training, whereas other data often requires specialist knowledge (e.g. a quantity surveyor has to complete years of training).
A clear message from our roundtable was that some aspects of data collection can’t, for the moment, be left to machines alone. For example, when safety teams walk around a site, they might notice fly tipping or other dangers that current technologies wouldn’t pick up. Building the datasets for a digital twin will take many staff-hours, so starting small is the best way to get going, adding more data streams when budgets and time allow.
Tools and techniques
While other sectors such as healthcare or aerospace are leading the way on having clear standards that participating organisations must adhere to, the housing sector is nowhere near that level of standardisation. While some attempts have been made (e.g. HACT), legislation has a vital role in fostering the creation of a consistent set of standards in our sector.
The range of systems which organisations use adds further 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 housing providers seem to favour a back-to-basics approach for getting data in order, by partnering with a strong IT supplier and standardising and consolidating information, rather than adding new layers of complexity.
Fortunately, the tools are already out there; housing providers just need to evaluate the best solution for their needs and be open to new standards as they come along.
Digital twins – not if, but when
- While organisations might think digital transformation is 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 your structured data and get it validated by skilled people; you 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 have transformative potential for social housing, from helping tenants save money, to reducing their impact on the environment and enjoying better living conditions, as well as a plethora of operational benefits for housing providers themselves. 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 organisations 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.
Helen Rogers is the product director for housing at Civica.