Helen Rogers, housing product director at Civica, looks at the potential of digital twins to deliver better, safer, greener social housing across the UK.
Every sector knows the importance of digital transformation. From aerospace to construction, automated processes and digitally-enabled collaboration tools have gone from being ‘nice to have’ to ‘can’t do without’.
For the wider construction and housing sector, digital twins (virtual representations of physical spaces) have been recognised as a key part of that digital journey for some time now. But what about our social housing sector, with its over four million houses? Towards the end of 2021, Civica brought together experts from leading housing providers and technology firms to examine the potential of digital twins to deliver better outcomes for both housing providers and residents. While it was agreed that getting started is a major challenge, digital twins have huge potential to make homes safer and greener, deliver savings and improve the overall resident experience.
Setting the standard
Above all, digital twins depend on high-quality, reliable data. Housing providers have endless possible data points that need to feed into a digital twin, but this data is all too often held in legacy systems ranging from hard drives to ring binders, with no defined standards. Unless data is collected and managed effectively, it is of little practical use. This is as true for housing as for any other sector.
If you want to see what good data management looks like, then look no further than leading manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and defence. The social housing sector is however not yet anywhere near this level of standardisation; while some attempts have been made (by HACT, for example), legislation has a vital role in building a consistent set of standards in our sector.
Better, safer, greener homes
What benefits could digital twins deliver for our sector? At a strategic level, digital twins will help housing providers meet and exceed new regulatory requirements. Compliance can be expensive, but an accurate digital twin will give detailed insights into where attention is needed.
At a more practical level, digital twins also have the potential to reduce bills and improve environmental outcomes. Real-time data could allow residents to understand 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.
Beginning the journey
How should housing providers begin their journey towards using digital twins? One of Civica’s roundtable participants explained how they had started trials by 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.
Some aspects of data collection can’t, for now, 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, resources and time allow.
Towards standardisation of data – tools and techniques
As well as managing housing, many of these same organisations are involved in care, some have commercial properties and some manage properties for other organisations. Each area of the business typically uses a different suite of software to manage its assets and information, making the standardisation of data even more complicated.
What simple steps can housing providers take to get their data in order? Many organisations favour a ‘back-to-basics’ approach, by partnering with a strong technology supplier and standardising and consolidating information, rather than adding new layers of complexity. The solutions are already available; organisations just need to evaluate the best solution for their needs and be open to new standards that may emerge.
Digital twins – when, not if
Digital twins will be transformative for our sector. The question therefore is not whether to start the journey towards digital twins, but how and when.
As a starting point, housing providers must have a clear purpose; think about the wider outcomes you want to achieve and how digital twins will help you get there. Crucially, this will require getting buy-in from across your organisation and from residents in particular.
The move towards digital twins isn’t straightforward, but the current challenges facing housing providers have been successfully overcome by other sectors. Housing providers should draw on those experiences and embrace the technologies which can help them towards a digital future.
Helen Rogers is the product director for housing at Civica.