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Griffin on Tech: Time to get serious about digital twins and infrastructure

Peter Griffin, Editor. 15 September 2023, 11:35 am

Whoever wins the election next month will oversee billions worth of new investment to address our country’s infrastructure deficit.

Roads and rail links will be built, eventually maybe a couple of expensive tunnels across Auckland Harbour too. Our water infrastructure will need to be overhauled, hospitals and schools upgraded, a new terminal for the Interislander ferries in Wellington. The list goes on.

But those and future infrastructure projects can be made much more efficient if we leverage digital infrastructure too. I’m talking about digital twins, virtual models of real-world infrastructure, buildings, systems and machinery.

By creating a digital version of our water infrastructure, for instance, engineers can simulate changes to the system, monitor it and run tests and maintenance more easily. Digital twins are speeding up product development in the manufacturing sector and are increasingly on the radar of governments.

The capital has its own Virtual Wellington digital twin programme. Post-earthquake Christchurch had the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) Geospatial Information System (GIS), which delivered a valuable geospatial dataset for the city. But the programme was disestablished.

Data siloed

“In New Zealand, data is currently siloed, and a lack of coordination and interoperability of data standards is hampering progress. With record infrastructure investment underway, the time is now to move digital enablement forward,” wrote Infrastructure New Zealand this week in a position paper on digital infrastructure.

The UK has the Centre for Digital Built Britain, a partnership between the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the University of Cambridge, which brings together smaller digital twins. According to Infrastructure New Zealand, the centre found that “every £1 invested in information management could potentially secure up to £6 of labour time savings”.

You have to wonder whether the ballooning cost of our infrastructure projects. The Riverlink project in Lower Hutt to shift Melling railway station, build a new bridge and improve stopbanks, was slated to cost $700 million, but could now top $1 billion. Part of it may be down to the escalating cost of labour and materials. But many projects also need to be rescoped in the planning stages as new information comes to light. That’s where digital infrastructure could help save money.

Developing digital twins is a line item in the country’s digital strategy though little was officially happening in this area until recently. I understand that is starting to change. But we’ve a long way to go.

Infrastructure has made three recommendations:

- New Zealand Government Procurement Rules for infrastructure include a requirement to return data to client agencies at the end of project delivery and to ring-fence ongoing operating expenditure to procure software to access the data. Capability in government agencies will need to improve to utilise this data effectively.

- Ongoing development of metadata standards for infrastructure are properly resourced and implemented.

- Clear governance arrangements are established, with Te Waihanga, the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, in a coordinating role, championing the collaboration required between the public and private sectors.

That would be a good start in an effort to get smarter about our approach to infrastructure at a national level.


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