16 AUG 2021


In this long read, Steve Cockerell from Bentley Systems explains how digital twins are reimagining the future of transportation.

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase by about 2 billion people, from 7.9 billion to 9.7 billion. And, while growth rates vary greatly across different regions, in the eyes of the United Nations, the future of the world’s population is most definitely urban. 

Around 80% of the U.K. currently live in urban areas. A combination of a growing population and increased urbanisation is placing a huge amount of strain on the infrastructure assets that support nearly every aspect of life.

It is our roads, railroads, and bridges that will be most affected. But, for the foreseeable future, these critical networks are the only way to keep our cities and country moving. 

Our future must be more sustainable

Around 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions can be traced to infrastructure. Every infrastructure asset, large or small, has a carbon impact when it is built – through the design, materials, and construction methods we adopt, but also throughout their operational life, through the carbon-heavy behaviours they support.

With figures from the International Energy Agency (IEA) indicating that transport accounts for around one-fifth of all global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, it is road vehicles that account for three quarters of the 8-billion-ton total number. 

Almost half of this (45%) is you and me, as passenger movement including – cars, motorcycles, buses, and taxis – provide the main culprit. At the other end of the scale, rail and transit emits very little – just 1%.

So, who’s problem is it? Rachel Skinner, the current president of the UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers, recently said: “There is no path to delivering net-zero by 2050 that doesn’t run through de-carbonising transport. Significant reductions in carbon emissions need to start now.” 

So, while it requires political and economic support, as well as social change, it is the professionals that design, build, and operate the world’s infrastructure that have the greatest potential to make the changes necessary – to reimagine the future of infrastructure, for a better tomorrow.

Make change part of your strategy

Something we cannot ignore is the effect of Covid-19. Rail networks and stations turned into ghost towns, while our streets became completely deserted during lockdown restrictions. The projects we work on have changed, with adjustments to project schedules and, in extreme cases, complete cancellation. 

But the pandemic will also change the way assets are operated in the future, requiring new processes to be adopted to ensure the trust of passengers is restored, so people feel safe to return to public transport, their offices, and public places.

Despite all the negatives, it has forced us to create new opportunities, and should be used as a catalyst to change businesses for the better. Many are now expecting that working from home will form part of a better work-life balance, with communication and collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and others becoming increasingly important for many.

The global pandemic has been a wake-up call, that change happens and sometimes we have no power over it. The experience of the last year has shown what we can do when forced to change. It has been an indicator to the level of opportunity that change provides if it is part of a strategy for delivering better business outcomes versus a reaction to challenges encountered.

Reimagining the new normal of transportation

We have to find safe, sustainable ways of overcoming the challenges we encounter in what is a very complex industry. 

In the short term, this means increased digitisation, remote working, and a greater reliance on BIM. In more advanced cases, we should be looking to include 4D and 5D simulation to re-plan and optimise project schedules.

Part of this also includes revolutionising projects through using digital twins as a means of providing real-time feedback and insight into decision-making processes. 

As the case for digital tools proven to increase productivity becomes even stronger, this will drive automation across the design and construction phases. This includes the increased use of off-site construction, where working in more easily controlled environments makes it easier to keep people safe and drive up quality.

There is a lot that we can do to help deliver a new wave of transport, especially through using advanced digital technologies to support activities across the lifecycle of infrastructure assets.

From providing smarter decisions that help target project investment and design optimisation, to enabling the use of different materials or methods of construction to save money and enhance safety, the bottom line is that the decisions we are making today really do matter for a better tomorrow.

Data-driven decisions with digital twins

Through digital twins, the way we design, build, and operate infrastructure has evolved along with how the professionals involved make decisions, and in turn the possible outcomes. 

Charged with operating, maintaining, and improving England’s motorways, Highways England (HE) recently announced its Digital, Data and Technology Strategy in support of their wider strategic business plan. In it, HE sets a four-year approach to how they will achieve their key objectives of providing safer, smoother, and more reliable journeys for their customers. 

HE is already using digital twins to improve the design and test the strength of their strategic road network for the benefit of the road users and operators. The government-owned company uses maps to navigate its “smart motorway digital twin” to access critical asset management information, enabling better decision-making across the organisation.

Contracted to perform civil works on the first phase of High Speed 2, and with the help of Bentley Systems, Skanska, Costain, STRABAG Joint Venture (SCS JV) is working in a connected data environment to shorten design review time by 20%, saving an estimated £500,000. SCS JV was also able to identify potential errors earlier in the process, saving over £700,000 in construction costs alone. 

And, by extracting data directly from its digital twin of the project, its 5D+ approach helped increase the accuracy of material quantities, while measuring the cost in CO2 to improve the sustainability of design and construction.

Through infrastructure digital twins, the future of transportation is very much being reimagined today to deliver a better tomorrow for everyone.

Steve Cockerell is industry marketing director for transportation at Bentley Systems.


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