Here’s a poser: Could ‘digital twin’ boost green initiatives to help find sustainable solutions? A little honesty will help here. Everyone wants to lead a ‘good’ life. But we don’t know how to get there sustainably. Our old methods continue to destroy the only habitable planet we know of. We are clueless in reversing the damage caused and preventing further erosion. Once in a while, a new idea or technology promises positive changes. But in a few years, the technology is pushed into oblivion. Given this background, a new kid on the block, digital twin, is making inroads.
What is Digital Twin?
A digital twin is a digital replica of a living or non-living physical entity. By bridging the physical and the virtual world, data is transmitted seamlessly allowing the virtual entity to exist simultaneously with the physical entity. Now, enterprises are incorporating the multi-billion-dollar digital twin use cases in their Industry 4.0 initiatives. An unexpected addition to the growing list of digital twin adopters is the green warriors. So what realistic expectations should the green warriors have of digital twin? Let’s find out.
Challenges of Going Green
The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Meeting the insatiable demands of 7.7 billion humans is a daunting task. In just 30 years, we expect to add 2 billion more to the mix. How are we going to develop sustainably? What could we learn from the present to preserve the future?
A Complex Problem
Leaving aside the ayes-and-nays debate on environmental issues, one thing is clear. We have created a complex problem for ourselves. Systemically, through the decades, our planet has been plundered. The effects have compounded and extricating ourselves from this mess is no simple task. The many intertwined models are way too complex for humans to comprehend and solve.
Irresponsible Use of Resources
Despite our astounding progress on all fronts, we have failed on one – the ability to live in harmony with nature. My less educated grandmother had more wisdom than me on this front. Today, our waterways are choked with plastic, air is filled with poison, and nature is the patch of green on the balcony. We mastered extracting goodness from limited natural resources. Can we say the same for reducing and recycling?
Lack of Stakeholder Participation
The environment is for everyone and not limited to the global leaders to discuss at the high-table. It’s also not limited to a few individuals to fight for the cause nor is it limited to the tribes fighting to save their homeland from the enterprises. But don’t we all have our priorities in trying to make a living? I get it. I am equally guilty of being in that position. How can we reverse the situation? How could the people unite to solve their problems?
Digital Twin: The New Mantra
The digital twin concept is built on the core concept of a digital equivalent for a physical entity. The idea is to use Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to capture the physical world in a digital format. Practically any physical entity or an asset – a car, an airplane, an entire factory and even organic beings – can have sensors transmitting information on a real-time basis to its digital twin.
The sensor data is augmented by the use of existing and emerging technologies for numerous prognostics and diagnostics purposes. With an understanding of digital twin, let’s look back into the challenges and understand the potential solutions.
Complexity: Today, many agencies, government and non-government, are already collecting large amounts of data about the surrounding environment. Digital twins can help assimilate data from existing and new sources. Using AI algorithms, it’s possible to link the data and information. Large-scale simulations on the data set, using digital twins, can help with a better understanding of the challenges facing us. Many infrastructure projects like ports in Rotterdam and Singapore, or smart cities at Bristol and Milton Keynes, are using digital twins to collect data about the urban sprawl and simulate situations to make the cities efficient. Can we do the same for our planet? It’s possible with the right collaboration.
Resources: Many regulations exist on paper. The on-ground realities, however, are drastically different. Digital twins can help virtually represent the current state of our natural reserves. Live data combined with a visual depiction of natural resources can lead to better monitoring, implementation and management. For instance, digital twins are used to estimate the reserves in coal mines. Digital twins along with blockchain are also being deployed for solving complex supply chain problems. Can we monitor and solve the resource-to-recycle supply chain? It’s possible!
Stakeholders: The penetration of internet and mobile devices has taken information to the remotest corners of the world. Can we leverage the medium to educate stakeholders of the need to take part in the conservation efforts? Real-time information, decentralised control of monitoring and managing natural resources, and timely information can bring a real change in the way we perceive and care about the environment. For instance, the Department of Conservation at New Zealand uses digital twins to monitor and understand ‘kākāpō, an endangered bird species. Imagine a visual representation of the river flowing through your city choked with plastic or a 3D real-time depiction of the air quality index in your locality. Every human being can be a stakeholder in preserving our planet.
Hope for the Future?
Digital twins are not the silver bullet for solving the mess we have created for ourselves. However, digital twins offer a good starting point for us to leverage what’s at our disposal, bring technologies and stakeholders together, and pave the path for creating a greener future. While an autonomous vehicle and building a human habitat on Mars may sound sexy, we should also turn our attention towards saving our only home. Charity begins at home. Doesn’t it?
This article was first published at Entrepreneur.com