Driving a consistent approach to digital twins in the built environment


Spatial Digital Twins are an advanced spatially accurate digital representation of the real world and are emerging as a powerful tool to help people improve their understanding of our physical environment and make better-informed decisions, which should ultimately lead to improved outcomes and benefits.

Digital Twins assume that the value of data is vastly improved when it is aggregated, and then distributed and shared for decision making. Conceptually, digital twins can mean a model of an object, a physical asset, a process or a complex environment such as a city, but here we are referring to the built and natural environments.  Today Spatial Digital Twins are operating at various levels of maturity and complexity from individual built structure, both above and below ground, through to the development of an accurately positioned city model across most major sectors of the economy. However, Spatial Digital Twins are currently recognised as being at a relatively early stage of maturity, with much more potential value to be unlocked as their use cases mature. The challenge is in understanding the complexity of applications across industry sectors, the level of maturity of the digital twins in terms of quality and value, and the frameworks which enable data sharing and governance.

The drivers for Spatial Digital Twins include, aging infrastructure, resource distribution, connected and autonomous transport, mandatory digitalisation of cadastral information, and a critical need to address urban risks such as changing climate and rising inequality.

To drive a consistent approach to digital twins in the built environment, ANZLIC has developed the Principles for Spatially Enabled Digital Twins of the Built and Natural Environment in Australia which describe high-level principles, benefits and use cases for spatially enabled digital twins in the Australian context. The principles also outline the vision of a federated ecosystem of securely shared spatial digital twins and their value for the Australian economy.

Opportunity for Growth
  • Spatial Digital Twins are an essential component of the overall digital transformation agenda across government and industry, which is advancing rapidly.
  • Spatially-enabled Digital Twins can be designed to better plan, manage, and maintain resources in urban environments.
  • Place-based, or spatially accurate digital twins, are driving the need for better access to high quality data to allow advanced visualisation and analytics.
  • As data availability increases, along with computer power and cloud infrastructures, this will enable the development of models or digital twins and the increasingly complex simulations of the built environment, whether it be city models or transport networks, or fine element method (FEM) based process models or designs.
  • In 2009, the number of people living in urban areas (3.42 billion) surpassed the number living in rural areas (3.41 billion), and since then the world has become more urban than rural.
  • Currently the UN Sustainable Development Goal #11 for sustainable cities and communities cannot be achieved without significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces.
  • The key opportunity is that while data frameworks are in their infancy (relatively speaking) and offer potential to integrate current and future data streams to bring together different models, we are a long way from the vision of Spatial Digital Twins being available as open data and simulations using open standards at all levels of government.


This thought piece was originally written by FrontierSI’s CEO, Graeme Kernich, and Tony Wheeler, CEO Surveying & Spatial Sciences Institute (SSSI). It has been re-drafted for this website.