Double vision: digital twins, innovation and security

Ahead of her appearance at Utility Week Live in May, Alexandra Luck, joint policy lead for the government’s National Grid Twin Programme, speaks to Utility Week about its purpose and how to support secure, open data sharing in the interests of innovation.

“There is an issue with the description of digital twin because there are so many definitions,” says Luck when asked to give her explanation. “And I don’t think we’re probably ever going to get to the point of everybody agreeing”.

She continues: “What we’ve always talked about within the department is with digital twin you have a physical asset system or process and you have a digital model of that physical asset system or process. And then you have a flow of information in right time – it doesn’t have to be real time – from the physical into the digital. And then ultimately, you have the ability for the digital to exert an element of control over the physical so that basically the two things are always synchronised.”

This, Luck explains, can allow decision-makers to quickly find and roll out solutions to real-world problems by first exploring them in the digital realm.

She says the government’s digital twin programme has two main streams, firstly, “the ability to be able to bring information together from multiple organisations from multiple sectors, and enable that trusted, secure and resilient information sharing.

“How do we do that when information is coming from multiple sources from multiple sectors? How do we ensure that we get we can enable people to get the right information at the right time in the right place and so the user can understand the quality of the information that they have so they know whether that information is fit for the purpose to which they want to be able to put it?”

Luck says determining who are the “right people” is essential to security as “what we want is to be able to share the information we need with the people that have a genuine need to see that information where that information is sensitive. And that could be sensitive for national security reasons. It could be sensitive because of commercial interests, intellectual property, or obviously because it’s personal data.”

Alex Luck will speak about energy cyber security challenges on the Smart stage at Utility Week Live on 16 May. Full programme details are available here.

She says the aim is not to create a “giant data lake” but instead “a federated system whereby people can share the information they need to share with the people they need to share it with.”

This work will have value beyond the use digital twins themselves, Luck says. In the case of utilities, for example, she says there is a large amount of information in the industry about vulnerable customers, which could be used more widely but without customers have to register with multiple organisations.

At the moment, this information is held in lots of different places and maybe differ depending on when it was collected: “How do we ensure that everybody is actually got the most up to date information and are therefore able to provide the best service to the to their customers?”

The second stream of the programme is “looking at those tools that you sit on top of that information” so users can “analyse it, visualise and optimise decision-making”.

“What we’re also doing is we have a demonstration program, which takes the technical work from those other two streams I’ve described, and pushes them up against real life use cases and with real users,” adds Luck.

She says this demonstration programme is enabling them to test the generic framework they are developing and identify potential issues: “Do people use it in the way that we thought? Do they have additional requirements? Do we need to be looking at other problems earlier than we thought?”

“It’s a really useful way for us to test if actually this is both scalable and adoptable by the sorts of users that will need to be able to come on board with this type of process. It also means that we can start making it much more real for people because when we go start talking about digital twins, it’s not necessarily a very easy concept for people to get their head around.”

Luck says the demonstration programme is helping them to show people how digital twins can both enable them to do things they are already doing faster and more efficiently and also entirely new things that are not currently possible.

Furthermore, she says the demonstration programme is helping them to identify “softer” and “less technical” issues around the use of digital twins such as commercial, legal and ethical considerations as well as cultural and skill barriers.

By bringing together lots of currently separate stores of information, Luck says digital twins could in theory increase cyber security risk as “clearly while this is very helpful for decision makers, it will obviously also be in certain circumstances very helpful to people that have hostile intent.”

However, Luck says they are “very conscious” of these risks and have been “working very closely with colleagues from the security space” to ensure protective measures are built into the framework from the “the ground up”.

She notes the importance of dealing with the issue holistically, saying there needs to be a “layering of security” that includes physical entry points to systems.

As a parting shot, Luck notes that some of this data sharing will already be happening already but possibly in “ways that aren’t very secure” and don’t recognise the sensitivity of the information being handled.

By establishing arrangements for safely sharing sensitive data, she believes their work will be a net benefit on this front, helping to “drive a more positive culture around security”.

Utility Week Live 2023 takes place at the Birmingham NEC on 16-17 May. Register here to attend.