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James Blood view of the impact of the Golden Thread and the advantages of and barriers to Digital Twins

28th May 2024

Following on from his first article on SGP’s recent success on the latest NHS Shared Business Services  (NHS SBS) Framework, SGP’s Digital Director, James Blood, takes a deeper view of the impact of the Golden Thread and the advantages of and barriers to Digital Twins in larger estates.

Digital twins are virtual representations of a physical object, system, or process that mirrors real-world changes in real-time. Not just a static data model, the Digital Twin captures live data from the physical through arrays of sensors.

This live and static data helps us to gain insights, predict future trends, and test the impact of decisions before implementing them and helps us understand how different actions might affect the physical world. These interventions based on data driven insights and decisions, deliver better more optimised organisational outcomes.

Digital twins have applications across various sectors and will play a leading role in delivering benefits to society, the economy, business, and most importantly the environment.

Since the introduction of the Building Safety Act 2022 and the new regulatory environment that requires us to capture, create, hold, and maintain the Golden Thread of information for building safety, the focus on Common Data Environments (CDEs) and BIM systems to hold and arrange data has moved centre stage. But it is important to hold on to the idea that although BIM is important (because it procures information throughout design and construction stage), it is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. Safety, efficiency, best practice, effective use of resources – are all possible from data, if done properly.

Digital systems are becoming a necessity for the NHS to manage its estate, both for capital and operational expenditure scenarios. At a previous New Hospitals Programme (NHP) open day, the theme was the realisation that the huge amount of works needed cannot be completed by just large contractors, so the NHS would need to engage with SMEs. This collaboration would require an open interoperable and modular approach, with explicit data sharing and fluid communications, all of which would be improved using open and accessible data standards and BIM systems, as well as supporting the development of Digital twins.

Despite the NHS accepting and even embracing the need for digital information, there are significant barriers to its effective implementation. The first being the main reason why digital information is so necessary – the NHS is big. In the words of Douglas Adams: “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” The NHS is a monumental and sprawling organisation with an extensive and arbitrary range of new and existing assets and a massive supply chain. The simple scale of it impedes its ability to coordinate and communicate and is a huge barrier to implementing the systems that would improve both. Arguably a chicken and egg situation.

The diversity across the organisation, from a national level to the inconsistency of equipment within an individual building, is a related barrier. The tendering process for the NHS has developed to guard against a single or small group of manufacturers having a monopoly, but the downside is that there is a) no consistency of the solutions being offered and b) data being kept in proprietary silos which as a result means the potential value of that data is significantly reduced.

Any system for data capture and analysis needs to be interoperable with other systems and must be able to share that data in a way that enables the right contextualisation’s to be achieved so the correct insights can be gained. This applies to all sites and Trusts, ideally using a common structure and ontology to make it accessible and usable on a national level.

For those of us of a certain generation, think Betamax versus VHS. Standardisation, like the drive for medical standards, is hard to achieve in such a heterogeneous organisation, but establishing commonalities will lead to better optimisation of assets, the sharing of solutions and more effective use of resources.

There are several programmes and campaigns, long-standing and new, that seek to develop concepts and platforms that are not tied to a single manufacturer or developer. For example, SGP is a part of the Digital Twin Collective, whose focus is on embracing collaborative, open, interoperable, and modular solutions to help successfully grow Digital Twins.

Data is agnostic and politically neutral. The maintenance and development of huge estates like the NHS and education portfolios, are of national and generational importance and their maintenance and development should be viewed in the long-term with actions based on impartial facts, rather than the vicissitudes of short-term politicking.

Digital Twins, developed around the principles of open, interoperable and modular, could and should play a key role in better managing, controlling and developing the NHS estate, as well as supporting a successful journey towards Net Zero Carbon, waste reduction and other sustainability targets.

SGP’s wins on the NHS SBS Framework will, we hope, offer us the opportunity to challenge the barriers within the NHS to achieve real-world savings and support key workers in delivering outstanding patient care for all of us.