Sunday Times Climate Change Report 2021: Physics-based Digital Twins Hold the Key to a Decarbonised Built Environment

Last updated: 18th October 2022

A new Climate Change report from Raconteur, in association with the Sunday Times and IES, explains how physics-powered digital twin technology can close the gap between the sustainable design intent of a building and its real operational performance.

Awareness around environmental sustainability issues has been catapulted to new heights in recent years, not least due to high-profile commitments by governments around the world to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. One area that is key to meeting that goal is the built environment, which contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint.

The problem is that the high awareness around this issue is not proportionate to the action needed to drive sufficient change. Though building regulations have become more stringent with regards to sustainability, a significant gap remains between the design intent of a building and its real-life operational performance.

“There could be two buildings which are rated the same, but are used entirely differently, resulting in huge variations in actual energy use and CO2 emissions,” says Don McLean, CEO and founder at IES, a climate tech company supporting resource-efficient and healthy built environments. “While the buildings were designed to be the same, when it comes to the actual operational aspect they just don’t perform the same.”

Making new buildings operate as they were designed to is just one part of the problem facing the sustainability of the built environment. The other part is existing buildings, which present an even greater challenge. Given that over 80% of the buildings that will stand in 2050 already exist, the vast majority of these will need to be renovated to become more sustainable and energy efficient.

How can a building’s design intent for optimal performance carry through into operation without that performance then dropping? It’s a simple question but a complex, and urgent, challenge that requires innovative solutions. Some companies think the solution is artificial intelligence (AI), yet AI must be fed with accurate data which mostly doesn’t exist. Instead, IES believes physics provides more flexibility and accuracy, through the powers of digital twins.

The company’s physics-based technology, the Intelligent Communities Lifecycle (ICL), can create a live digital twin of a building, new or old, which responds and behaves like its real-world counterpart and delivers the data insights needed to decarbonise the built environment. By integrating physics-based simulation with the 3D model and live operational data, as well as machine learning and AI, IES’s innovative software makes real-time performance optimisation of built assets a reality.

“We can do things with physics that we can’t do with AI alone,” says McLean. “Through measurement and verification, calibrating the model to, statistically, a very accurate answer, we augment the existing intelligence of asset owners, powering better decision-making. It means we can look at an existing building and provide asset owners with accurate modelling to better understand how their buildings are performing now – and how they will perform into the future – to make the complex decisions required to decarbonise them by 2050.”

Crucially, the technology can be applied not just to a single building but an entire city or even country, providing insights that power a more global solution to climate change. If London has a net positive energy because of its investments in renewables, for instance, its excess energy could be fed back into the national grid to support energy needs elsewhere in the UK. At a more micro level, somebody with solar panels on their house could share their excess renewable energy with their neighbours.

That is the long-term vision of IES’s physics-based approach, but it requires action now. Though 2050 might seem a long way off, unless the necessary innovation is embraced today, it will be too late to achieve the progress needed to meet decarbonisation goals.

“If we don’t get our arms around this issue now, there will be serious problems in the future,” McLean adds. “When they watch the news and it’s all about storms and floods and wildfires, people are waking up to the realities of climate change and wanting to do something about it. But that awareness now needs to turn into real action. We are able to provide the solution which will mitigate climate change substantially for the whole built environment globally.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Climate Change Report 2021 in association with The Sunday Times. For more of the latest climate insights, download your FREE copy of the report at:

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