Can AI and digital twins contribute effectively to environmental sustainability while taking care of divergent stakeholder interests?

We’ve all heard it, but is it fact or myth? You must have heard or read more than a few experts telling us that economies and businesses need to embrace digitalization as an enabling pillar for sustainability.

While it’s true that governments and enterprises should increase their commitments toward environmental sustainability, the reality is that contributing to this global cause often conflicts with divergent stakeholder interests. 

Notwithstanding the question of whether they could stand up to the ‘green’ scrutiny, from sourcing to production to installation, would the digital technologies we seek to embrace – such as AI and digital twins – truly help?

To find out how advances in design, modeling and simulation can help, DigiconAsia sought out some insights from Nicolas Mangon, VP of Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC), Autodesk.

According to the World Resource Institute, APAC now contributes to 53% of global GHG emissions. What should enterprises in the region do to improve?

Mangon: The construction industry is one of the biggest contributors to GHG emissions. The numbers are staggering: The manufacturing/construction and building sectors account for 23% of emissions in APAC. ​​One study estimates that up to 27% of SDG targets are directly or indirectly dependent on activities within the construction and real estate sectors.

It stands to reason that what is really required to move the needle is for change to come from within the construction sector. Digital technologies can help drive the convergence that’s required to achieve balanced growth between business and environment. In fact, recent research found nearly half the companies in APAC mentioned sustainability as a crucial part of their business strategy. These companies share a similar approach to tackling sustainability – adopting digital technologies.

Advanced technologies such as building information modeling (BIM), generative design, and digital twin can boost predictive capabilities, optimize resources, save costs, and improve efficiency. These tools have created buildings that are more sustainable, perform better, and ultimately last longer.

A very good example that comes to mind is the work we did with TÜV SÜD for their new ASEAN headquarters located in Singapore. From the start of the project, our solutions were adopted as the native ecosystem by the project team to cover all core trades – architecture, Mechanical, Electrical and Plumbing (MEP), and for structural engineering.

By optimizing productivity and building performance right from the design stage, TÜV SÜD achieved some key benefits – design time savings of 70%, lighting costs improved by 51%, and reduction of the facade’s thermal value. With BIM and BIM-based simulations incorporated, the team was able to achieve an Envelope Thermal Transfer Value (ETTV), which measures heat gain through the external walls and windows of a building, that is 35% better than Singapore’s current code requirement.

As more nations in APAC declare their carbon-neutral goals and drive green initiatives, action must now be taken to embrace digitalization as an enabling pillar of sustainability.

Nicolas Mangon, VP of Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC), Autodesk

What impact does the AEC sector have on global and regional environmental sustainability?

Mangon: APAC is one of the fastest growing regions in the world and is set to add another 1 billion new urban dwellers by 2050. With a growing middle-class population, there will be an inevitable demand for more things – food, water, housing, transportation, infrastructure, energy etc.

The AEC sector is under pressure to keep up with this pace of urbanization, but this should not be at the risk of its sustainability commitment that will eventually lead to long-term economic and community damage. The building sector alone contributes to 28% of total global carbon emissions.

The domino effect and knock-on effects to the region’s overall development will be difficult to manage. This is because what we build has a hidden climate impact due to factors such as embodied carbon – carbon emissions generated from extracting resources, refining, manufacturing and logistics. To put it in context, embodied carbon currently makes up 11% or more of global emissions – more than five times higher than the 2% of global emissions produced by the entire aviation industry.

The construction industry is the number one consumer of raw materials in the world. Faced with depleting natural resources worldwide, we must rethink the way we make things. Regional governments have acknowledged the importance of sustainability and climate change and are putting in measures but the progress has been uneven and even more importantly, sustainability is not merely limited to government action. It’s a call to action for both the private and public sectors.

Solutions already exist that can help these businesses effectively manage the full lifecycle of what we construct, manufacture and produce – from design to decommissioning. At Autodesk, our software and services harness emerging technologies, such as additive manufacturing, generative design, and robotics, that provide automation and insights for companies’ design and make process. For example, the  Embodied Carbon in Construction (“EC3”) tool enables the building industry to easily access and view material carbon emissions data, allowing them to make carbon-smart choices during material specification and procurement.

The building and construction industry has historically been slow in adopting technologies. Businesses need to act now and adopt digitalization and leverage technology to overcome critical challenges of skill and resources, accelerated by movement restriction and lockdowns necessitated by the pandemic over the last two years, and make an impact towards sustainability.  It will take a collective effort to cut the gordian knot that’s holding us back.

How can organizations in APAC balance business and environmental sustainability more effectively?

Mangon: Asia is the fastest-growing region in the world. According to the 2017 Asian Development Bank report, to continue this momentum and to meet the region’s infrastructure needs, the Asian economies will need to invest US$1.7 trillion per year and this includes the inclusion of climate and sustainability-related investments.

This huge demand for infrastructure comes at a time when the world is recovering from the impact of the pandemic, global supply chain disruptions, depleting natural resources, less space, and a finite number of skilled workers.

In addition, the construction industry generates nearly a third of global waste, with volume expected to double by 2025. The manufacturing supply chain wastes roughly 70% of spare parts — resulting in inefficient supply chains, wasted warehouse space, wasted materials, wasted time and money.

As businesses in these industries become increasingly concerned about sustainability and making a positive impact on the world, technology can not only support business performance but also achieve better outcomes. Designers and engineers that adopt sustainable design approaches and technology will be poised to support these initiatives. Take the example of BIM, an intelligent 3D model-based process to plan, construct, and manage infrastructure projects, in construction. The technology can create detailed and accurate drawings, and outline the exact amount of materials required for a project, minimizing any wastage in materials used, saving costs and optimizing resources.

Therefore, businesses in the region, especially the building and construction industry in Asia, have to be supercharged for sustainability and efficiency. While this is a massive challenge, technologies such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) can solve many of the problems that the industry is facing today. It’s changing how we work, what we work on, and what we’re capable of making.

With digitalization a key strategy for business and environmental sustainability, how do digital twins help?

Mangon: A digital twin is a dynamic, up-to-date digital replica of a physical asset composed of design, construction, and operational data. The physical asset could be a road, a plane, a building; anything that we see in the real world.

Let me give you an example to illustrate how digital twins help. Today, buildings generate 39% of the total global carbon emissions; 28% due to operations such as heating or cooling while the rest is due to choice of building materials and construction processes. By using a digital twin, architects and engineers can explore millions of options while designing a new building.

By using AI, they can craft the ideal design – this could be the shape of the building, materials to be used, whether the building design needs to be rotated by a few degrees for more efficient energy utilization etc.

For example, in 2019, Leighton Asia – a leading APAC construction contractor – collaborated with Autodesk to work on the expansion of the Hong Kong International Airport. Leighton Asia developed a BIM model of the airport expansion, converting it into a digital twin. This helped them to optimize its operational processes, integrate workflows, verify construction feasibility and identify gaps even before commencing work.  The approach led to sustainable and streamlined operations, reduced reworks and helped mitigate safety risks.

BIM is the most efficient path to the creation of an accurate, high-value digital twin. Digital twins bring together the rich data created during the design, construction and operational phases of the asset lifecycle. This data informs the early-stage planning and design for new projects, enriching the entire BIM process.

With the addition of real-time operational data, digital twins acquire the behavioral awareness necessary to simulate, predict, and inform decisions based on real-world conditions. Digital twins can help retain valuable data that might be lost during the handoffs between the design and build phases. It helps simulate the full life cycle of a physical asset to understand its long-term performance and carbon emissions – making construction and manufacturing more sustainable and economical.

Digital twin technology gives owners a tool to take control of the design-and-build process. Armed with data-rich intelligent digital twin technology, owners and project stakeholders can use dynamic views of project and asset information to improve delivery efficiency, reduce risk and uncertainty, and increase the resiliency and sustainability of their portfolio.