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Digital Twins from inside a tech giant......

Kevin Reeves

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Hey all you lovely digital twin enthusiasts, I hope you are enjoying the sunshine (I am currently sat in my 'outside office' 🙂)

As many of you may know, I moved to Microsoft last September following a superb stint at Costain (who are awesome).......... have held back from posting until I had done some digging in the new role.

I have joined Microsoft as part of the Manufacturing & Resources leadership team in the UK, as industry exec for energy and utilities. The role is predominantly market making, looking 2-5 years ahead and identifying where Microsoft should focus to help unlock  / enable new markets. In energy for example there is a lot of work around digital enablement of the UK energy strategy, working across UK Gov, academia and industry to work out how to meet the ambitious targets by re-thinking the market….  Super interesting stuff.

One of the first things I did coming into Microsoft was start to lift the hood on what tech the business has to support digital twins….  I was instantly overwhelmed. As a business Microsoft does not really shout about the work it does in this space, yet it is vast. There are solutions Microsoft has built itself, which tend be global in nature (such as the planetary computer, or AI for earth) but more important is the enablement of the huge partner network. (such as the global digital twin being developed with blackshark.ai, born out of gaming). So many of the solutions used in digital twin, from design through to geospatial, are developed on our tech or use our clouds for scale.

Of course I was expecting Microsoft to have a strong presence, I just wasn't prepared for how expansive that presence really is.

The other thing I really wanted to know is can data really be shared at industry / national scale and how do you do this in a secure, resilient and trusted way for essential services, like food, banking, transport, water, energy, health etc…….    Approaches for open data sharing are OK and will get us some way, but what really interests me with digital twin is how do we connect digital twins that should not be open, how do you do this with the right governance, identity management, access control, auditability, traceability…..  The challenges in sharing data properly are vast, its difficult within one organisation getting different parts of a business to align with data policy as an example, how do you then do this across multiple organisations who all have different policies?

How do you deal with widely different data structures, system architectures, identity and access management….. The list of questions goes on and on.

Having asked these questions coming into Microsoft, as they are not yet properly addressed in connecting digital twins, I found that Microsoft is running trials all over the world looking at these challenges, and that answers are coming from places I was not expecting (such as retail in India!!!)

So does that mean Microsoft have all the answers? 

No of course not, it would be hubris to believe this for one second, however the business continues to develop enterprise relevant solutions with partners to enable the concept of connected digital twins and trusted data sharing at vast scale, in a secure way suitable for CNI. Without trust being built into digital twins, the value quickly unravels. Sharing data is pointless if nobody can trust the data or the mechanism for sharing it.

One example is the recent updates to purview, that automatically applies data policy to new data sets discovered, and if that data set isn't already in the catalogue for consumption across the enterprise, it gets added automatically…… so cool.

Another thing I wanted to know is are we focused on the right things, what tech is near to market that might fundamentally change how we approach digital twins. Again I have found myself overwhelmed. Natural Language Processing is now so good that us mere humans writing code is being democratised at pace  This is important as if connecting digital twins is too complicated we will hit skills barriers and restrict scale, democratisation of data engineering and data science is vital. I cannot of course reveal Microsoft secrets, but wow, I wasn't aware just how close to market the next gen no code solutions are. This also applies to information management, in the not too distant future we won't need teams of people trying to structure and organise our data, as NLP improves AI can understand those data connections, and define the integration between data sets. Instead the focus will be on data governance, policy, access management, context and softer skills that mean we can truly scale.

The last thing I wanted to know is why aren't the likes of Microsoft really visible in this space and leaning in to help, well that fundamentally comes down to the business model, which is to enable others. Microsoft is investing hundreds of millions into this space globally, but those investments are made largely through partners, or on the un-sexy stuff in the background nobody ever sees or hears about……… However I think our approach can change a little, by engaging more outside of the traditional IT landscape, working more closely with designers, engineers, policy makers, finance folk etc…..   The business has so much to offer without even realising it in many cases, which is why I am so keen to help join the dots across the DT community.

Lastly - Since the start of the NDT programme I have asked the question 'why not utilise the big cloud providers to help accelerate', the answers are good ones…. To promote competition, to avoid too much data concentrated in the hands of a few, to avoid being locked into one particular tech stack………  all very prudent.

However, now I know more about how Microsoft works I don't think we should be concerned, being blunt Microsoft tech is already everywhere in the built environment, we are the largest provider to commercial / industrial providers….. It is really a case of joining the dots that already exist.  The other thing is the investments Microsoft makes in open standards, whether it is with the ODI, OSDU, open banking, open food.. The list goes on…..  All done in a way that enables a competitive landscape.

I guess you are thinking  'I would say this working for Microsoft' but I have said this for many years before joining a tech giant, the main question for me now is how do we bring the tech giants closer to the ambitions of the DT community and the built environment as a whole.

There are so many tangible 'real world' projects happening in connected digital twins, super excited to see the market evolve and help shape the role of tech giants in accelerating the ambitions.

Have a good one peeps.




Edited by Kevin Reeves
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