Interview Leaders of Digital Transition in the UK – Peter El Hajj, Head of Delivery – National Digital Twin Programme

We all know that the United Kingdom has been since the start, one of the most advanced and leading nations in terms of BIM implementation. Thanks to their national standards and policies around digital, BIM, Digital Twins, MMC, and many other subjects of innovation, they’re definitely leading the way. In that context, we have this week, the pleasure and honor to receive Peter El Hajj who occupies an important role as Head of Delivery of the UK’s National Digital Twin (NDT) programme. This initiative is going to put the UK even more at the forefront of innovation and will bring lots of benefits to its citizens.

Hi Peter and welcome on ABCD. Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers and tell us about your background as well?

Thank you for having me, Emmanuel. It’s a pleasure to be able to speak to you and your readers today. By trade, I’m an engineer with a PhD in asset management. Before getting involved in digital and innovation, I worked in infrastructure finance and on various EU research projects.

You studied in France, didn’t you?

I did. I spent few years in Nantes, one of the nicest cities in France with a buzzing innovation scene. There, I did a master’s in civil engineering at Ecole Centrale de Nantes, then a PhD in asset management at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes in collaboration with University of Nantes. In my research, I worked on infrastructure lifecycle simulation and management using stochastic processes.

Have you always been passionate about digital, information management and innovation since your studies?

Well, my interest in the digital world goes back to before my studies. I remember receiving my first PC when I was just 5 years old. Despite it being even taller than me, I was very fascinated by it and was keen to learn and understand how it worked. So you could say I have always been driven by a scientific curiosity which I believe lead me to where I am today, working in information management and digital transformation.

When did you enter Mott MacDonald and what have been your roles there?

I joined the company in early 2017 as a consultant in the infrastructure finance advisory team based in London and later I became a part of Mott MacDonald’s newly formed Digital Ventures team working on digital transformation, deploying Moata products and investing in early stage start-ups. The purpose of digital ventures is to improve infrastructure performance and enhance social and environmental outcomes. Currently, I am the ESG (Environment Social Governance) product lead for Mott MacDonald Digital Ventures, and Head of Delivery of the National Digital Twin Programme at the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB).

By the way, could you please tell us more about Mott MacDonald and what their focuses are?

Mott MacDonald is a global consultancy employing 16,000 staff in 150 countries. Our purpose is to improve society by considering social outcomes in all we do, relentlessly focusing on excellence and digital innovation. Mott MacDonald is one of the largest employee-owned companies in the world. We have worked on major projects around the world and recently are supporting Europe’s largest hydrogen project (NortH2 project). We also have a fantastic team in Paris!

When and how did you start working for CDDB? By the way for our readers, what is the CDDB?

The Centre for Digital Built Britain or CDBB is a partnership between the UK’s Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the University of Cambridge. Its mission is to understand how the construction and infrastructure sectors could use digital technologies to better design, build, operate, and integrate the built environment. CDBB leads several major programmes such as the UKBIM Framework, the International BIM Programme, and the National Digital Twin Programme (NDTp).

I began working with CDBB in 2018. The National Digital Twin programme was being established and they needed to develop the “roadmap for effective information management” which was my first task on the programme.

Were you already involved in the Digital Twin topic before becoming head of delivery for the National Digital Twin programme?

I did come across the concept before getting involved in the NDTp. In fact, I worked on them in my PhD although they weren’t called that at the time. Digital twins still mean different things to different people, but all descriptions share a common characteristic – a dynamic connection between the digital and the physical worlds to make better decisions and provide better outcomes. I don’t think digital twins are one technology, they are rather formed of multiple components and technologies that come together to enable a specific use case and serve a unique purpose. As digital twins emerge, they must extend beyond individual assets and into the systems they are part of, and this extension is what the NDTp is aiming to enable.

In a nutshell, what is the National Digital Twin programme, why is it so important for the UK and what are the timeframes of its deployment?

The NDTp is a socio-technical change programme that envisions an ecosystem of connected digital twins joined together by secure and resilient data sharing that can benefit society, economy and the environment. To share with you some numbers, it is estimated that greater data sharing could release an additional £7 billion per year of benefits across the UK infrastructure sectors alone. So the NDTp is an important programme for the UK and is part of the National Infrastructure Strategy.

To enable the National Digital Twin, we are developing the Information Management Framework (IMF) – the building blocks that are necessary to enable effective information management – and growing the Digital Twin Hub (https://digitaltwinhub.co.uk/) which is a community for those who own, or who are developing digital twins within infrastructure and the built environment. With a motto of ‘learn by doing and progress through sharing’ the DT Hub was set up for sharing lessons learnt from real-life use cases, addressing challenges and identifying best practices on developing digital twins. We currently have 1,400+ members from 800+ organisations all sharing and learning together. As you may have guessed, change at this scale requires time (multidecade) and focus, and can only be achieved by joint effort from industry, academia and Government.

Which ministries are handling it and do you have a national budget for that as per the digital transition of the construction industry with its 72M£?

The NDT program was set up by UK Treasury in 2018 through the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The programme is government funded and is heavily supported by industry and academia too.

How is it related to this “Data for the Public Good” philosophy?

Incidentally, what started our programme is a report by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission called “Data for the public good”. Public good is at the heart of what we do. We want open and secure systems, to improve decision making and bring better interventions to our built environment and people. BIM plays a foundational and complementary role for digital twins and the National Digital Twin.

How are you organized at the NDTp and which organizations are involved? Is it a mix of public and private bodies?

As I mentioned, the NDTp is a collaboration between industry, academia and Government. It is led by CDBB and steered by the Digital Framework Task Group which is a board of 30+ senior leaders representing tech groups, asset owners and operators, standardisation bodies, Government, supply chain, information management and security experts.

Does the National Digital Twin cover both Building and Infrastructure?

The scope of the National Digital Twin is intentionally broad in order to impact both the built environment and society as we have mentioned. It covers economic infrastructure, like transportation, energy, water, waste, telecom, as well as social infrastructure like buildings, hospitals, schools. This means that the National Digital Twin covers everything that is ‘built’. This in, in fact, only the beginning as we envision that connecting digital twins across other sectors beyond building and infrastructure can release even more value.

Will it require to develop new (open) standards and software/platforms or will you rely on existing standards, software, platforms?

The National Digital Twin core principles are set out in the Gemini Principles report that was published in 2018. A key principle is “Open” which sets out a programme that is open as much as possible. We do intend to maximise the use of available platforms and standards that are aligned with the Gemini Principles. But in some cases, we will develop new standards and protocols which comply with the Gemini Principle: being open, secure, non-acquirable, non-proprietary and for the public good.

With such a forthcoming amount of data, what will be your data strategy? And will you have to build hundreds of datacenters?

We are yet to define the infrastructure requirements for the National Digital Twin. There are still a number of key considerations that should be explored such as the integration architecture, distributed services, cybersecurity and environmental costs. All are very important questions that will inform a data strategy.

How long will it take to “build” this NDT?

It’s important to highlight that the National Digital Twin is not one large digital twin of everything, but  an ecosystem of connected digital twins owned by different organisations. Therefore, organisations across the UK will be the ones building their digital twins and connecting them using, for example, the IMF which will form the National Digital Twin. You can think of this ecosystem as analogous to the internet. No single entity will own the National Digital Twin but it will be supported by distributed and federated resources, functions, services and protocols.

Are there any plans to export it in other countries afterward?

I imagine yes, like the International BIM Programme which is also run by the CDBB.

By the way, do you collaborate with other European and foreign governments?

We are always keen to connect and collaborate. We have good connections with Australia, Canada, USA, the Netherlands, Singapore and international organisations such as the World Economic Forum. Also, there are various exciting EU projects taking place such as ‘Digital Twin Earth’ and the OntoCommons.

Will the use of this future NDT be free for people?

The programme is for the public good by design and purpose. So all resources developed by the NDTp like the IMF will always be free and open for everyone to use and there is no plan to change this.

You’re writing History, but what’s most exciting about this fantastic adventure for you?

I’m glad you think so. I feel very fortunate to be involved in this programme. We have a dedicated and altruistic team which makes the work even more enjoyable. What excites me most is having the chance to improve people’s lives through better infrastructure.

As you know both countries really well, what differences do you see between UK and France in terms of Innovation, Digital and BIM adoption and acceptance?

The UK is equipped with strong institutions that foster innovation and support new markets growth, and it is also an international leader in BIM, already exporting to other countries. I must confess, I’m not well informed about the level of adoption of BIM in France. However, I did meet with various French organisations and cities doing interesting innovation and digital work such as the SNCF digital twin programme and Rennes’ digital twin. However to my knowledge, there is not yet a joint national effort for data sharing across infrastructure in France.

You’re an engineer by training. Do you sometimes miss engineering houses, building and infrastructures?

Although I haven’t done any structural analysis or engineering design in a while, I’m still using my engineering skills. The way I see it, ‘engineering’ the data side is as important as the physical side and connecting the two sides can unlock so much value.

Would you like to say a few words to our readers?

I guess I would sum up by saying that data is infrastructure. We need to improve information quality and management so we can make better decisions. This is critical to tackling our more pressing challenges like climate change.

Dear Peter, thanks a lot for this exciting interview. We wish you the best for this great initiative and for your brilliant career.

Thank you very much Emmanuel for the opportunity to reflect. It was really a great pleasure talking with you.

Peter El Hajj

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