Digital Twins - seeing double for better place performance

The challenge

Digitisation of the built environment offers huge potential for optimisation of operational efficiencies and occupant comfort. But how do we shift this emerging field from vogue and vague, to veracity through defined value?

In this article

  • Understanding the application of digital twins for tenant occupancy
  • The role of data for planning, design, wellness and productivity
  • Improving user experience through augmented reality
  • A snapshot of our report on digital twins for the built environment

A digital twin is a dynamic data-driven replica of a real-world element. Digital twins for physical places can assist designers and planners to create smarter environments. But smarter, how? Imagine you’ve just returned from a work trip and arrive at your activity-based working space to find your favourite desk taken. You’re already late for a meeting with external clients and need to quickly dump your travel bag and get to the room. Opening an app, you immediately see that your second preferred desk is free, and the meeting room is just around the corner from it. Off you go. Time saved. Stress averted.

Dynamic office configuration, wayfinding, personal comfort and related productivity gains are just the beginning of what digital twins offer. Other benefits include spatial optimisation to achieve energy savings and simulations of real-world changes to inform procurement and construction. ‘But there is a lot of hype around digital twins at present,’ says Kriston Symons, Buildings Leader from our Melbourne office. ‘Our focus is to cut through the hype and clearly explain and demonstrate what is possible.’

One of the digital twin case studies from the Arup Digital Twins report stemmed from our recent move into our new Melbourne office. Seeing an opportunity to test these new data technologies, we designed data sensors into the fit-out.

‘We wanted to use data and machine learning to understand how people feel about their working environments and use that to design better workplaces that enhance productivity and wellbeing’ - Shaw Kudo, mechanical engineer.

Before venturing into digital twins, Shaw and structural engineer, Tim Rawling, teamed up with RMIT to collect a variety of data including ‘user attributes’, ‘physical attributes’ and ‘environmental attributes’. These were collected through mechanisms including a simple app-based 10-second survey tool, Bluetooth beacons, and smartphone triangulation. The team used machine learning to untangle correlations between the various measurements. Some clear patterns emerged, such as a link between people having a lot of formal meetings and experiencing high levels of stress. Another strong correlation was a link between perceived comfort and having access to your preferred seat. But it wasn’t all so clear cut.

‘A really interesting finding was the variability between single participant outputs and the overall results. When we looked at one user in isolation, we were able to find patterns. But when we pooled everyone together and made predictions based on averages, we weren’t able to find much of a prediction. The conclusion is that we can’t assume there’s a typical preference for workers,’ says Shaw.

Our Melbourne office digital twin showing temperature and BIM information via a smartphone.

Building on this research, and keen to test the realities of digital twin implementation, the team partnered with augmented reality (AR) specialists Phoria (check out their global ReWild Our Planet  project). After setting up the backend and selecting the specific features to focus on, the team took the relevant cross section of data and built a blueprint AR application to feed it into.

‘Digital twins can provide a broad spectrum of value to a wide range of clients. Providing these clients with a tangible prototype encourages a discussion around the specific value that digital twins can provide to their business.’ Tim Rawling.

This challenge underlined the importance of tailoring applications to a user’s needs and the value that the user wishes to derive from their space.

'The prototype demonstrated that we’re much closer now to being able to project return on investment, even with the challenge of acquiring data in a fragmented environment,’ Shaw added.

‘Micro digital twins’ offer emerging opportunities for buildings and infrastructure construction – allowing workers to visualise AR orVR simulations of real-world changes and process physical tasks in the digital space prior to procurement and construction.

For tenant occupancy, digital twins offer a different array of values. Staff wellbeing is high on the list and enabling staff to find their preferred seating spot, or temperature point, makes them happier, reduces turnover, and leads to reducing business cost. For building owners, providing an enhanced occupant experience means better retaining tenants and gaining leverage to charge higher rents. Wayfinding and spatial optimisation also offer huge potential to assist staff, visitors and building managers. Using geolocation tools, a digital twin can be used with an AR app to guide users to under-occupied rooms or seats – great for public spaces like stadiums and exhibitions. It could also benefit the safety of the space by identifying emergency evacuation paths. Using pattern recognition, a digital twin could yield intelligent suggestions such as informing spatial design to improve spatial performance, through to retrofitting or subleasing. This type of tuning could deliver on sustainability and energy usage reductions (of up to 20%).

‘Dynamic data can help close the feedback loop on design. Currently, with most buildings, it’s designed, built, and the client moves in. Done. Digital twins provide a mechanism to look at how effective the design is, so we can continue to improve it,’ says Tim.

The blueprint app is being rolled out to our new Sydney and Tokyo offices to see how different working cultures produce different results. So, as digital twin technologies continue to mature, standby for the next generation of wayfinding, data-driven responsive design and in turn, improved human comfort and performance.


  • There is a tension between digital twins being created at public government levels and data ownership at private building levels. There is an emerging need for platforms that can be used to feed private data into public digital twins.
  • Firstly, careful consideration is needed to unlock the right value for particular users and contexts. Secondly, it is necessary to consider how to disentangle data and separate the useful bits from the glut of harvested information.
  • For a workplace to operate at its full potential, there is a need for constant curation as demands ebb and flow.Digital twins could be instrumental in providing engagement that goes beyond traditional spatial design.

Lead Arup Researcher

Sean McGinn
Sean is an Associate and Buildings Digital Leader for Australasia in our Melbourne office

Ask Sean about:

  • Design & innovation portfolio
  • Digital innovation
  • Smart buildings
  • Big Data analytics


Trent Clews-de Castella
Trent is the Co-founder of PHORIA, leading practice in Extended Reality. Their work focuses on transforing human experiences through immersive technology and augment intelligent environments.

Research TEAM

Mechanical Engineer, Melbourne office
Structural Engineer, Melbourne office
Lighting designer, Melbourne office
Senior Programmer, Melbourne office.
Senior Structural Engineer, Melbourne office
Senior Research Program Manager, Melbourne office
Principal, Buildings Leader, Melbourne office
Senior ESD / Mechanical Engineer
(Former) Associate Digital Advisory Leader and Client Leader, Melbourne office – now external consultant
Senior Engineer, Workplace Leader, Melbourne office
Project innovation leader, Melbourne office

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