James Morris-Manuel, MD EMEA of Matterport looks at the impact of digital twins.

There is no question that our lives and work changed dramatically following the events of the past few years. The pandemic has redefined how commercial real estate (CRE) business is conducted, with social distancing and remote work policies impacting the demand for office and retail space. As stores reopen and employees return to offices, the way we interact with the spaces we inhabit has fundamentally changed. Instead of seeking out leisure-focused amenities such as lounges and fitness areas, employers and property owners alike are prioritising air quality, new technologies, and appropriate distancing space over recreational features.

The shift will only become more important in the future. Research from KPMG has also revealed that in the future, 92 percent of office property will require a range of varied spaces to conduct different types of work and technology will be used to connect with remote workers and clients by 83 percent.

Driving technology innovation in CRE

Pre-COVID-19, the CRE sector was poised for dramatic growth. Workspaces were being redesigned to help offices feel more collaborative and interactive, and retailers looked to adapt existing retail operations to help give them an edge and bridge the gap between traditional brick-and-mortar stores versus eCommerce. However, with time being lost showing properties to potential tenants and orientating prospects to properties, in order for innovation to take place, there was a need for many of the processes in the CRE sector to be updated to increase efficiency.

To succeed in an evolving CRE space, property owners and managers have begun to prioritise technology innovation, leveraging tools such as virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI), and digital twins – virtual replicas of the built world - to overcome challenges inherent to the industry, as well as the obstacles presented by COVID-19.

To put it simply, digital twins are photorealistic and dimensionally accurate digital replicas of physical spaces – whether it be a room or an entire building. They bring any space to life, offering capabilities such as interactive virtual walk-throughs and providing a more immersive and engaging experience that traditional 2D photos, floor plans and text simply cannot replicate.

Enter digital twins

Digital twin technology is already proving beneficial across many industries. Beyond the Commercial Real Estate industry, we are already seeing immense growth in the interest surrounding digital twins, in travel and hospitality, architecture, construction, facilities management and insurance, due to the numerous benefits seen in the process of shifting their decision-making onto an uninterrupted digital platform. Across these industries, companies are realising an unprecedented amount of value that digital twins can offer to their property lifecycle.

By importing dimensionally accurate real-life spaces into a virtual mirror world, digital twins bring online a mass of analogue data that can be searched, modelled, and ultimately, used to derive value from physical spaces. There is immense value in accruing this data and applying the insights generated from it to improve both businesses and society at large. This data and the ability to source it, search it and use it will open a vast array of future opportunities and evolve infinite applications.

By bridging the connection between real-life and virtual models, digital twins help to inform facilities managers on the best ways to protect employees, address any issues that could arise as foot traffic returns, while creating better building management processes and new ways of solving old problems. This allows for properties to be built or refurbished with operational readiness as a top priority and allows facilities managers to better understand how end-users will interact with a space before it’s even occupied.

Improving operational efficiencies through digital twins

Leveraging digital twin technology, facilities managers can virtually visit locations, enabling remote issue identification and faster resolution. Incorporating digital twins as a visual tool early in the construction process also improves efficiency by streamlining routine work such as repeated site surveys, building context modelling and reporting. Since much of this is automated in the cloud, work hours can be reduced. Another valuable benefit of digital twin technology is the ability to archive content and tap into rich data historically trapped in digital and physical file folder storage. This data can be seamlessly accessed, integrated, analysed, and synthesised from digital twins into fact-based efficiency initiatives across an entire building portfolio.

As buildings re-open, tenants are looking for healthier and more sustainable spaces. To meet this demand, digital twins can be used to ensure that office workspaces are more efficient, sustainable and mindful of social distancing, while prioritising air quality and reducing energy consumption. By using data from digital twins, businesses can model and optimise everything from foot traffic to air flow. AI for example, can be layered on existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to control air circulation and reduce energy consumption.

Furthermore, insights from digital twins can be leveraged for restoration projects, enabling CRE companies to move towards an optimised maintenance approach, to easily and more accurately, calculate damage and estimate repair and rebuilding costs. By giving contractors the ability to efficiently document the stages of progression during the construction or renovation process, costs can be reduced, and resource efficiencies can be improved. Errors or newly discovered site conditions can also be identified early to avoid costly rework. With the post-construction, operational phase of a building being the longest stage of any building’s life cycle, the ability to use digital twin technology to document existing conditions and track the longevity of the thousands of individual elements that go into a built space, is also particularly beneficial to facilities managers – whether from commercial office blocks or singular retail stores.

Looking at the retail sector, digital twins enable businesses to stay competitive in a market increasingly dominated by eCommerce, by offering retail experiences that provide an engaging connection and bringing products to life in ways that eCommerce websites cannot. For retailers, digital twins are a valuable way to not only engage with customers, but also to effectively manage inventory, plan safe floor layout designs, implement employee training and merchandise more efficiently than ever before.

The future of commercial real estate

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 accelerated massive growth within the CRE industry, with the uptake of advanced technologies such as digital twins, AI and VR. While in the past, the CRE sector was dependent on outdated methods to try and communicate the value of office and retail spaces, a sweeping digital transformation and shifting consumer preferences have driven industry-wide change. Digital twins are the key to fulfilling the demand for spaces that are more efficient, sustainable, and mindful of social distancing, while still creating an engaging environment. They offer capabilities such as interactive virtual walk-throughs as well as the tools to better design, plan and build optimised spaces catered to evolving consumer demands. With digital twins, companies worldwide can quickly digitise their portfolio of properties at scale without having to invest in hardware or employee training. By investing in a transformative digital strategy and deploying digital twin technology, CRE professionals can capture new competitive advantages and succeed in today’s challenging market.