Comparing Digital Apples to Apples

Understanding some of the most influential technology

by Dean Douglas | June 11, 2021 | 7 min read

Comparing Digital Apples to Apples
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In the great jump forward to embracing all things digital – whether that be digital technology, digitisation, digitalisation, modernisation, industry 4.0, construction 4.0, digital twin, National Digital Twin, 4D BIM, Digital Transformation, Cyber-Physical Systems, IoT, Embedded sensors, GIS, Big Data Analytics, Analytics, Artificial intelligence, Blockchain, distributed ledger technology, Bitcoin… to name but a few – it can all become rather confusing.

Well, you wouldn’t be the first to feel this way and certainly won’t be the last!

Technology can be a minefield of similar sounding and overlapping terms, but we need to be sure that we are discussing these technologies, processes and movements in a way that we are comparing apples with apples. So that we can all get the most out of it.

For those that need a little help, here is my guide to understanding some of the terms floating about the industry right now, so that you can avoid the faux pas of digital built environment, equivalent to putting the milk in before the tea!


The goal is to limit the amount of paper documents that we hoard away in cupboards, drawers, filing cabinets and physical archives in complex and often forgotten filing systems. To counteract this digitisation takes the data and information we already have in mounds of ledgers and troves of paperwork into digital documents formats, such as word documents, pdfs or excel spreadsheets. However, while this does free up a lot of space in your office, unless all these new digital documents are structured well it will do little to aid in the retrieval of that data.


Digitalisation refers to the implementation of new advancements in technology and process that strive to enhance existing working methods and practices. Often these look at the streamlining of procedures removing repetitive, manually strenuous, or dangerous tasks. Digitalisation also seeks to better understand how we operate and interact with our assets by collecting data around its use that can then be analysed to provide insights.  

Digital Transformation

This looks to highlight, understand, and implement the required changes in an organisation, company, or government, in order for them to embrace digitalisation. This can be in almost any aspect of an organisation, ranging from; the organisation hierarchy, its structure, how it fosters collaboration both internally and externally, the current work processes, the skills of its workforce, its compliance with standards and regulations, amongst others.

Industry 4.0

Often referred to as the 4th Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0 is an umbrella term used to describe the numerous advancements in technology and processes such as IoT, Data Analytics and Cloud Computing to name but a very few. Ultimately Industry 4.0 strives for greater automation and optimisation within every industry through the adoption and connecting of new technologies and processes. It is often remarked that at the core of this drive to connect devices, is the ambition to connect the physical with the digital, being able to represent the function and working od an asset in digital data form.

Construction 4.0

This is the built environment’s take on industry 4.0, this is still very much an umbrella term, with it covering a multitude of technologies and processes just like Industry 4.0. However, more importantly Construction 4.0 takes into consideration the working practices and cultures of the built environment. As well as seeking to understand how these new technologies and processes interact and combine with other more established technologies within the sector. 


nD BIM might sound odd but I’m sure we’ve all heard the terms 4D, 5D, 6D, and so on. What these dimensions refer to is the is the level of information held within a BIM model. With 4D and 5D look at incorporating cost and time respectively into a BIM model. But beware after 5D the definitions of the dimensions can change and become a little hazier. In response to this there are those who prefer ‘a say what you mean approach’ rather than articulating wants from the dimensions.

BIM Levels

We’ve all seen the Bew-Richards wedge, detailing the levels of BIM from the days of CAD to what the future could be -envisaged in BIM Level 3. The BIM levels were instrumental in the development of BIM and the shaping of the UK’s BIM mandate, however, the concept was designed to help the industry comprehend what levels 0, 1, and 2 were to work towards them. However, the concept was notably left out of the new ISO 19650, this was in part due to the levels being used as a descriptor of needs rather than the detailing of relevant and specific requirements.  Despite this, the legacy of the BIM levels can still be seen in discussions. In particular when we begin to discuss the future of BIM and what could be level 3. Similarly to the BIM dimensions, the definition of level 3 can differ greatly and are more open to interpretation. Essentially level 3 looks to generate value from BIM data throughout the lifecycle of an asset, becoming a continually updated and used asset data repository. Some of you might be thinking that that starts to sound a bit like a digital twin. This does begin to raise the question of where the future of BIM (formerly BIM level 3) stops and Digital Twin begins or if they might even be the same thing? Of which there is currently no quick answer to, with industry and academic research endeavouring to define their relationship.

Digital Twin

It’s hard to escape talk of digital twin right now, with everyone trying to understand its potential and define what it means to them and their organisation. In its simpler forms digital twin is said to be comprised of 3 key elements: firstly, a physical asset, the second part being the digital/cyber representation of that asset detailing its operation, condition and usage, and last, and perhaps most importantly the bidirectional flow of data between the two. It’s in this bidirectional data flow that the real value of digital twin is created, enabling better informed decision making by having relevant and up-to-date data and developing enhanced understanding of an asset by being able to correlate interventions within an asset and their consequences. This data can then be further interrogated to unlock greater value be employing data analytics techniques and artificial intelligence.

National Digital Twin

The aspiration for the creation of a national digital twin in the UK is spearheaded by the Centre of Digital Built Britain’s (CDBB) National Digital Twin programme (NDTp). The NDTp aims to create the tools and foster the attitudes required in the development of a national digital twin. To be clear this doesn’t mean a single digital model of the entire country but instead the idea of a national digital twin lies in the creation of an ecosystem of digital twins that can be connected and combined to unlock further value.

Cyber-Physical Systems

You might have heard of Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS), you might not have, but if you have then you might be left wondering how it differs from digital twin. But there is no simply answer here, there are those that argue on both sides: that digital twin and CPS are the same thing and that they are two different yet highly connected concepts. What is agreed upon is that they do share some common traits, such as the relating of physical assets to cyber/digital data representations. But there are a number of differences also, mainly surrounding their construction, emphasis and relationship with physical assets. While CPS is not an overly prevalent term in the built environment it is common in other industries striving to implement digital twin such as manufacturing.

Being able to correctly distinguish and discuss the various elements of digital technology and transformation is essential for their development and implementation in the built environment. Like with the adoption of BIM, the ability to openly and accurately discuss digital twin and the associated digital transformation in conversation and on social media will serve as an important means to the further understanding within the industry. It’s through the challenging of ideas and norms at all levels that we can begin to establish what these mean to our organisation and what value they will bring about.

It is this idea that drives the research currently being done at BIM Academy, to understand the value of digital twin and begin to plot measured step towards their integration into organisational working.

If you’d like to know more about our research, please contact [email protected].