Every year, Accenture produces a piece of research called Tech Vision, and 2021 was no exception.

One trend that caught my eye was what the research calls “Mirrored World.” It’s also known as a digital twin or an intelligent twin.

Like some trends we’ve seen, it’s easy to see “Mirrored Worlds” as a fancy new name for what we used to call “business simulations.”

And maybe it is. But I think the fancy new name also opens up some really interesting practical and philosophical opportunities.

The origin of the trend is more than 50 years old. In April 1970, NASA’s Apollo 13 was on its way to the moon, and it was severely damaged. But the astronauts inside couldn’t see what was wrong.

Fortunately, NASA had had the foresight to build 15 different simulators that mimicked different parts of the spacecraft or aspects of the mission. They managed to replicate the issue using the simulator, safely test a fix and make a plan to bring the astronauts safely home.

Fast forward 50+ years and the same idea is being implemented on a massive scale.

Imagine a mine in rural Brazil. Brazil is the world’s 4th-largest country. It’s larger than the continental United States. Rural Brazil is about as rural as you can get. Mines run on heavy machinery. Enormous diggers with tyres that stand twice as tall as a person. Huge crushers and hundreds of trucks transporting ore.

If the activity stops, the mine could lose millions of rands a day.

There’s a balancing act between running the machine for as long as possible before maintaining it, thereby maximizing its uptime, and running it so long that it breaks and you have unscheduled downtime.

Stopping the machine for maintenance is costly, but at least you can predict it. If the machine breaks, however, it could be a week or more for the spare part to arrive from the nearest city.

One of the advantages of modern machinery is that everything has sensors in it. A mine like that could build a “digital twin.” This would look a bit like the popular computer game The Sims. You can see the diggers moving around the mine in real time; you can watch the virtual dashboard of an individual digger to see if it’s overheating; AI can keep an eye on different sensors and start predicting when a component might fail.

Even more useful is that with a birds-eye view like that, you can start to model different ideas without disrupting the mine. What if you made traffic at that part of the mine a one-way system? Would that work? What would the cost / benefit be of putting another crusher onsite? You can play out these scenarios without risking any capital, and be guided by the “digital twin.”

This is what the research calls the “mirrored world.” So how does the obvious and useful idea of simulating things before implementing them, turn into a trend worthy of the Tech Vision 2021?

  • Firstly, it’s a question of scale. The NASA team in 1970 had simulations of 15 aspects of the mission and the computing power of one of today’s pocket calculators. In 2021, we’re seeing companies simulate their whole factory, supply chain and product lifecycles. Impossible to do that with a pocket calculator.
  • The second is a question of impact. The NASA team saved their three astronauts. Modern digital twins can affect whole companies, markets or even industries.
  • Third, it’s the insertion of AI into the mix. Ever since the first time a computer beat a human player at the Japanese board game Go, we’ve realised that AI is simply better at spotting patterns in large amounts of data than humans are.
  • Fourth, it’s the convergence of the physical infrastructure – such as edge computing (the sensors in the mine equipment), 5G networks, GPS – with the digital infrastructure of large datasets, the aforementioned AI, and links between different parts of the business (such as operations and sales data) or even links outside the organisation (such as to supplier datasets or third-party datasets).
  • Fifth, it’s the availability of platforms. GPS was largely unusable as a dataset before Google, TomTom, Apple and others started digitizing the physical world and making the GPS data available as a platform. The same goes for open APIs in the banking world, and data interchange standards between companies.

But for me, when I look at the research. I see another trend that the Mirrored Worlds make possible. And that trend is sustainability.

Because the simulations offer a risk-free way of testing new ideas, this idea of the “mirrored world” makes things more efficient. There’s no cost to trying an idea in a simulation and failing. You can keep trying ideas and pick only the best ones.

This is unlocking sustainability in obvious but also subtle ways. The obvious ways are Royal Dutch Shell using the technology to become carbon neutral by 2025 and become better at harnessing solar energy. Or Bentley, which is using the technology to build more efficient electric vehicles that use fewer raw materials. One dirty secret of the electric car industry is the rare earth elements they consume. Bentley is testing alternatives to those.

The subtle ways are those employed by the Port of Rotterdam, which is using a digital twin to simulate the port in real time—which is impressive, given it’s the world’s busiest port. A small increase in efficiency on that scale can translate into huge savings.

I encourage you to read the Technology Vision report here. And I’d be interested if there’s an idea you think you could try out in your own business.