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How we designed a digital twin for human behaviour

Structures By Clarence Rebeka, Engineer, Structural Engineering – 19 December 2022

The winning team standing on stage


Head and sholders shot of Clarence sitting infront of a leafy background wearing a black top and a brown cardigan

Clarence Rebeka

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One of the most important things I learned from being part of the winning team for AECOM’s CityHack Singapore 2022 is that sometimes the first idea is not always the best one. And a rapid pivot to change direction may be necessary, which might mean being bold and taking risks to step away from something we’d become comfortable with.

While I learned this in the context of a hackathon, it holds true for the journey the global community is facing with reducing emissions and achieving true net zero. If the ideas we have are not future-proof and providing the right answer to the problems we face, we need to be brave and strive for better, more sustainable answers.

Our multidisciplinary CityHack team, Kiasu Minion, included engineers, designers and technology expertise. Together we were tasked with coming up with an idea to help the world attain net zero by 2050. We had only two days to identify the problem we wanted to solve, design and develop an idea for a solution, and then pitch to a judging panel of property sector leaders.

Inspired by the ambitions of the Singapore Green Plan 2030, we conceptualised ECO-CLOUD, which aims to make visible the carbon emissions of human activities within a building, place or precinct. This has been a challenge for the property sector when aiming for carbon neutrality – both from an auditing perspective and from the perspective of individual awareness around choices and consequences.

Our concept, ECO-CLOUD, is a Digital Twin (DT) based on carbon footprint models of human behaviour – transport choices, energy use choices and consumption choices. It creates an information intersection between citizens, business and policy-makers, using a geospatial information system (GIS) visualisation to map human emissions-relevant behaviour in near real time.

This will enable authorities to create policies that directly address behaviour, while on the other side of the equation it can help people understand the emissions consequences of choices they make. For businesses, the information available could help them create targeted consumer campaigns or potentially validate tax concessions.

What will be needed to create ECO-CLOUD is a plethora of interoperable data from multiple sources and systems, some of which may not exist yet. But this is part of what CityHack is about - identifying possibilities and then planting the seed to grow what is needed to bring them to life.

To collate robust behavioural profiles of carbon contributors, our scheme incorporates introducing a CARBON CREDIT app as a data pipeline. The app encourages user participation by generating opportunities to get carbon credits which can be leveraged for tax breaks, monetary vouchers and other benefits.

Taking inspiration from the movie ‘In Time’ by Andrew Nicoll, the depleting CARBON CREDIT exploits the psychology of urgency and scarcity where the effects of human loss aversions and limited availability prompts call-to-action and encourages good carbon behaviours.

This stratagem is evident in successful platforms like Pokemon Go, Snapchats, and Groupon where these psychological qualities drive participation, supply and demand. Countdowns of limited offers in e-commerce apps have also proved to reduce basket abandonment and increase sales. The Carbon Credit app aims to leverage these trends and adopts a similar comprehensive reward/incentive program that can also potentially generate revenue. Businesses, institutions, and agencies can participate in campaigns to promote their products or programs in the app while also supporting the Singapore Green Plan.

We identified the benchmark for success as the observable rise of carbon-conscious communities in Singapore and beyond. We also recognised the value of creating a shared mechanism that brings governments, businesses and individuals together to achieve the common global goal of net zero targets.

Learning on the run

Where we landed is not actually where we began. Our first idea was not gelling for us, so after half a day of brainstorming, we took the leap of faith to change direction and focus on the carbon mapping concept. Then we realised that the data we would need did not yet exist, so we looked for ways our concept could incorporate the gathering of data, and the Carbon Credit idea emerged.

Initially, we thought to obtain data from government or power generators, however, one of the mentors flagged this as potentially too challenging and guided us towards seeing the possibilities of citizen-level data collection.

Then we thought, what could motivate people more than rewards? That was the final piece in the puzzle to create the full concept.

Since winning CityHack, we have been maintaining contact with a mentor and there are plans to scale up our ECO-CLOUD concept. Our whole team are very enthusiastic about seeing this through.

Where it fits in the bigger picture

Being part of this process made me very aware of the extent of the threat we collectively face if individual people and the global community are not striving towards net zero carbon.

We may not see the threat when we live our normal day-to-day, but in a situation like the CityHack, we had to empathise, think and research deeply on this subject. That included being presented with examples of catastrophic impacts of climate change already occurring and the role of environmentally irresponsible choices made every day. I found myself thinking that it makes sense that if we can do small things that contribute to a much greater impact, of course we should.

The problem is urgent – and so is finding solutions. The whole experience really makes me appreciate Cundall’s ZCD (Zero Carbon Design) vision, and further motivates me to ensure my work as a structural engineer contributes to achieving it.