Housing sector

Could digital twins transform the social housing sector?

Helen Rogers, Director of Housing Products at Global Software Providers Civicexamines the potential of digital twins to deliver a better, safer and greener social housing sector across the UK

Every industry knows the importance of digital transformation. From aerospace to construction, automated processes and digital collaboration have quickly gone from a “nice to have” to a “can’t live without it”. While the digital journey has been underway for many years now, the pandemic has, for all of us, brought it into much sharper focus.

For the wider construction industry, digital twins – virtual representations of physical spaces – have been recognized for some time as a key part of this digital journey.

But what about our social housing sector, which provides over four million homes across the UK?

Late last year, Civica brought together experts from leading social housing providers and technology companies to examine the potential of digital twins to deliver better outcomes for providers and residents in our social housing sector. While it was agreed by all that getting started is a major challenge, digital twins nevertheless have enormous potential to make homes safer and greener, generate savings and improve the overall resident experience.

Set the standard

Digital twins depend above all on reliable, high-quality data. Housing providers have an infinite number of possible data points that need to feed into a digital twin. But that data is too often kept in legacy systems ranging from hard drives to ring binders, with no defined standards. Unless data is collected and managed effectively, it is of little practical use. This is as true for housing as for any other sector.

If you want to see what good data management looks like, look no further than major manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and defense. Unfortunately, the social housing sector is not yet close to this level of standardization. Although some attempts have been made (by HACT, for example), legislation has a vital role to play in building a coherent set of standards for the sector.

Better, safer and greener homes

So what tangible benefits could digital twins bring to our social housing sector? Strategically, digital twins will help providers such as municipalities or housing associations to meet and exceed new standards and rules set by legislation. Compliance can be costly, but an accurate digital twin will give detailed information on areas where special attention is needed.

On a more practical level, digital twins also have the potential to help reduce bills and improve environmental outcomes. Real-time data could allow residents to understand the effect a few degrees on the thermostat would have on their heating bills, their carbon footprint, and the comfort of other residents in the building. The “nudge theory” has the potential to cause strong behavioral changes in residents through the information available through digital twins.

start the trip

So how should housing providers begin their journey to using digital twins? One of our roundtable participants shared how he started experimenting with data collection with a 3D camera. Although it may not be as accurate as a laser survey, it is much cheaper and a good way to start collecting data.

Other participants start geographically – focusing their efforts on a single area, rather than sending people to a large number of places at once. Collecting data during a routine visit (eg boiler service) could make this even more cost effective.

Some aspects of data collection cannot, for now, be left to machines alone. For example, when security teams walk around a site, they may notice fly dumps or other hazards that current technology would not detect. Building the data sets for a digital twin will take many hours of work, but starting small is the best way to start, adding more data streams when budget and time permit.

The stumbling block of standardization

Besides managing the housing stock, many social housing providers are also involved in care, commercial property management and even building management for other organisations. Each area of ​​their business will typically use a different software suite to manage assets and information, further complicating data standardization.

So what simple steps can social housing providers take to get their “data house” in order? Many organizations favor a “back to basics” approach: partnering with a strong technology provider and standardizing and consolidating information, rather than adding new layers of complexity. While standardization may seem like a stumbling block, the solutions already exist; organizations just need to evaluate the best solution for their needs and be open to any new standards that may emerge.

Digital twins in social housing – not if, but when

Digital twins have real transformative potential for the social housing sector. Other sectors have already recognized and exploited their potential and although this is not yet the case in social housing, the digital journey is heading in the right direction. From improving the living conditions of residents to reducing the overall carbon footprint of the social housing stock, digital twins will bring both social and environmental benefits.

So the question is not whether to start the journey to digital twins, but how and when. As a starting point, organizations need to have a clear goal in mind. Think about the broader outcomes you want to achieve and how digital twins will help you get there. Basically, this will require buy-in from the whole organization and the residents in particular.

The digital journey for social housing is by no means straightforward. But the same challenges that housing organizations face today have been taken up – and overcome – by other sectors. The social housing sector can and should build on these experiences and embrace the technologies and solutions that can guide them towards a digital future.

Read Civica’s Changing Landscapes Report here.

Helen Rogers

Housing product manager


Tel: +44 (0) 3333 214 914


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