Digital twins, or digital replicas of physical objects based on real-time data and other information, have become important tools for improving our understanding of complex systems and helping us make informed decisions. A digital twin can represent a car, a tunnel or an entire factory, for example, and be very useful for testing and predicting how these would perform under different conditions. The Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) is going one step further, and is working to create a digital twin of Luxembourg.

We like to think of our whole country as a digital testbed.

“We like to think of our whole country as a digital testbed,” confirms Thomas Kallstenius, CEO of LIST. “Luxembourg has several unique characteristics: it is located at the geographical, political and economic centre of Europe, its population of around 600,000 is increased by another 200,000 cross-border workers that travel in and out every day, and it has the capacity to be very fast and agile. It is small and flexible enough to become a fully-fledged living lab, digital testbed and policy sandbox all in one go.”

Preparing for the unexpected

Thomas Kallstenius, CEO of LIST, is working on Luxembourg's national digital twinOn 9 August 2019, Luxembourg was hit by a tornado – a unique weather phenomenon that created much havoc in the south of the country. Coincidentally, on the same date, a major power outage in the UK resulted in 1 million people losing their connection to the energy grid, and in Holland, a malfunctioning of the refuelling system at Schiphol airport left planes stranded on the ground and blocked logistics and mobility operations.

The common denominator of these three unconnected events was that they were all completely unexpected and had severe consequences for society. “The question is: how can be build a digital, more resilient society that can mitigate events like this? A digital twin of Luxembourg would help us better understand the country as such and predict how it will behave during future crises,” says Dr Kallstenius.

Managing COVID-19

LIST is developing the digital twin in close cooperation with other Luxembourg research organisations, e.g. the Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) at the University of Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER). As initial use cases, the centre was considering topics such as urban planning, resource management or mobility. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the priorities. The researchers speedily set up a visualisation board as a “window” to the digital twin in order to help manage the crisis. “We used it to visualise the impact of policy decisions – closing the schools, reopening the restaurants, maintaining the borders open, and so on – on the expected numbers of infections and hospitalisations as well as on different socio-economic variables,” explains Dr Kallstenius. “The technology actually served us very well.”

We use the digital twin to see how we can make the grid more secure and resilient.

While this use of the twin still remains important, the time has now come to focus on other topics. Energy is high on the agenda. “The energy grid is currently going through a big transformation. With new ways of producing energy locally with solar and wind power for example, the grid is becoming bidirectional and more fragile as both the generation and the use of energy varies strongly. We use the digital twin to see how we can make the grid more secure and resilient.”

Explainable AI

A major challenge with the digital twin is to develop analytics methods capable of handling the enormous amount of data involved. “We are looking into a particular discipline of artificial intelligence (AI) called ‘explainable and trustworthy AI’,” says Dr Kallstenius. “We want to develop a technique that is highly accurate and detailed but whose outcomes can still be understood by decision makers. This is our objective, but we are not there yet – this is research, after all.”

Our long-term goal is to build a digital and resilient Europe, and we invite anyone interested to join us in our endeavour.

The head of LIST is launching an invitation to international organisations interested in participating in the work on the digital twin. “Our long-term goal is to build a digital and resilient Europe, and we invite anyone interested to join us in our endeavour.”

Photo: © Luxinnovation/Marion Dessard