It’s weird running a personal/professional blog because you get these email ‘pitches’ on stories and press releases (perhaps I just do a plain ‘press-release section’?).  Historically I’ve ignored them, my opinion being somewhere between “what of my blog’s integrity?” to “I ain’t got time for this crap”.  Either way the emails have ended up in spam.

Recently I’ve had a change of mind, why do people know of me professionally and the work I do? Well because I write, and I use social media and I get involved.  If it’s one thing I have always recommended it’s be part of the conversation and help others.  In my experience you get out what you put in… I’ve been helped a lot by others, and I’ve learned a lot by reading.   The following post is my personal take on the information a company called IES gave me and the conversation we had.  They have not put any words in my mouth but I have quoted the press release…. 😊

Okay on to the post, yes this derives from an intriguing email I got from a company called IES.  I’ve heard of them before vaguely, something cool with analytics for buildings and I had seen (although not used in ‘anger’) a SketchUp plugin of theirs.

As they said in their email opener:

[We] “came across your GeoPlanIT blog and I thought you may be interested to know that next month, the company I work for (IES) will be launching new cutting-edge digital twin technology that puts sustainability and energy efficiency at the heart of the smart cities movement. “

Okay they had me by combining digital twin technology with some words on sustainability and energy efficiency plus ‘smart cities’.  You see whilst I’m a big fan of 3D I’m also aware it has to have more than a visualisation component to get others sold on the utility.  Let’s be honest 3D data is often just a pretty container for really useful information.  

A word on digital twin – no it’s not just another term for a 3D model, this is about replicating something for the purposes of modelling and simulation.  The key here is a live link to the real world or object allowing both the virtual and real to exist at the same time.  Digital twin has really come from the engineering world where models (sometimes 3D) which replicate physical properties of the real object are subjected to tests and simulation.  Now I would argue that a digital twin in the city/built environment perspective is more of spectrum and that yes, a link is required but clearly instant updates of a 3D city model are not yet possible always!  That said pollution/traffic monitoring could be! Perhaps we should stick with a term like “city information model”..? Here’s a good read if you want more on this sort of thing.

IES as a company is 25 years old so it’s hardly a startup, so I felt that this was proper professional service stuff not a just a ‘flash in the pan’ gimmick.  I can see from their ‘notes to editors’ the following:

IES is home to the largest building analytics team in the world with over 2000 years of collective experience, and 18 PhDs in the space.

Over the last 20+ year’s we have built a solid reputation as the leading innovator in sustainable analytics for the built environment.

Our Virtual Environment (VE) technology is an essential tool for top architects, engineers and contractors.

Utilised globally, the energy and carbon reduction capability of our technology is proven. Today, our customers average 80,000 IESVE projects per year for large and medium sized buildings.

The upshot of this is I decided to see what this was all about, because quite frankly I was professionally curious.

Okay so what did they want?

The email asked essentially whether I’d like to speak with their Founder/Managing Director Don Mclean who wanted to present their new technology stack (or platform) to me.  I said yes and said if it interested me, I would write something (which is of course what they wanted and what I am doing).  No money has changed hands here and I didn’t get anything for this article except for the occasional reader obviously.

The conference call was surprisingly mostly with Don and one of his technical team who demo’d a SketchUp tool.   I didn’t really expect that, I thought it would be 100% run by a marketing team, which shows how much I know!  Don clearly knows his stuff and is passionate about what they’re doing and wants to change the world.  I liked his enthusiasm and he clearly knows his stuff.  They had taken the time to understand that I was a planner and geographer at heart with expertise in 3D urban modelling.  Honestly, it’s nice knowing they had done a little research on me at least 😊

The format of this video conference was very much a presentation of slides, a small demo with their tools and some discussion/questioning.  Overall, I got a good impression that what they were doing was well thought through.

Ok, what’s the idea or product?

The presentation and discussion was very comprehensive, we discussed the need for better monitoring and modelling of our current systems (energy etc..) and designing better buildings with that knowledge embedded.  

What IES are announcing this week is the release of, what they describe as, “cutting-edge digital twin technology”, which “connects distributed energy networks, renewables, master plans, building design, operation and retrofit”.  So, they’re saying they have an entire platform that integrates a disparate set of sensors recording all sorts of data across a built environment with the aim of using that within design and modelling scenario tools.   The story here is not necessarily the idea of integrating everything but how well it is implemented.  I’m totally with this as often my Geodesign discussions and workshops (like this one on Geodesign and Smarter Planning )  are all about the need for us all to design with the knowledge we are collecting already.  This is why in part I’m so hooked to a certain 3D procedural modelling tool!

Basically, they have a range of integrated tools (a ‘platform’) that they are calling ICL (Intelligent Communities Lifecycle).  Effectively these are decision support tools which will assist people in the whole lifecycle of the built environment with regards to sustainability metrics from planning and design to operation of buildings/campuses/cities.  The tools range from pure design and scenario modelling through to monitoring of sensor networks (technologies like the Internet of Things) and of course analysis and modelling.  

With ICL you can investigate the built environment’s performance (energy, water etc..) combine with other data and simulate a wide range of built environments from individual buildings to campuses and cities.  To aid this and drive engagement with the performance metrics of course there are ‘dashboards’ for people who aren’t so keen on raw numbers (good for me then)!

One of the memorable demos they gave me was being able to view through a web browser a 3D model of group of buildings and explore their performance metrics.  Obviously, I’m used to the 3D side of things so it’s more the detail and back-end that intrigues me. Yes, many people can do this but the proposal here is about integration of monitoring systems with planning and design tools.

An urban model with Solar Gain Distribution, yup I’m familiar with this but honestly here they need better look more detailed buildings….

An urban model with Solar Gain Distribution, yup I’m familiar with this but honestly here they need better look more detailed buildings….

This visual web platform was integrated with designs tools that they have integrated into Trimble’s SketchUp (a tool many planners and Architects should be familiar with).  So, using their SketchUp integrated design tools you can model a building with built in performance metrics and upload it to be integrated with a wider model and see the impact on a range of indicators.  The SketchUp tool also allows for the production of dashboards too which is nice!   All of this whilst being in the context of pre-existing and monitored buildings.  Again, I don’t think these are necessarily new ideas but the live demo showing designs and updates were impressive (having done live demos before I know how nervous this can make you).

Now to me all this does actually sound like a proper implementation of ‘digital twin’ concepts.  Live data actually updating a model within a digital environment? No not necessarily a 3D model here, like the 2D map of CHP unit efficiency monitoring above.  Also, all of this allowing for design and scenario modelling? I think this is very interesting!

As you know dear reader, I have a keen interest in Esri CityEngine which I first started using to replace SketchUp.  I questioned whether parts of the ICL platform could be integrated into other professional tools (no mention of industry leaders Esri or Autodesk, or come to think of it QGIS..).   Of course, they had heard of CityEngine so knew why I was asking.

The answer seemed to come back that the platform was designed to be flexible to a range of workflows/systems.  So, whilst not specifically integrated now, there were avenues which could be used to integrate with other tools and systems.   To be honest, designing a platform that cannot integrate at some level across other systems would not do very well anyway I think!

The main parts of the ICL platform very much seem to be in the connection of monitoring systems for operators/owners/managers of groupings of buildings.  I think as local energy generation (for example Sedbergh has a biodigester at one of the local farms) these types of monitoring systems will become much more integrated and the normal.   Come to think of it aren’t they already?  I seem to have a smart monitoring device in the house…

Final Thoughts

IES are a well-respected established company dealing in real world, real-time analytics of the built environment.   Their systems and tools can prove design efficiencies and spot improvements as well as help design better performing buildings.  I genuinely believe platforms like this scaled up to city levels can make significant and long-term efficiency savings and quite frankly that can only be a good thing for our environment.  

What they are announcing is clearly an evolution of the products and services they already have established.  Therein lies some of my difficulty understanding it all, what are they announcing exactly? It’s not one product or one technology they can’t easily say this product will do x can they?    The announced ICL platform is about scaling these tools up across the built environment and perhaps the real product here is their complete integration.  The bold claim they make of “we’ve made a huge impact, eliminating the need for around 30 power stations to be built“ I think is probably true, not least because I suspect they have the real world metrics to prove it.

My real concern is how well this platform plays with other tools and systems.  I can’t answer that 100% but this platform I suspect can.   I’m a big Esri user so being able to plug this platform functionality and understanding of sensors would be amazing…. I wonder if it could play nice with ArcGIS Urban and Esri CityEngine for example….. perhaps I should ask them!

I’d like to thank the IES team for giving me some time with them and seeing their work.  I know every so often companies need to do marketing as we have to keep bringing in salaries and the like.   I wish them every success in this exciting new technology platform!

Okay as a thank you for giving me insight into their company and their vision for a connected platform at the very least I can pay them back with directing you to their website here (it’s all about connections at the end of the day!).

Oh and there is a newsletter (I honestly don’t know whether volunteering  for marketing emails is a good idea always!) : sign up here https://www.iesve.com/icl-newsletter-signup

If you want to know more you can visit www.iesve.com. You can also follow them on Twitter,Facebook and LinkedIn for the latest IES news, or visit DiscoverIES.

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