Digital twins can be a great help for environmental issues

environmental legislation

An important impetus for the Dutch digital twins was and is the Environmental Act program. There, the institutes KOOP (Knowledge and Exploitation Center for Official State Publications) and Geonovum were already to design an interface between the text world and the world of objects. That they should build a bridge between two cultures between the lawyers and the (object-oriented) ICT professionals was somewhat underestimated. The concept of ‘Applicable Rule’ is great, but there is more to it than just linking some kind of legal business rule to an activity and an object category. In fact, as a society, we are moving towards a far more rational management model for the housing environment.

Another impetus comes from the field of asset management, where the Building Information Model (BIM) community has a long tradition of modeling the physical space. In addition, many cities have also been diligently engaged in proof of concepts and sensors under the tabs of smart cities. They all make grateful use of the basic registers in PDOK (Public Services on the Map, in fact the data from the collected basic registers). Many of these impulses come together in the discussion of the Dutch reference architecture digital twin to the physical living environment. That’s the good news.

Risks to the rule of law

The bad news: We have to do this right, otherwise digital twinning will cause serious problems for the rule of law and democracy. It may sound dramatic, let’s hope it’s exaggerated. With this beautiful instrument beginning to resemble the gaming world – after all, you are going through a virtual version of the Dutch cities, landscapes and political plans – layman’s expectations are immediately high.

The political and social pressures (housing task, war in Ukraine, energy task, Russian gas, CO2 emissions, Urgenda and Open Government Act) force rapid (re) design processes. We therefore turn to monitors and dashboards and digital twins to implement this increased need for control. In the meantime, however, our decision-making processes are still based on paper annotations, A-pieces, and archives with poor metadata. A paper waterfall control, to speak in agile terms. Past case systems and intermediaries helped move the digitized paper back and forth more quickly in a workflow, but there was no real integration, of assessment frameworks from which to immediately calculate the consequences of a plan and of monitors monitoring real-time policy effects for to portray. The life cycle of politics is, so to speak, compressed, and a well-informed citizen or NGO will immediately send the disagreements to the councilor.

We are not yet well prepared for these truths, and they are food for thought. We have an algorithm register, but what about heat stress or subsidence models? Can we afterwards explain to the Council of State how the picture and considerations were then at the time of rejection or approval of plans? And is there actually a link between the environmental law system and enforcement or monitoring? Do all the models with indicators talk to each other, or are the concepts still defined per. domain, and do we only think we understand each other?

Protection of public values

All work on ethical guidelines (such as IAMA, TADA, DEDA, CODIO) has been important in making politicians feel more ownership of digital challenges, but we are not mature enough to protect public values ​​in a platform that Marleen Stikker and José van Dijck thinks. The Digital Markets Act from Europe is helping to slow down the American platforms, but we have not built up so many alternatives ourselves yet. The Environmental Act and the digital twin are examples of new public platforms. In this context, we need to translate these abstract guidelines into concrete system or platform agreements. It requires more research, more knowledge exchange, more semantically careful work and, above all, more control. We already had an ‘atlas of the living environment’, and a number of policy areas have done their homework. We were also on the right track with the investment application for DTFL (Digital Twin Physical Environment) and the many field laboratories, but suddenly there was a line through it. Now we are thrown back to the suppliers’ energy per tender, as Rotterdam recently revealed. Together with four professional colleges, we are arranging a course ‘Decision trees for lawyers’, which is to prevent citizens from ending up in a tangle of forms. We hang pieces of digital twin in the ELSA labs in the much-discussed AI coalition (because they need cases) and ponder together on the management issue that comes up.

Even the archive inspectors are currently considering the question of how you can legally and quickly recover this image from the eDepots. The Netherlands is at the forefront in this regard. Electronic Arts (EA), you know, owner of Simcity and games like FIFA, among others, were very interested in what we are doing here in our small country. We are also very good at it, despite all the grumbling, BIT reports and supposedly failed ICT projects when compared to our German neighbors or even globally. But validating these models and being able to explain them to the public is still a challenge. And the link to the world of the lawyer and thus accountability under the rule of law has only just begun.

Scrum session

The policy cycle begins to look like a Scrum session with sprints at an ‘environmental table’. We are looking for new ways to make laws more flexible, without compromising too much on legal protection. We believe that the digital twin will be the instrument to make this acceleration possible, in other words, an instrument that transcends the paper processes and Arre Zuurmond’s administrative diligence. Regulations then still become the source of law, but a ‘trial’ then refers at least as much to a photo snapshot in a digital twin that spatially represents the case. SimCity is coming. We will then be able to (adapt) our living environment faster, more integrated and more flexible. Maybe the old long texts with environmental plans and legal articles that only a specialist can decipher should be sent to the museum for that residential environment. The digital twin is becoming a new form of law. But then there is work to be done!

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