Forget Second Life, we’ll see you in the Industrial Metaverse - SIEMENS 2023 - Magazine | Monocle

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Solving the sustainability paradox

Humankind faces a seemingly impossible task to transform the way that we live, work and manufacture to protect the foundations of civilisation: a healthy and sustainable planet. We still produce too many carbon emissions that fuel the climate crisis and we consume too much of our natural resources – more than our planet can replace. Yet at the same time, we must create new opportunities for a world population that continues to grow. More than eight billion people now live on earth. It is estimated that another two billion will be added over the course of the next three decades. All of these people have a right to hope for a good life for themselves and a better future for their children and grandchildren. This is the sustainability paradox: How is it possible for us to provide a good life for a growing number of people while producing fewer emissions and using less resources? In short, how can we do more with less?

Electrification and digitalisation are important drivers for decoupling growth and CO2 emissions

The answer is simple. We must replace the use of ever scarcer raw materials and climate-damaging energy sources with renewables. Electrification and digitalisation are therefore important drivers for decoupling growth and CO2 emissions. We have already achieved a great deal by switching a portion of our energy use to renewables and making it more efficient. We are on the right track but we must accelerate our transformation significantly to solve the sustainability paradox.

However, there is an unlikely potential saviour: the metaverse. When we hear this word, most people think of a colourful, virtual world; of games, shopping and social media. Yet the metaverse has the potential to change and improve the real world like no other technology. By design, the metaverse allows people to completely immerse themselves in a virtual universe where they can interact with their environment and other people simultaneously – and from anywhere in the world.

There are no limits to our imagination and it will look how we want it to look so this virtual environment can be a faithful representation of our real world. If we set aside our preconceptions of a frivolous “second life” for a moment then we can begin to imagine a place where we can mirror machines and factories, buildings and cities, vehicles and entire traffic systems.

This is a space for true innovation called the Industrial Metaverse. This is, indeed, a virtual world but its purpose is to make the real world better. It is not simply a playground for people to have fun and shop around, although one of its great advantages is the ability to experiment without consequence. Virtual testing will save precious resources. New ideas for biomaterials, more efficient wind turbines or electric vehicles can be brought to market with more ease, speed and at less cost. And new products and parts can be developed from the beginning in a way that allows us to repurpose them more efficiently.

But the Industrial Metaverse is not only about innovation and more sustainable products. Factories, buildings and entire cities can be planned more efficiently and sustainably in this virtual world. And by connecting these digital twins with their real-world counterparts, companies can optimise their production and processes in a perpetual feedback loop. Most importantly, the Industrial Metaverse will also help to make energy use more efficient by balancing the grid, steering the right amount of electricity at the right time to the right place and identifying the potential for energy saving or the electrification of systems.

There are already more than 10 billion devices connected to the “Internet of things”, the digitally connected universe of smart devices. That number is set to triple this decade. If we link this data with the Industrial Metaverse, we can virtually control and optimise the real world. People can break the barriers of distance and work together across continents as if they were together in the same room or in front of the same machines or prototypes. Factory operators working from home could become a reality. Colleagues from all over the world can analyse, solve problems and test solutions without disrupting factory operations. Even travelling to the past or future will be possible using the power of data, artificial intelligence and physics-based simulations.

The potential for the Industrial Metaverse to help humanity solve the sustainability paradox is enormous. We are already seeing results because the key technology is nothing new. Siemens has been working on digital twins for more than a decade and is already achieving extraordinary things. Digital twins helped to put the exploration rovers on Mars; drones and sustainable cargo ships are being tested; and homes, railroads and factories are being optimised. A so-called “digital native factory”, a production plant planned and optimised with a digital twin, can increase its output by 20 per cent while making fewer emissions. They are literally doing more with less.

The world needs an Industrial Metaverse if it is to resolve the sustainability paradox

By enabling the Industrial Metaverse and accelerating digital transformation, economies can also fast-track their transition to net-zero and greater resource efficiency. Even at today’s technological level, digital twins could help save 7.5 gigatonnes of CO2 worldwide over the course of a decade, according to a study by Accenture. With the next generation of digital twins – real-time, physically accurate, photorealistic and interconnected in a global Industrial Metaverse – we can increase this potential even more.

In order to build this virtual world, more needs to be done. We must accelerate innovation, invest in new technologies and empower people to use them. We also have to ensure that the energy that is required for the systems and computing power is itself sustainable. But the effort will be worthwhile because the world needs an Industrial Metaverse if it is to resolve the sustainability paradox.

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