Most of us are familiar with the idea of backing up our computers. However, the Pacific Island of Tuvalu is now using digital twin technology to back up its entire nation, as it faces the real and existential threat of becoming uninhabitable due to rising sea levels. As climate change renders more of us vulnerable to extreme natural hazards, could digital twins help more countries mitigate and prepare for disaster?
At just five metres above water at its highest point, Tuvalu could be rendered uninhabitable by 2100. So grave is the threat that Tuvalu updated its constitution in September 2023 to enshrine its statehood in perpetuity, which it hopes will ensure it remains a country if all its land is lost to the sea. They’ve decided that critical to this effort is ‘backing up’ the entire country.
Tuvalu has created a digital twin of itself, a virtual mirror image of the nation. A digital twin is “a virtual representation of a physical object, system or process…that is updated using real-time data.” The origins of the term can be traced to NASA in 2010, although the US space agency first applied the principle in its moon missions around half a century earlier. When Apollo 13 was on the brink of failure NASA used simulations to replicate the potential scenarios faced by the spacecraft and determine the strategy most likely to avoid disaster. The applications of digital twins have since expanded to include aviation and manufacturing.
Now we are starting to see the development of digital twins at the previously unprecedented scale of nations. Just like Apollo 13, it’s often being driven by the threat of disaster.
Tuvalu's digital twin will help it continue to function as a sovereign nation if the country becomes uninhabitable. Fully digital administration systems hosted in the cloud will enable continuity of government services, such as voting. In 2022, its former foreign affairs minister Simon Kofe even addressed COP27 from a digital version of the country's islands.
Beyond administration, Tuvalu hopes its digital twin will preserve its culture. Digital copies of historical documents and records are being created alongside plans to explore the use of virtual reality to allow future Tuvaluans to access their ancestral past.
Globally, there were more than four times as many disasters related to weather, climate or water hazards in the 2010s than in the 1970s. An estimated 85% of the world’s population lives in areas affected by human-driven climate change. This means that the measures currently adopted by Tuvalu may soon need to be considered in other countries.
To some extent, this is already happening. In Singapore, a digital twin was started following a series of flash floods in 2011. Reportedly completed in 2023, Virtual Singapore assists with disaster planning by developing evacuation scenarios and conducting simulations.
In Luxembourg, a digital twin was initially intended to improve urban planning, resource management and mobility. Its use was quickly changed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to understand the impact of policy decisions like border and school closures on case numbers, hospitalisations, and the economy.
Luxembourg has been able to redirect the use of its digital twin more than once. In the post-pandemic world, it has tried to use the technology to ensure its energy grid is reliable and resilient in different weather conditions as it transitions to more variable sources such as wind and solar.
Digital twins of nations hold much promise but there are potential downsides too. Given digital twins are built using data, citizens may be concerned about their privacy. Governments or corporations might misuse them for unwarranted surveillance. And could backup nations create a potential moral hazard as we might become more willing to sacrifice real nations?
If privacy issues can be mitigated, digital twins can provide us with an important tool for disaster preparedness. The UK has announced plans to create a digital twin of its own to help reach net zero, and has piloted the technology for local-level disaster planning, but may soon need to consider how it uses the technology to prepare for disasters on a national scale as well. Predicted sea level rises will put an estimated 200,000 coastal properties in England at risk in the next 30 years. Considering it took Singapore – whose size and population is around half that of greater London – almost 10 years to develop its own digital twin, it might soon be time for the UK to start backing up our nation too.