Updated: Jul 27
In response to the Grenfell Tower Fire, the UK government recently introduced new regulations and a new regulator to address shortcomings in building safety. This new safety regime is intended to prevent the occurrence of incidents similar to the Grenfell Tower disaster that resulted in 72 deaths in 2017.
Among the measures that this regulation introduces is what is being called, "A Golden Thread." This is in fact a "Digital Thread" the first of its kind to be used by regulators to improve compliance.
The future of compliance looks like it is here so let's find out what digital threads are all about and why it is so important for compliance.
What is a Digital Thread?
To understand digital threads we first need to understand digital twins.
The concept of digital twins is attributed to Michael Grieves based on a presentation he made in 2002 at the University of Michigan. In this presentation he proposed the digital twin as a conceptual model underlying a product life-cycle with three components: real space, virtual space, and the data between and about them.
However, the idea of modelling the real-world with computer simulation is not new and can go back to as early as1960s when NASA used basic concepts of twinning in the development of its space program.
What makes digital twins different from computer-based modelling are the connections between the real and virtual worlds. In essence, a model becomes a digital twin when it connected with its real life counterpart. This connection closes the loop and is referred to as the digital thread.
How are digital twins and threads defined today?
The definition commonly used in defence, aerospace and related industries in the US is:
“an integrated multiphysics, multiscale, probabilistic simulation of an as-built system, enabled by Digital Thread, that uses the best available models, sensor information, and input data to mirror and predict activities/performance over the life of its corresponding physical twin.”
A digital twin is a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity. This synchronization is enabled by a digital thread infrastructure or framework.
The digital thread is used to refer to the lowest level design specification for a digital representation of a physical item. The digital thread is a critical capability in model-based systems engineering (MBSE) and the foundation for a digital twin.
However, the term digital thread is also used to describe the traceability of the digital twin back to the requirements, parts and control systems that make up the physical asset.
It is this latter aspect which is of significance for compliance specifically where traceability and accountability are regulated.
Regulatory Use of Digital Threads: UK Building Safety
In 2021 the UK Parliament introduced the Building Safety Bill to address shortfalls in building safety not limited to but largely in response to the Grenfall Tower Fire in 2017.
This bill introduces a new regulator and regulation with the purpose that safety is ensured throughout every stage of a building's life. It also addresses specific failures with the lack of accountability and compliance throughout design, construction, and operations.
The concept of a digital thread will now be part of this regulatory regime to provide traceability of information so that nothing falls between the cracks. This digital thread is not necessarily part of a digital twin but will instead become a measure of compliance and a critical one. Using the name "Golden Thread" to describe this particular application makes sense. It is an idea or feature that is present in all parts of something, holds it together and gives it value (Oxford's Learner's Dictionary); and in this case the value is improved safety.
The Building Safety Bill further defines The Golden Thread:
The golden thread is both the information that allows you to understand a building and the steps needed to keep both the building and people safe, now and in the future.
The golden thread will hold the information that those responsible for the building require to: (a) how that the building was compliant with applicable building regulations during its construction and provide evidence of meeting the requirements of the new building control route throughout the design and construction and refurbishment of a building (b) Identify, understand, manage, and mitigate building safety risks in order to prevent or reduce the severity of the consequences of fire spread or structural collapse throughout the life cycle of a building
The information stored in the golden thread will be reviewed and managed so that the information retained, at all times, achieves these purposes.
The golden thread covers both the information and documents, and the information management processes (or steps) used to support building safety.
The golden thread information should be stored as structured digital information. It will be stored, managed, maintained, and retained in line with the golden thread principles (see below). The government will specify digital standards which will provide guidance on how the principles can be met.
The golden thread information management approach will apply through design, construction, occupation, refurbishment, and ongoing management of buildings. It supports the wider changes in the regime to promote a culture of building safety.
Building safety should be taken to include the fire and structural safety of a building and the safety of all the people in or in the vicinity of a building (including emergency responders).
Many people will need to access the golden thread to update and share golden thread information throughout a building’s lifecycle, including but not limited to building managers, architects, contractors, and many others. Information from the golden thread will also need to be shared by the Accountable Person with other relevant people including residents and emergency responders.
The Golden Thread is based on the following principles which you could also consider as system properties:
Accurate and Trusted: the dutyholder/Accountable Person/Building Safety Managers and other relevant persons (e.g. contractors) must be able to use the golden thread to maintain and manage building safety and ensure compliance with building regulations. The Regulator should also be able to use this information as part of their work to assess the compliance with building regulations, the safety of the building and the operator’s safety case report, including supportive evidence, and to hold people to account. The golden thread will be a source of evidence to show how building safety risks are understood and how they are being managed on an ongoing basis. The golden thread must be accurate and trusted so that relevant people use it. The information produced will therefore have to be accurate, structured, and verified, requiring a clear change control process that sets out how and when information is updated and who should update and check the information.
Residents feeling secure in their homes: residents will be provided information from the golden thread – so that they have accurate and trusted information about their home. This will also support residents in holding Accountable Persons and Building Safety Managers to account for building safety. A properly maintained golden thread should support Accountable Persons in providing residents the assurance that their building is being managed safely.
Culture change: the golden thread will support culture change within the industry as it will require increased competence and capability, different working practices, updated processes and a focus on information management and control. The golden thread should be considered an enabler for better and more collaborative working.
Single source of truth: the golden thread will bring all information together in a single place meaning there is always a ‘single source of truth’. It will record changes (i.e. updates, additions or deletions to information, data, documents and plans), including the reason for change, evaluation of change, date of change, and the decision-making process. This will reduce the duplication of information (email updates and multiple documents) and help drive improved accountability, responsibility and a new working culture. Persons responsible for a building are encouraged to use common data environments to ensure there is controlled access to a single source of truth.
Secure: the golden thread must be secure, with sufficient protocols in place to protect personal information and control access to maintain the security of the building or residents. It should also comply with current GDPR legislation where required.
Accountable: the golden thread will record changes (i.e. updates, additions or deletions to information, data, documents and plans), when these changes were made, and by who. This will help drive improved accountability. The new regime is setting out clear duties for dutyholders and Accountable Person for maintaining the golden thread information to meet the required standards. Therefore, there is accountability at every level – from the Client/Accountable Person to those designing, building or maintaining a building.
Understandable/consistent: the golden thread needs to support the user in their task of managing building safety and compliance with building regulations. The information in the golden thread must be clear, understandable and focused on the needs of the user. It should be presented in a way that can be understood, and used by, users. To support this, dutyholders/Accountable person should where possible make sure the golden thread uses standard methods, processes and consistent terminology so that those working with multiple buildings can more easily understand and use the information consistently and effectively.
Simple to access (accessible): the golden thread needs to support the user in their task of managing building safety and therefore the information in the golden thread must be accessible so that people can easily find the right information at the right time. This means that the information needs to be stored in a structured way (like a library) so people can easily find, update and extract the right information. To support this the government will set out guidance on how people can apply digital standards to ensure their golden thread meets these principles.
Longevity/durability and shareability of information: the golden thread information needs to be formatted in a way that can be easily handed over and maintained over the entire lifetime of a building. In practical terms, this is likely to mean that it needs to align with the rules around open data and the principles of interoperability – so that information can be handed over in the future and still be accessed. Information should be able to be shared and accessed by contractors who use different software and if the building is sold the golden thread information must be accessible to the new owner. This does not mean everything about a building and its history needs to be kept, the golden thread must be reviewed to ensure that the information within it is still relevant and useful.
Relevant/proportionate: preserving the golden thread does not mean everything about a building and its history needs to be kept and updated from inception to disposal. The objective of the golden thread is building safety and therefore if information is no longer relevant to building safety it does not need to be kept. The golden thread, the changes to it and processes related to it must be reviewed periodically to ensure that the information comprising it remains relevant and useful.
These definitions and principles will help set the direction for how digital threads will be built in the compliance domain not only within the UK but also other jurisdictions.
What Digital Threads Mean For Compliance
Evidence of compliance has always been needed and this means more than attestations as the way to verify that what should have been done was actually done. This approach was always to slow, too late and not always accurate.
And that is why the concept of a Golden Thread as a means to provide evidence and assurance of compliance throughout the design, building and maintenance of buildings is a game changer.
However, it will still take time for digital thread infrastructures to be established particularly those that meet the properties outlined for the UK's Golden Thread.
At one level digital threads are still retrospective and on the lagging side of risk events. However, they could become more than feed-back processes particularly for downstream activities. When combined with digital twins they could become feed-forward and provide predictive utility particularly when to improve and validate design models. At a minimum digital threads will provide more up-to-date and reliable information for all stakeholders during every stage of building's life cycle.
Now that we have defined purpose and properties for digital threads in the compliance domain it is likely that "Golden Threads" will become part of other regulator regimes.
Medical device manufacturers are already using digital threads to provide traceability across DHF, DMR, and DHRs. There are also examples of digital threads in Oil & Gas and other regulated industries with respect to safety-critical data. In addition, using digital threads as part of Management of Change (MOC) process may help ensure design integrity as a result of planned changes.
Instead of trying to integrate systems together, digital threads may provide a more effective means for compliance critical information to be made available not only as evidence of compliance but as a proactive measure to prevent risk.
Proactive organizations should begin to plan pilot projects to explore how digital threads would be used in response to regulatory reforms but also as part of their own internal compliance efforts.
If you are interested in developing and implementing digital thread strategies please contact our project management office to learn how Lean Compliance can help.