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Five ways to embed digital delivery in smart infrastructure Derek Murray

We all agree that digital is playing an increasing role in infrastructure development, and there is growing consensus over what the future of our industry will look like. Digital solutions will complement and often replace physical infrastructure solutions to meet growing needs. Data is a crucial resource, with an urgent need for the skills to connect, analyse and manipulate it. And the desire to drive down costs has seen the emphasis shift from capital to whole-life costs and the needs of the ultimate customer.

Last month, our head of Smart Infrastructure, Nabil Abou-Rahme, mapped out the hallmarks of the ‘digital mindset’ that we need to adopt in order to truly harness the digital revolution.

So we know where we are going, but how do we get there? The digital mindset can only be fostered by an industry taking firm steps in the right direction. Here are five changes our industry must embrace to move forward in delivering digitally for smart infrastructure.

Embed digital skills in education: Most people join the industry with engineering degrees which have yet to catch up with the way digital is changing infrastructure. Even the way BIM is taught varies greatly between institutions and countries – this is despite the concepts and technologies being in use for many years. University courses must reflect the ever-evolving needs of the industry. This means graduates should be ‘6D BIM’-ready and have the ability to understand – and implement – information-centric solutions for smart infrastructure.

Broaden routes to chartership: Today’s engineers still follow traditional development routes, some including periods on site to gain practical knowledge of construction. While this is useful for many graduates, it can be a hindrance to new industry talent who contribute most in the digital engineering studio. We need to draw in people with different skillsets (such as software developers and data analysts) to help drive digital delivery forward – yet chartership bestows more prestige on those with traditional engineering experience, while presenting barriers to those following non-traditional routes in the industry.

Breakdown disciplinary silos: Most engineering companies are structured by sector, with further divisions according to discipline or expertise. While this has worked well historically, digital delivery is being spearheaded by small, multidisciplinary teams able to combine innovation and best practice from across all disciplines. Fostering multidisciplinary collaboration and creating dedicated teams drawing talent from across the industry, all enabled by digital communication technology, will kickstart this process and enable a more holistic and agile response. Our Smart Infrastructure initiative comprises one such multidisciplinary team, while our work on sustainability and smart cities also draws talent from across all the sectors we work in to develop innovative and unexpected solutions.

Bring technology experts into the design process: Our industry is used to rigid delivery processes, but consulting with the supply chain early on has been shown to help develop better solutions. With its emphasis on prefabrication and the use of software, sensors and other digital tools, digital delivery for smart infrastructure demands early collaboration. This doesn’t just mean engaging with constructors and operators but also with specialist technology firms from the outset.

Focus on service outcomes, not outputs: Equipped with better information and digital working, we can rapidly generate myriad digital solutions that meet infrastructure demands. This allows a switch in approach to service-oriented, outcome based solutions that best meet the needs of society and can adapt to future needs, rather than focusing on simple outputs. For example, instead of building a new road or bridge to accommodate more traffic, a data-based solution combined with road sensors and smart management can alleviate congestion on existing roads, eliminating the need for a new build solution. A move towards specifying outcomes, enabled by better information and digital delivery, will encourage the industry to find new and exciting ways to achieve them – and smart infrastructure solutions are a key part of this.

Part of the promise of the digital revolution is that it will significantly disrupt our industry. The winners will be those who embrace digital, while the losers will be those unable to adapt to these changes. Let’s prepare now by taking firm steps to embed digital delivery in our industry.

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