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Mark Enzer & Richard Shennan

Building information modelling (BIM) serves the industry well by facilitating streamlined design, strong collaboration and, increasingly, more efficient construction. It’s now just a step away from merging with smart infrastructure, a development which will realise vast efficiencies and cost savings for clients, their customers, and wider society.

It’s worth taking stock of BIM’s capabilities. In a few short years it has grown a truly ‘n’-dimensional capability, able to co-ordinate 3D design data plus information on cost, scheduling, carbon and much more. Metadata assigned to BIM ‘objects’ includes intended performance, supplier information, and instructions on servicing, repair and replacement.

Important work has been done to establish protocols and common standards for data sharing. There’s now much better understanding of risk and liability relating to information accuracy, integrity and security. And we’ve become more selective about the type and quantity of information that’s put into BIM models so that it’s manageable and, above all, useful.

As our industry’s BIM capability grows ever greater, the idea of harnessing design and construction phase data for the benefit of operation and maintenance is moving ever closer to reality.

The compass of smart infrastructure is much wider [see ‘The anatomy of smart infrastructure’]. Data inputs might include SCADA, customer billing, GPS, ticketing and counting, social media, sensors, GIS, satellite imagery, CCTV and more in addition to BIM. But the data management, sifting, sense making and decision taking skills required by both BIM and smart infrastructure are coming ever closer together.

It’s about outcomes, not output

Our industry currently measures efficiency and value in terms of output per capex pound. Our preoccupation continues to be with building new assets, and finding faster, less wasteful, lower cost ways of doing so. However, in most mature economies the value of infrastructure in use is substantially greater than the value of infrastructure in development. In the UK, the addition of new assets adds less than 0.5% each year to the value of existing infrastructure. The key concern of civil engineering should be to maximise the service and value that society get from the operational asset base. The need for asset creation will never go away. But our focus must shift to the many decades of service that follow. If we’re really committed to efficiency and value, we should be measuring in terms of outcomes for the ultimate customer, per whole-life pound.

A comprehensive, forward-looking BIM strategy can lay the foundations for effective whole-life data management – or smart infrastructure if you prefer – that enables real-time performance optimisation, proactive maintenance, and targeted investment in asset enhancement or expansion.

We should be under no illusions that moving from capex to whole-life solutions is a massive industry shift. There’s a role for government and the biggest of our private sector clients here: HMG’s stipulation that all public projects would need to be BIM level 2 compliant from April 2016 had a huge effect on private clients, many of whom decided to demand the same standards for their own assets. If major clients decide to set a new smart standard for projects, many other are likely to follow.

A number of other conditions are needed to pave the way for smart infrastructure:

Improved data quality Many data sources are incomplete or poorly maintained, while many BIM models have been developed with a view to construction, but not operation. BIM and smart infrastructure strategies need to be drawn up with target outcomes in mind. That will enable the right kinds of data to be gathered, and the right hardware, software and management processes to be put in place.

5G The government’s plans for a modern industrial strategy recognises the importance of 5G broadband technology in creating a step change in the way people, organisations and assets interact. Seamless web connectivity and faster data transmission are key to making smart infrastructure work. The UK rollout is scheduled for 2020. Projects in development now should be ready-prepared.

Improved standards and protocols While many organisations are making valuable inroads into asset information management, the industry must standardise its approach to ensure these systems are mutually compatible. Effective collaboration and agreement now will benefit everyone, including the early movers.

Open exchange of data Traditionally much of our work has been done in silos. But we need to share data openly – both within companies and between them. Retailers and transport operators have already gained hugely from making information open source – and it’s interesting to see that technology pioneers like Tesla are doing the same. In many instances there’s more to gain by sharing than by jealously protecting.

Make the business case If we can quantify the benefits – in particular the whole-life savings – then a case can be made for investing in smart solutions.

The construction industry is dead – long live the infrastructure industry

It’s time for the civil engineering profession to embrace the 99.5% of infrastructure that already exists and get excited about how to make it work better. Yes, there’s still room for innovation in the way we design and deliver new assets, but there is much, much more innovation happening in the world of technology. We need to be harnessing that to make all the existing stuff more responsive, resilient and affordable for our clients and their customers – our ultimate customers.

BIM is in everybody’s hands. Until now it has been used primarily for asset creation. But with Level 2 becoming the industry norm, it’s time to look beyond construction to operation and identifying ways in which BIM can fulfil its potential by adding whole life value. And as we go back to existing assets and work to enhance them, we must build new information models for creating and managing data that add value there too.

Developing smart infrastructure necessarily means forming collaborative partnerships with companies which are new to us, hiring employees with skillsets forged in the digital economy, and learning new ways of working. We are likely to see nimble start-ups make inroads into our sector, providing new competition and bringing new ideas into the mix. It also means working in new and more collaborative ways across our own industry.

The fundamental promise of smart infrastructure is ‘more from what you’ve got’. It’s a commercial logic that will be impossible to resist. As that increasingly gains traction, our industry is likely to be challenged by new business models.

In the traditional model, professional service providers are effectively gatekeepers of knowledge on infrastructure design and performance. Clients pay for access to that knowledge and for expertise in the design and project management of new assets.

But knowledge is being democratised via the internet, more standardised solutions to problems are being developed, and knowledge about best practice and ‘what good looks like’ is more available.

Going forward, knowledge gatekeepers will almost certainly become less relevant. It’ll be how you use your knowledge to deliver better outcomes and add value that will matter. Reward is likely to reflect this.

It is likely to be difficult at first. But as smart infrastructure evolves, new ways of creating value are bound to emerge. Solution providers will be rewarded by the value they create, measured in outcomes per whole life pound, not by their inputs, or even their outputs.

As BIM and smart begin to blur, it’s time for the infrastructure industry to adapt.

First published by New Civil Engineer, February 2017

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