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It’s not about apps and hashtags. Digital means a whole new mindset

Nabil Abou-Rahme

Surviving and thriving in the digital world means more than just adopting the latest digital fad as an ‘add on’ to business as usual. A top-to-bottom change in the way we think about digital will enable us to truly embrace the digital revolution and harness it in the service of our infrastructure.

We have already developed a number of innovative solutions that use technology and techniques at the forefront of these changes. However, our Smart Infrastructure initiative is only one client-facing embodiment of our wider GoDigital strategy, which aims to make us ‘digital by default’ by 2018. At heart it’s about embedding a ‘digital mindset’ that will help us make the most of the digital revolution.

These are the hallmarks of this digital mindset:

The ultimate customer is king: Digital solutions are geared towards unlocking efficiencies in the operational life of assets, where most costs are incurred. This requires an understanding of the needs of the ultimate customer, so that day-to-day performance can be optimised for their benefit with cost savings passed on.

Less bespoke, more mass production: Historically, engineers designed assets from scratch for each new project, but smart infrastructure means that lessons learnt in other sectors – notably manufacturing – are now coming to our industry. BIM design enables prefabrication and onsite assembly. BIM object libraries enable us to design once and roll out multiple times. The benefits include reduced design and construction times, a cut in material waste, and improved safety onsite.

Physical infrastructure is the last thing on our minds: Smart infrastructure allows a move away from traditional new-build solutions and towards using data management systems to make existing infrastructure work harder.

Listen to the wisdom of the crowds: The old model where the infrastructure industry produced a ‘finished product’ for the market is being disrupted by a desire to use customer data – from footfall, smart metres, social media, and usage patterns – to further refine asset performance. Designing for whole-life efficiencies means building-in the potential for a full-scale change in asset use should needs change.

We no longer work in silos: Old structures die hard, but smart infrastructure demands that we break down artificial barriers between departments, in favour of small multidisciplinary teams that fuse talent from across an organisation to develop innovative and unexpected solutions. An article for McKinsey’s Digital Practice agrees that the digital mindset ‘institutionalizes cross-functional collaboration, flattens hierarchies, and builds environments to encourage the generation of new ideas’.(1) Delivering digital solutions requires a rethink of your entire business model.

There is no such thing as useless data: If we thought more about how the information we generate could be re-used by others for generating downstream value, we would change the way we value that information today. We will see a new focus on the need to properly gather, store and sort data during design and planning, to refine asset maintenance or performance later down the line.

Share stories of your success: Our industry is used to guarding what it considers intellectual property. However, sharing asset information widely and openly will open new opportunities for clients, suppliers from other sectors and even the ultimate customers to create new benefits. An example of this was seen when Transport for London (TfL) released data on the Cycle Hire scheme publically, well in advance of the launch. This allowed potential users of the scheme to create their own apps which aided other customers and helped TfL to shape the scheme, contributing to its success.

Good things come to those that wait: Developing and testing new ideas requires investment, and confidence that this investment will pay off in the form of bankable solutions for our clients. A focus on whole-life benefits also usually requires greater capital costs in the expectation of higher returns over the asset lifecycle. We need to invest in doing things differently now, knowing that initial returns on investment will be modest but with the potential for great growth.

Foster your desire to disrupt: All this leads to new ways of developing solutions for clients, with the transformation of accepted ways of working not only a possibility but a desired goal in itself. Modern success stories of the digital economy such as Uber and Airbnb disrupted and even threaten existing industries by harnessing the digital revolution and recalibrating long-established business models.

Examining the nature of digital business models, Harvard Business Review columnist Mark Bonchek writes about the difference between an ‘incremental mindset’ – satisfied with ‘doing better’ in order to achieve linear growth, and the ‘exponential mindset’ – which wants to ‘do things differently’ to realise exponential business benefits.(2) This sums up the true value of adopting the digital mindset – we dislodge the status quo not with more efficient versions of existing solutions, but through bold and disruptive ideas that subvert and replace what is currently commonplace.

While start-ups can embed this mindset from the beginning, there’s nothing preventing larger organisations from adopting this culture change. Looking at the transformations that have taken place in other sectors, we see many success stories of the digital revolution – and many stories of companies that fell victim to this disruption as they were not nimble or forward-thinking enough to adapt to change. In our industry, we long ago moved from talking about ‘if’ we adapt to the digital revolution to ‘when’ – and ‘how’. Adopting the digital mindset will help us stay relevant in the modern marketplace and open new lines of work as old ones fade away.

1 - Dörner, Karel and Edelman, David. What ‘digital’ really means. McKinsey.

2 - Bonchek, Mark. How to create an exponential mind-set. Harvard Business Review.

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