Has digital's impact on civil engineering really hit us yet?

If digital is going to transform the civil engineering industry then just how is it going to look in 5,10 or 20 years? ICE’s Ben McAlinden discusses our Digital Transformation campaign, previews ICE’s Shaping A Digital World conference and lists the key digital developments so far.

Digital transformation: the impact of digital will redefine the human contribution to engineering
Digital transformation: the impact of digital will redefine the human contribution to engineering

Behaviours and skills are central themes of ICE’s Digital Transformation campaign which will be further explored at our forthcoming conference on 13 October, Shaping A Digital World.

Through our programme of events, conferences and knowledge content we look for answers to questions such as:

  • What behaviours are needed to facilitate digital transformation and from whom?
  • Is the technology moving too fast, leaving engineers’ skillsets behind?
  • What new skills are needed to work with automated decision-making?
  • How should we drive innovation through to get full impact?
  • How can technology itself offer new solutions, for example avoiding hitting pipes when digging up roads?

Defining new digital technologies

Two stand-out areas where digital is changing the way we work are collaboration and information management. Emergent new technologies are redefining engineering practice and in turn the behaviours and skills that make up the engineer’s profile. Such as:

Building Information Management

BIM Level 2 has reached early adopters but not yet filtered down the entire supply chain. BIM unlocks the true value of the data asset but attitudes and experiences vary. An innovative, collaborative, information-focused mindset is important for realising full benefits.

Augmented reality

AR offers a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment where elements are augmented (or supplemented) by virtual computer-generated sensory input (sound, video, graphics or GPS data). Users can visualise site limitations, detect clashes, and overlay time (from 4D-BIM platforms) and cost information (from 5D-BIM platforms) to experience a real time dry run of a project before real construction begins.

Mixed reality

A mix of reality and virtual reality. For example, using AR and video chat to teleconference live with someone in another country to both explore and discuss a hard-to-access place (e.g. a sub-sea tunnel), with information overlaid on your view.

Mobile technology

Use of phones, tablets and apps offer live and more efficient communication and collaboration on project sites. They make access to information far easier and more widespread.

Smart sensors

Advanced monitoring technology can relay real-time information about the condition of infrastructure to inform asset management (i.e. ‘intelligent assets’).


Used increasingly in the construction sector to inspect sites and assets. The right kinds of skills are needed to generate the right kinds of data to be fed into, say, BIM or analysis processes.


Advances in 3D photo image recording can build real-time information about asset condition, informing decision making.

Artificial Intelligence

AI is becoming increasingly relevant to engineering, especially machine learning i.e. algorithms that, through a set of training data, allow computer programs to learn something they were not explicitly programmed for. AI is often based on artificial neural networks (ANNs), which are modelled on the neurons in the human brain and consist of a network of nodes (analogous to neurons) connected with varying degrees of correlation (analogous to synapses).

Behaviours and skills

As this mass emergence of new technology takes place we shouldn’t lose sight of the role of people –the engineers and professionals who work in our core world and increasingly, beyond it. Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between the benefits of automated decision-making, standardised design and human expertise.

As our engineering environment evolves it’s crucial that humans adapt too. As Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

In an engineering context this means that our behaviours and skills need to evolve to continue to find new and ingenious solutions to engineering challenges. There’s been much debate about future skills while behaviours are perhaps less considered. So what are the skills and behaviours that can facilitate the transformation to digital? Here are some:

  • Leadership
    Strong, aligned leadership is crucial for enacting organisational change to facilitate uptake of digital. This may include linking business objectives to the right digital solutions, developing culture change within the organisation and forward planning to secure new skills.
  • Collaboration
    Digital allows us to work together in a host of new ways throughout planning, design, construction and operation. It can also enable better integration with supply chains and more efficient procurement processes. An open approach to sharing is important for realising full benefits and developing a collaborative culture within organisations and communities.
  • Analytics
    ‘Big data’ is upon us but the next trick is turning this into ‘useful data’ – interpreting and using data to make decisions that maximise asset performance. Data analysis is becoming a core civil engineering discipline but also a skillset we may need to supplement from outside of our traditional spheres.
  • Creativity
    True innovation often comes from deep within the supply chain or organisation. Practitioners should be empowered to commit time and resource to exploring new approaches and leaders have a role to play to help us move away from a risk averse culture.
  • Security
    Digitally enabled infrastructure can deliver many benefits but also creates new security vulnerabilities. Security-minded behaviour should be mainstreamed within industry with the onus on every individual as well as the board.

What the digital experts are saying

Our 2017 State of the Nation: Digital Transformation report set out key actions for industry on the topic of behaviours and skills for digital (as well as on how digital can boost productivity and how to operate securely in a digital world).

Our follow up knowledge campaign delves deeper into those recommendations to support practitioners and help drive change through industry. Our event and content programme will feature the latest expert views from both inside and outside of our industry.

A cross-section of industry gathered for our Future Engineers seminar at One Great George Street earlier this year. Here’s a snapshot:

Civil engineers will need to understand digital tools – whether that’s surveying tools, BIM tools, planning tools, virtual reality, or the associated control systems that support the civil engineering. Understanding how they all come together as a system to solve a problem is the most important thing.” Stuart Calvert, Head of Early Contractor Involvement (ECI) programme, Digital Railway

Organisations have to be thinking about the breadth and scale of the talent that they draw upon and nurture to fill different roles. The diverse challenges that businesses are faced with require insight, perspectives and qualities that don’t all come from the same traditional background.” Susan Bowen, Vice President and General Manager EMEA, Cogeco Peer 1

Civil engineers should always be ready to reinvent themselves as there’s always people out there that will do it faster and quicker. Make sure you keep up to date.” Mat Kellett, Mobile Mapping, UAV & OEM Sales Manager, Topcon

Organisations shouldn’t rely just on engineers – traditional engineers – to look after digital tools because it’s too big an ask. Get people in who can help them.” Brian Higgins, Business Development Manager EMEA,(ISC)2 Inc:

Digital debate continues at our digital conference

Follow our Digital Transformation campaign for more events, conferences, content and expert insights, wherever you are on the journey towards digital.

Our Shaping a Digital World conference (formerly ICE BIM) on 13 October will explore the following areas in depth:

  • Productivity
  • Fostering changes in behaviours
  • Security mindedness
  • Embracing technology & innovation

Follow our digital campaign

Want to share your views? Find us on Twitter at @ice_engineers and follow our campaign via #DigitalBuilt.

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