Digital transformation - why as engineers we need to keep pace

The challenges and opportunities associated with the digital transformation of the infrastructure sector are recognized globally. In advance of ICE’s State of the Nation 2017 report on digital transformation we look at the challenges and opportunities.

An artist
An artist's impression of Canary Wharf Crossrail station. Design on Crossrail started before the iPhone existed
  • Updated: 16 March, 2017
  • Author: Jennifer Whyte, Professor of Systems Integration, Imperial College London and member of the report’s steering group

An exponential increase in computing power over the past 50 years has transformed the infrastructure lifecycle. Professionals expect to be able to monitor and update information in real-time, through intuitive interfaces

Rather than base-line project schedules being batch-processed on room-size computers, now smaller, cheaper devices and the use of digital information and analytics has become pervasive across the use, operation and delivery of infrastructure.

This brings both opportunities and challenges in managing innovation and interdependencies associated with this digital transformation.

Decisions for the whole life of assets

First, there is an opportunity to see projects as interventions in civil infrastructure systems. Owners and operators of infrastructure, for example in water and transport, are beginning to make investment decisions in relation to total costs rather than capital or operational expenditure.

Digital information enables them to make decisions that consider changes in patterns of use, maintenance and new build solutions, with alliancing approaches enabling the supply chain to be engaged in discussion of outcomes before the outputs of a project are defined. The Digital Built Britain agenda starts to consider this wider context of digital information.

Real time decision making

Second, there is a pressing need and opportunity for next generation tools and processes to provide information to infrastructure decision-makers at the time they need to make the decision.

As digital data sets get larger, running into millions of documents on the largest projects, it gets harder for engineers and managers involved in delivery to overview and understand aspects of the infrastructure design.

There are opportunities to automate existing approaches to identifying interdependencies in complex systems and to develop new collaborative visualization approaches to enable engineers to have more informed conversations before making decisions.

Asset versus technological lifecycles

Third, there is both the need and opportunity for continuous innovation. The ‘clockspeed’ of infrastructure delivery is substantially longer than the clockspeed of developments in digital technologies. This is a challenge in delivery.

A major infrastructure project such as Crossrail, for example, comes into service next year but was being designed before the iPhone was available.

No longer can such delivery projects hold the digital technologies that they use stable for the duration of the project. They have to develop strategies for piloting new technology and continuing to innovate during delivery.

The innovation programme at Crossrail has been a success in this regard and is adopted for the next generation of major UK infrastructure projects.

Digital transformation is also a challenge for the through-life management of infrastructure. A new railway, such as Crossrail, may be in service for over 100 years and the digital technologies used to operate and maintain it are likely to continue to evolve over this timeframe.

Infrastructure owners and operators will need to develop strategies to store digital information and integrate and use different generations of sensor technology, robotics, continuous survey, visualization and data analytic technologies.

The importance of continuous research

To compete in this transformed industry there is a need for a research base to support the industry in digital transformation – both immediately and toward the industry of the future.

Not least, investment in the UK Collaboratorium for Research on Infrastructure and Cities (UKCRIC) in addition to the existing work on innovation programmes where there is an opportunity for the further integration of digital strategy and innovation strategy.

State of the Nation 2017

ICE’s flagship State of the Nation policy reports are published annually. The 2017 report is to published on 22 March and focuses on digital transformation of the UK’s economic and social infrastructure and how clients, industry and government can enable this.

If you would like to know more about the 2017 report please email the ICE policy team: [email protected].

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