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Civil Engineer blog

How can digital shape a better world?

03 December 2018

Brendan Morahan, Director at Invennt, considers the potential of digital to enable infrastructure businesses to be more creative, efficient and shape a better built environment.

How can digital shape a better world?
Image credit: Shutterstock

I remember the moment I changed my mind about the business of construction. I’d spent the early part of my career with my colleagues competing furiously on price, coping with muddled processes that were never consistent, and never looking beyond the delivery of their current project.
Our job was to build places and spaces for people to live, work, and play in, but there was very little focus on the human or the aesthetic. We were shaping a world, but we didn’t know what kind of world we were shaping, or what the consequences of our designs, constructions, and delivered spaces were having on the people who had to use them or the environment in which they stood.
I don’t think I was overly naïve. I’m a practical man at heart. In fact, I’m passionate about making construction more efficient, effective, and profitable for all those involved in the process (as long as it is deserved).

But I also believe that if we have a broader vision of what we’re doing, we will be able to do even better. We will add value to the world instead of just filling up spaces with construction.
And after taking part in a thought-provoking panel discussion – Is Your Organisation Built for Digital – I was reminded of my earlier change of mindset.

Together with colleagues from the wider construction and civil engineering business, we focused on whether our businesses were making the most of digital to improve the way we worked and the outcomes we achieved. 

We need to think about cultural change

But perhaps we need to think more broadly than digital. Perhaps we need to think about achieving a deeper cultural change so that construction leaders, at all levels actually start to think and act as if they are part of a unified sector and work together to achieve better outcomes for society! I don’t think we do right now, and we never really have.
Frankly, that’s why we’re not seen in the same light as the technology sector that we look to for new and innovative solutions.

We need to know WHY we want digital – how we can use it to transcend the old ways of thinking which have characterised our industry for so long – and how we can agree and then achieve a broader definition of value. Value that’s not only calculated in terms of profits, but also in terms of more sustainable spaces and places, healthier and happier people, and a more inspired workforce which strives to deliver a better built environment and life for all.

An 'ideal' digital world

I know that sounds idealistic. It’s meant to. For me, digital can help us deliver the change we need and make us think about the legacy of what we build as well as the short-term issues of time, budget, and compliance with regulations. Digital enables us to better achieve the latter, but it also frees us to achieve the former. And we will be better as a sector if we work hard to do both.
Of course, ‘digital’ is a broad concept. Again, thinking back to my early days in the business, I remember the flow of data that we had to deal with via analogue means, and buried in the numbers were usually excellent answers to old questions.

We sometimes found those answers, but more often we did not. Now, using digital tools like automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, we’re starting to see how sometimes surprising insights can be found if the right data is collected and, most importantly, shared.

'Let's not do digital for the sake of digital'

Let’s not do digital for the sake of digital. Let’s do digital intelligently with an overriding ambition to do good – to shape our world as a sector, and the world of our customers and the general public, for the better.

Digital can help us be more creative as well as efficient. It can bring us together through the sharing of data. We can’t be blinded by short-term competitive concerns: let’s work together more constructively via digital tools across an ecosystem that transcends established hierarchies or cultural practices.

Let’s use data for practical benefits and visionary outcomes. We can do both. All we need to do is change the way we think about our businesses, our sector, and how we work together.
Digital can help us create more value through construction and establish an inspirational sector that is seen as a force for good.