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Why we now need a national route map for the digitalisation of the built environment

04 January 2023

The key issues affecting civil engineers in 2023, according to the ICE data and digital expert community.

Why we now need a national route map for the digitalisation of the built environment
We need a joined-up approach to digitalisation of infrastructure. Image credit: Shutterstock

The ICE’s data and digital community advisory board (CAB) has outlined the key things that the industry should consider next year in its journey towards the digitalisation of the built environment.

In Infrastructure in 2023, the community acknowledges that progress in digitalisation has been made in many individual projects, with some outstanding examples of good practice from the industry leaders.

However, the sector as a whole still lags all other comparable industries.

Isolated efforts have not transformed the industry, so it’s time for a more joined-up approach to data and digital transformation.

In short, we need a national route map for the digitalisation of the built environment.

The Low Carbon Concrete Routemap published by the ICE in April last year is an excellent example of this approach.

It provides a clear vision and, most importantly, a clear and practical way forward that is shared across the industry.

We now need this for digital transformation.

If civil engineers are to help meet the challenges of achieving net zero, climate resilience and the circular economy, rapid improvements will be needed in how we work. And digitalisation is widely recognised as an essential enabler of this.

Creating a national route map for digitalisation is the first step and there are several opportunities to take it in a meaningful direction in 2023.

1. Industry initiatives need to be joined up

A number of important data and digital initiatives are currently running.

For example:

  • Construction Leadership Council (CLC) – The CLC’s strategy published in 2022 highlighted ‘next-generation delivery’ as one of its ambitions for transformational change. The CLC’s Data and Digital workstream has been championing digital transformation across the industry based around the CLC’s four identified sub-sectors.
  • Nima - Formerly known as the UK BIM Alliance, Nima facilitates the implementation and integration of practical information management practices across the built and environmental infrastructure. It aims to enable people in the built environment ‘to better manage information vital to the needs of our times’.
  • Construction Innovation Hub (CIH) – Data and digital has been a core theme of the CIH, which is driving innovation throughout construction, addressing the sector’s performance and productivity challenges.
  • Government and Industry Interoperability Group (GIIG) – The GIIG aims to help the built environment industry benefit from interoperable information. It is developing a standard interoperable approach to the specification, procurement, delivery, assurance, storage, presentation and exploitation of asset information.
  • National Digital Twin Programme (NDTP) – The NDTP is now being run by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and it is making important progress in a key demonstrator based on the Isle of Wight. The ultimate vision of an ecosystem of connected digital twins remains, but the current focus is on tangible demonstration.

The ICE’s data and digital CAB recognises the value of all this. It also believes the industry needs to go further and have a more joined-up approach, ideally better-funded.

To this end, the CAB is now undertaking a major piece of work to define and scope the data and digital routemap, which will help the industry move forward.

2. An opportunity for investors and insurers

Digitalisation of other industries has delivered efficiencies of up to 30% of the costs associated with undertaking processes.

This level of saving is still potentially available to the built environment industry because it has not yet fully embraced digitalisation.

Investors and insurers have an important part to play in driving this transformation.

In particular, they need to demand that the organisations and projects that they invest in or insure can demonstrate effective data and information management, because it’s a greater risk if they can’t.

This simple market pressure would help to transform the industry.

It would reduce risk and increase productivity, making projects more investable.

Leading organisations have already gone a few stages further than this and have begun measuring the value of their data assets.

This means that they can create a data-driven culture that generates increased business benefits from data.

With this view, it turns out that the value of digital assets can be surprisingly close to that of physical assets.

In its groundbreaking work, KPMG showed that every £1 invested in information management could potentially secure £5.10 of direct labour productivity gains and £6.90 in direct cost savings.

It’s clear that digitalisation makes good business sense.

3. Socio-technical change

Big changes will be required both in terms of individual skills and organisational cultures across the built environment if we are to maximise the potential of data-led, digital ways of working.

In 2023, we can continue to drive this change by engaging with schools and universities about the kinds of skills future engineers will need.

We also need to encourage boardrooms to embrace the new data and digital age, removing the barriers between ‘business’ people and ‘digital’ people.

Fundamentally, people must be at the heart of digitalisation because the purpose is all about enabling people to decide and to act more effectively.

This means that we need to address human and organisational factors.

It is not just about technical change; it’s socio-technical.

We need commercial, legal and regulatory solutions that are fit for the information age.

None of these are ‘technical’, but they are essential.

For example, we need data agreements to allow information to flow through the industry, which will be vital in creating the most productive sector possible.

All of this needs to be included in an industry-wide digitalisation route map.

4. Five-year view

Engineers need to start thinking more strategically about how new systems and technologies are implemented for the longer-term greater good.

The national digitalisation roadmap should include clear, effective metrics and benchmarks to track progress over the next five years and beyond.

Good practice should be identified, shared, and adopted to become more widespread throughout the rest of the decade.

There need to be targets set for 2030 – whether they be environmental, economic or social – which should be dictating how we operate in 2023.

By defining the longer-term desired future, the industry can determine the progress needed in the coming year to achieve those larger goals.

Find out more

Data and digital was just one of the topics explored by the ICE's expert community advisory boards.

The other topics are:

  • Decarbonisation
  • Driving productivity
  • Engineering fundamentals
  • Flooding
  • Low-carbon energy
  • Structures and geotechnical
  • Sustainable, resilient infrastructure
  • Transport and mobility
  • Water and sanitation

Infrastructure in 2023: a horizon scan

  • Mark Enzer OBE FREng, strategic advisor at Mott MacDonald