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A new narrative needed for digital in the built environment

Despite the accelerated change in technology creating disruption and promise, the built environment sector is yet to fully realise the opportunities. To reach the full potential of what ‘digital’ can offer, and achieve the outcome we know is possible, a new narrative is needed.

With the industry as a whole continuing to take traditional and ad-hoc approaches to digital initiatives, most are limiting the value they can achieve. The first wave of Aurecon’s Our Digital Futures research – The Digital Landscape – highlights opportunities for organisations to stay ahead of the digital curve.

In this article, John Hainsworth, Digital Leader for Built Environment at Aurecon, discusses how digital ways of working present a great opportunity to collaborate, drive disruptive change, and as recent research reaffirms, “help us solve problems, overcome challenges, be more efficient, work smarter and generate new revenue.”

To make digital ways of working a reality, the industry must disrupt itself and shift from its generations-old way of working, to instead embracing the new approaches that digital ways of working can enable. To put it simply, we must stop doing the same things with new tools – and it is critical that strong leadership drives an organisation’s digital journey.

As an industry we have the chance to consciously write a new narrative – we can fix things internally to become more efficient; we can store our data carefully and; we can automate tasks for ourselves. We can align ‘digital’ with the business strategy and employ a chief digital executive to drive its implementation. But to do this requires some significant changes to well entrenched, and long-standing ways of working. 

Unleashing greater collaboration, bringing parties together earlier

We are already witnessing new possibilities of cloud storage and computing unfold, and a wholescale industry shift to platforms and open APIs that have the potential and promise of a new era of delivery. Whilst the industry’s traditional approach to projects and contracts creak and constrain, new digital ways of working are unleashing much more collaborative mechanisms, relaxing and blurring contractual lines.

Just imagine prototyping our future in collaborative manner, upon which all parties interact, and receiving insights almost instantly so that we achieve a better outcome. That should be less risky, right?

However, this blurring of contractual lines is a frightening prospect for many. It’s a significant change from the norm. Historically, a team’s progress is demonstrated through a process of rolling out drawings, sharing files and delivering reports. Yet now there is the opportunity to replace Gant charts and spreadsheets with predictive analytics, smart contracts and generative simulations, which enable real-time information to be accessible by more than one person, more than one team. It’s early days, but the digital pioneers going down this path are seeing magic happen when these tools and their use is allowed to flourish.

Digital collaboration tools, such as immersive reality or dashboards reporting on a collective vision of success, present complex data in a meaningful way. They open up new opportunities for prototyping and iterating to get to a better outcome before you get serious about producing the next stage of a development.

In addition to understanding the current state, as we move towards predictive learning by artificial means, different scenarios will start to play out – and ‘what if’ questions will come quite naturally. When we ask ‘What if we put another floor on?’, instead of working in silos for several weeks before a solution is reached, with the digital tools and leadership, answers can be delivered almost instantly and progress shown in new ways. Instant feedback and visibility of the overall process generally results in a better outcome.

Clarity of understanding and leadership

Fundamental to the success of such a collaborative and integrated approach is sharing project control, as well as risks and rewards. It’s a team effort and critical to this – in addition to technology enabling a single point of truth – is a shared and clear definition of what ‘digital’ means. With this shared understanding, all parties are striving for the same end goal and can contribute in the best possible manner.

However, when the definition is unclear, full benefits will not be realised – which, to some extent, we have learnt with BIM. When in the right hands, BIM is an innovative tool that enables effective collaboration, design optimisation and efficient performance of buildings. Aurecon has become one of the first organisations globally to achieve the BSI KitemarkTM certification for BIM in Design – an international benchmark for excellence in digital engineering and project delivery.

However, looking more broadly across industry, the BIM acronym conjured up all manner of different definitions and this lack of clarity (combined with a file based, transactional implementation) is intrinsically linked to its full potential not yet being realised. We are still doing the same things we were doing two decades ago, just with new technology – which means contracts haven’t changed, collaborative ways of working are superficial, and files are being passed back and forth across contractual boundaries.

In short, doing the same things with a new tool isn’t reaping the full benefits that are possible. 

Learning from this, as an industry we must be clear about the definition and understanding of the problem – the why. And leadership too is needed. The new emerging international standards are better equipping the industry to move forward together, integrated and collaboratively, and will help drive greater clarity particularly around the procurement of information. The standards provide a framework to help everyone through the process, however there has to be flexibility in the ways we are encouraged to work together and how fees and rewards are made. There is much more work to be done. 

From pencil to productivity. From process to possibilities.

When it comes to realising the full value of digital initiatives in our built environment, the promise is there, and it just takes a few progressive collaborators to come together to say ‘What if?’. It takes creativity, especially to achieve a product that delights the end user. It also means that the industry needs to arm their workforce with the skills to use technology in new ways, instead of putting a pencil and a spreadsheet in their hands.

We need to truly disrupt ourselves and change behaviours. With the right leadership, tools and clarity in our understanding of ‘digital’, behavioural change will become the reality needed to deliver a truly transformative change across an industry protecting strong ‘traditions’ that are ripe for disruption. The promise of digital cannot be achieved by doing things the way we have always done them. The time for a new narrative is now.

The first wave of Our Digital Futures was released in July 2019. The research will be released over three waves as The Digital Landscape, The Future of Digital and Your Digital Strategy.

To learn more and read the full report for the first wave, visit ‘Our Digital Futures’ at Aurecon.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse as 'The promise of ‘digital’ won't be achieved by doing things the way we've always done things.' by John Hainsworth.

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