As we move forward in our progression of BIM implementation across the infrastructure industry, I am realising that some of our most useful insights are occurring within the overlap and disruptive influences occurring at the boundaries with other sectors, whether that be with asset management, the IT, system engineering, gaming or geospatial industries.

How often do we hear the charge that we all operate in our silos and are too inward looking? So I thought I would take the opportunity to share here a key theme of AGI’s Foresight 2020 Report ( Kemp et al, November 2015) – BIM, Asset Management and Future Cities, which examined the increasing convergence of geospatial and BIM technologies and approaches.

If BIM is about the purposeful management of information throughout the project life cycle – for infrastructure as well as buildings – then geospatial data will become a significant aspect of that, particularly as we move towards Digital Built Britain and the management of entire estates and portfolios. I would observe that the geospatial industry has been operating in the asset management space for many years, while BIM, with its roots in 3D modelling, has emerged from the domains of construction and architecture. It is clear that there are opportunities to take the best of both to achieve better outcomes for everyone.

Just as there is a conception that GIS (geographic information system) is just about mapping, so there is a misconception that BIM is just about 3D modelling. Wrong on both counts. If we think of BIM as ‘Better Information Management’ – entailing the whole life cycle of the whole built environment integrated with the people and the services it delivers – you can understand that this complements and converges fundamentally with geospatial. Ultimately this will take us to the ‘Digital Earth’ which embraces gaming technologies, semantic ontologies, on a scale which we can only just start to comprehend, but which will require issues of data quality, security, and clarity of use, interpretation and enhanced decision-making to consider not only technology, process and data, but more importantly the human dimension at a behavioural and psychological level. To do this requires a fundamental and deep understanding of our relationship with digital data, and how we can draw out intelligence from that data, to inform better dialogue, and derive better decisions, setting the context for whole life cycle information management and improved asset performance management.

To be frank, this has to be one of the biggest latent and untapped opportunities for the geospatial industry, and this was a key conclusion of the Foresight 2020 Report. Not maps, not 3D – but recognising the latent possibilities of the data and the value-add services that can and should be delivered. What a phenomenal opportunity.

But how can this be achieved? Looking at this more closely, geospatial and geomatic data can have a major impact on all aspects of construction. Professional surveyors are able to accurately map existing site conditions, using laser scanning approaches such as Scan 2 BIM to create BIM models. Point cloud geomatics data can be used during construction to record what has actually happened on site, as opposed to ambiguous as-built drawings. Equally, with the help of drones, regular surveys during construction, operation and maintenance may monitor conditions and developments on site, including in restricted or hazardous conditions.

Just as there is a conception that GIS (geographic information system) is just about mapping, so there is a misconception that BIM is just about 3D modelling.

Data taken from sensors installed during construction can be used to control or intelligently monitor the condition of buildings, and set within a locational context. Sensors can also be used to monitor the public and building users to understand indoor navigation or levels of occupancy, and so streamline designs to reduce the footprint of buildings. The huge convergence of ‘Big Data’ with BIM and more traditional geospatial data is enabling and informing more comprehensive predictive, behavioural and responsive analytics, influencing how buildings and infrastructure are able to respons to changing conditions.

This leads to a dilemma and a challenge for the open standards community which, until recently, were functioning to a large extent separately. Now, however, buildingSMART International is working closely with the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), the open standards body for the global geospatial community, to develop converged open standards and the overlap in activities of those two organisations is very indicative of how the industry is shifting. OGC and buildingSMART are working with a mix of IFC et al, CityGML and LandXML, and testing whether there is a need to merge them with protocols from other sectors that could help going forward. The Integrated Digital Built Environment Working Group has been set up to look into the challenges, whilst not disrupting continued development of the open standards that are required in the here and now. There is a keen awareness that one of the big challenges is the lack of consistency of sensor data and, with the number of sensors globally set to expand from around 2 trillion to 30 trillion over the next couple of years, it is vital we are able to make sense of that data in a consistent way.

The need for accurate asset information for large infrastructure managers (e.g. utility companies, Highways England, Network Rail, Environment Agency) is an essential enabler for the safe and efficient operation and maintenance of those assets and for decision support. However, owing to the nature and scale of the asset base in large infrastructure sectors, the asset object geometry held in these registers (often in GIS) is fairly simple. With the UK Government BIM mandate taking a whole life cycle portfolio approach across the sector, a significant opportunity exists for asset managers of large physical infrastructure to improve information management.

The difficulty that needs to be overcome is that a significant amount of legacy infrastructure assets already exists. Where not captured, changes to the existing infrastructure slowly degrade the quality of any data kept and its reliability for use in operations and maintenance planning. The approach of delivering and updating data directly from the construction process into asset systems through BIM should increase the trust in the data. But other initiatives, such as defining a consistent approach to effectively record and share information on buried assets, are important to ensure that this can occur1. The continuing challenge is to get industry to back these initiatives and help to fund and resource the activity required.

There is a connection between Smart City data and BIM data, both providing data about our built environment for further use in operations, maintenance and performance management 2. The ability to measure ‘in service’ performance and compare it to ‘as briefed’ and ‘as delivered’ assets is the single biggest opportunity to improve both asset cost and carbon performance, e.g. through condition-based maintenance.

Quite rightly, for the construction industry,the digital asset is becoming as important as the physical asset. This paradigm shift is in the process of transforming the sector. The data cannot be regarded as proprietary but needs to be passed on as accessible and trusted – cities won’t become smart if the data is not treated as such. Data handover should be considered as a life cycle component like any asset – ‘Would you handover an asset without an operating manual?’ For a geospatial professional, in the data sense this means handing over the semantics and metadata, ideally mapped to an ontology. This is no different to any data time series. A city cannot be smart if it can’t let the maintenance contracts which will keep it be smart.

The Internet of Things and Internet of Everything will play a major part in the way autonomous technologies will gather and use data to allow their operation. To be truly effective, these sensors will need to have a sense of place. Jim Plume refers to this combination of proprietary tools and open standards as the Integrated Digitally-Enabled Environment (IDEE), which affords us a comprehensive way of holding information about the natural and built environments in which these autonomous technologies will operate.

For the IDEE to be of value to us, we need a way of accessing that information as and when we need it. That leads to a set of facilitating technologies to enable the IDEE to operate:

  • the Internet to transport the information;
  • the semantic web to enable smart ways to find and retrieve information;
  • geolocation technologies to enable searching based on geographic context;
  • RFID3 with sensors to facilitate the Internet of Things to realise a sensate environment.

This may be the way in which the world of BIM could interact with the autonomous world of smart cities to create, for example, the future transport networks that can support autonomous vehicles, and indoor navigation that facilitates a better and safer experience for people moving through the urban environment.

Finally, there is a very human dimension to the rapid transformation of our lives into a more digital world. Evidence suggests that we are adapting more quickly than might be expected 4,5, and there will be undoubtedly both good and bad ramifications to this. For those involved in how the real world is represented in a virtual sense, this represents a serious responsibility over the next few years which must not be overlooked.

Header image: Use of drones for survey in difficult terrain conditions to create informative 3D environments



2. Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 2015: p.14

3. Radio Frequency Identification

4. Mind Change’, Susan Greenfield

5. ‘The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember’, Nicholas Carr

About this article

This article originally appeared in the 2016 National BIM Report. You can download your full, free copy of the report – 60 pages packed with this year’s National BIM Survey findings and an unrivalled range of insight and expertise when it comes to BIM implementation - right now.