08 September 2016

Digital technologies are changing the way we work, rest and play. In recent years the construction industry has been making its own digital journey as Building Information Modelling (BIM) begins to open up a whole new world of opportunities and reshapes entire professions in its wake.

Here we seek to put digital transformation into perspective - Is the pace of change as fast and frenetic as it sometimes feels? Is change inevitable and, if so, what lies ahead for architecture, engineering and construction professionals? What's driving the changes and how can we best capitalise on them? Will BIM ever just become business as usual (BAU)?

The pace of change IS relentless

Change has never happened this fast before, and it will never be this slow again.

Jennifer Morgan, President, EY

In the space of just a few generations we've gone from watching mankind set foot on the moon (in the form of grainy black and white television images) to an expectation that news will now be relayed in high definition to devices that fit in our pocket. Devices that, themselves, contain more computational power than was needed for the entire lunar mission back in 1969.

The new world is one where you can carry thousands of songs in your pocket or have an infinite library of content come to you thanks to the connected nature of the web. Those connections are spurring a plethora of tools for communication, collaboration and consumption that are, in turn, reshaping our working and resting lives.

Political change, business change and social change are all accelerating but the curve of technological change surpasses all - by magnitudes. Consider the music industry. MP3s, iTunes and the like have changed up the whole machinery of production, distribution and consumption and whole business models were jettisoned as consumers bypassed the middleman and cultivated direct connections to their favourite musicians.

In a technological world, data is plentiful and making use of that data, valuable. In an 'internet minute' we generate millions of emails, watch hours of streaming video, carry out almost 2.5 million search queries and send almost 350,000 tweets. The future is data-rich. Traditional industries like manufacturing are declining as automation and robots are starting to become more science fact than science fiction. Artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly intelligent.

Yes, things are changing. Yes, the pace is relentless and quickening. But what does this mean for construction?

What potential for architecture, engineering and construction?

Other industries have had to grapple with what the digital revolution means before construction but in recent years we have finally started to embrace and define what Building Information Modelling means in practice. And with good reason - just as smashing looms didn't do much for the original Luddites, kicking against the technological tide will prove fruitless here. Why so confident? That data we touched on a moment ago is crucial. In a world that collects and is powered by data, we need to be able to accept, understand, interpret it to our own advantage.

Imagine a world where machines, objects, materials and sensors of all kind are capturing and reacting to data. Whether it's traffic lights adjusting patterns to data on traffic flow, houses firing up the heating when the temperature dips, heating systems that order their own replacement parts when existing ones fail. It's a world you're already living in.

We can no longer just think about individual buildings or assets. No longer can we be constrained by just thinking about design and construction. We must, instead, focus on the wider built environment and how we share and use information on just about everything. And it's the move to BIM that serves as the link to the data and plugs us into the digital world. And that's where the potential lives.

Digital opportunities for construction in a connected world

So what does a digital world mean for construction? Opportunities, for sure. With the right information, knowledge and skills you can deliver the kind of things that were traditionally seen as science fiction. That data we keep coming back to? Accessible, searchable, usable, meldable stuff. And it's the potential to aggregate and combine various sets of information that will see the most spectacular results.

All this means that traditional roles and even entire disciplines are starting to blur. Designers are increasingly looking at analysis in 4D and 5D. Teams that were established to introduce or implement BIM are increasingly moving into design or manufacture. All this can be hard to accept in an industry where roles and titles have been traditionally seen as important and silos almost inevitable.

New technologies are speeding things up, improving data collation - laser scanning and point clouds bring new accuracy and efficiency. 3D printing means we're approaching the point where components can just be printed onsite rather than shipped.

All these tools, all this data? Available to all. Expect challenger products and services that challenge and disrupt the status quo and SMEs to be able to compete and punch above their weight.

The digital natives are coming

The future's an exciting place. It's where we all will live. Those that embrace the change will thrive. Those that are slow to adapt will get left behind or fail. A Netflix in tune with customer wants will usurp a Blockbuster that can't evolve to meet new opportunities quickly enough. The scale and pace of change arguably eclipses those Industrial Revolutions we were taught about at school. Manufacturing and mass production is no longer driving the change - instead, the information economy, is reimagining what it means to work, rest and play. One popular estimate states that 65% of today's primary school children will end up in jobs that don't yet exist.

Of course, it's not just technology that's bringing about change - it's people too. A new generation of makers and coders have been brought up in a digital age and they're entering the workplace and reshaping practices around how they want to share information and collaborate. The opportunities, however, aren't confined to the movers and shaker's of tomorrow's world, they're there to be grasped by all.

The journey so far

In many ways the construction industry's journey is just beginning. The 2016 mandated use of BIM on public sector projects to a Level 2 standard of maturity has come and gone and work continues to explore what this means in practice. The most recent NBS National BIM Report paints a picture where BIM is starting to be understood, but a mixed picture where some organisations are forging ahead, while others have not even begun their journey. Then there's getting the supply chain geared up to provide the right things in the right way to truly reap maximum rewards. All the while expectations are rising and details on what Level 3 and beyond are starting to crystalise.

Regardless of levels or milestones, however, one thing is clear. The opportunities are there to be grasped. The future is digital and the new generation of digital natives will be raised on BIM being BAU. They will see no reason to be shackled by silos or the way things have always been and they will seek to make powerful connections in the wider digital world - probably sooner than you imagine. And it's not just digital natives who're shaping the future - already those with a curious nature, a willingness to develop new skills and think outside of the silos are shaping a new and connected future for construction.


What you should read next...

BIM and the digital revolution
Anthony Harte, Director at James & WARD Ltd explores the digital construction revolution and the benefits of structured data following set standards.