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This story features in Unearthed: Digital Transformation

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) thinks the construction industry has a long way to go to realise the potential of digital transformation and needs to make the journey. But digital can’t dethrone the ‘human engineer.’

Earlier this year ICE issued a “State of the Nation” report on digital transformation (taking aim, in this case, on infrastructure in the UK).

It declared that not only the did the industry need to adopt new integrated digital approaches to managing and operating existing assets and building future infrastructure, but we all needed to starting thinking about more than the physical asset. The report pointed the industry towards the potential within infrastructure’s ‘digital twin’ – all the associated data and information, and what it can reveal.

“The pace of change in digital processes and technologies means that those responsible for delivering infrastructure have to be more agile and adapt to change in a pragmatic way,” urged the report (which acknowledged 50 organisations for their support in its preparation).

Slow progress and painful statistics
However, the ICE concluded that the infrastructure sector had been slow to engage with new digital technologies compared with other industries, rubbing it in with the statistic that a McKinsey index of key sectors, “showed construction was rated just above Agriculture & Hunting…” Ouch.

In fact, more than 60% of the firms operating in Europe and the Middle East were rated as either ‘industry following’ or ‘behind the curve’ in terms of technology adoption. “Meaning our sector is still yet to fully reap the productivity and innovation benefits of digital transformation which have been enjoyed by other sectors.”

But the ICE also reflected that there had been “much debate” about how automation and standardised design would transform the civil engineering profession. That could yet be putting it mildly as some areas of the industry still harbour reservations – and in certain instances rightly – about a frantic charge towards digital.

The institution recognised that there was a balance to be struck between the benefits of automated decision-making and standardised design, and the expertise of the ‘human engineer’.

“While data and processes can be standardised, the effective application of information still requires judgement. Time previously spent on process-driven tasks could be applied to the innovation and aesthetics aspects which automation won’t deliver.” Upskilling staff, particularly in ‘soft skills’, would be vital to ensure that this human value would be not just retained but maximised in a changing industry.

Nonetheless, the boundaries between engineering, technological and data disciplines will blur, and digital skills development requirements will likely only accelerate over time.

The need for infrastructure to drive productivity
In the case of the UK, the report’s focus was particularly on productivity. (The UK scores woefully poorly in this regard, 35% behind Germany and 18% behind the G7 average.) “The UK needs infrastructure that enables productivity and an infrastructure industry that itself is more productive,” affirmed the ICE, saying that digital transformation has the capacity to increase the performance of new and existing assets “throughout their whole lifecycle.”

Among many recommendations the report noted that clients, contractors and Government should be using major infrastructure projects as incubators for skills and innovation. And clients should mandate data interoperability standards throughout the whole programme/project group as part of the procurement process. “Data standards to drive interoperability should be prioritised to make data appropriately accessible and usable across all platforms.

“Improved use of smart technology, data and analytics in the construction and engineering sectors, offers opportunities to address persistent challenges, leveraging previously untapped resources, improving decision making, and reducing resource wastage.”

With the right approach the infrastructure sector has the potential to be an attractive industry for data analysts and ICT professionals, believes the ICE. But it needs to recognise the need and value of these skills and ensure they are embedded and not silo-ed.