Embracing the Technical Revolution: Opportunities for Infrastructure

Infrastructure Intelligence Round Table in association with Deltek. Senior professionals from the infrastructure sector discuss the challenge of utilising technology in the infrastructure design, delivery and management sector.

From the government’s Digital Built Britain strategy and the mandated use of BIM on public projects, to company consolidation requiring the merger of various enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, firms in the sector are facing a number of technological challenges. Add to this the growing use of big data and the threat of disruptive technologies creating a paradigm shift and the sector is awash with new opportunities to do things differently. But this is challenging and requires a step change from seeking cheaper versions of business as usual to implementing genuinely innovative approaches to infrastructure management which will benefit designers, contractors and asset owners alike. 

How prepared are consultants to reap the benefits of the new digital technology revolution?

Consultants were universally excited about the evolution of technology and pointed to two key aspects; data that enabled better management of their own businesses and information for clients. “There is absolutely game changing stuff happening around how customers manage a portfolio of existing assets, how they infer new information about those assets and the expectations of the end user,” said Simon Harrison, group strategy manager of Mott MacDonald. 


Chair: Antony Oliver, editor, Infrastructure Intelligence

Stephen Appleton, UK head of building services, Ramboll

Mark Brown, development director, Consulting and Strategic Infrastructure, Amey

Peter Campbell, senior policy manager, ACE

Neil Davidson, vice president for enterprise, Deltek

Chris Gage, director, Turner & Townsend

Fergus Gilmore, managing director, Deltek

Simon Harrison, group strategy manager, Mott MacDonald

Andrew Noble, finance director, WSP 

Drew Ritchie, managing director, Capita

Helene Sourdeau, Deltek

Nick Taylor, chief executive, Waterman Group

Alex Tosetti, director, AECOM

John Turzynski, director, Arup and ACE chairman

For asset management in particular firms pointed to clients that were using enterprise resource planning (ERP) management systems to drive maintenance contracts where data is being fed in to the database in real time and with investment decisions then made around the findings. At the same time however some contracts remain as they did 150 years ago with tasks carried out on certain days according to routine schedules. So why do some clients get it and some don’t?

“It is less to do with the technology as that is available to everyone. It is the ability of the management and the client to change business processes to exploit available technology and to energise the people at the sharp end of delivery that makes a difference,” said Dr Mark Brown, development director for consulting and strategic infrastructure at Amey. 

Internally the views reflected a spread in the industry in terms of the pace at which data driven technology is being absorbed. “You have to look at where the organisation is in terms of technical maturity. Organisations can be anywhere from struggling with the basics of understanding project profitability or unable to get a global view of their resourcing requirements; to those that are applying best practice in some areas and want to effect change across the entire organisation,” said Fergus Gilmore, managing director of Deltek.

Seeking consistency was a challenge highlighted by several firms with consolidation being a key feature of today’s market. For others the challenge is more about being able to gather the right information. “Decide on key functionalities and make sure that runs across the business before you try and get more out,” said Nick Taylor, chief executive of Waterman Group. “You get what you measure,” said Andrew Noble, financial director at WSP. You need to know what is important and how to adapt. If you ask for utilisation then you get utilisation. If you don’t balance it with how you are winning work, what you are pricing then you have an unbalanced business.

Do you feel like you are part of the UK government’s Digital Built Britain strategy and is BIM undermining the ability to think bigger? 

“The government is using its weight as the country’s largest client to open up the data tap and get info out into the pubic realm which can only help organisations make decisions,” said Peter Campbell, senior policy manager at ACE. But he also pointed to the danger of having more data than is useful. Some firms raised concerns that being too reliant on data might hamper creativity whereas others said that the opposite was true and that BIM and data act as an enabler. “There are one or two major projects internationally that we have won where BIM and data is at the heart of the design. Industry has to get with the programme,” said Alex Tosetti, director at AECOM. “The government see Digital Britain as the next rebranding of industry. Our big clients want it, our youngsters are wanting it too. We should not be afraid of this at all.”

However some said that the label of BIM for any new digital technology in infrastructure had disadvantages. “The focus is on collaborative delivery of new assets and the opportunities around digital are around management of new and existing assets and integration of widespread data sources for new insights, managing a rapidly increasing set of expectations for end users around infra that they operate. So framing it as BIM means it stops being interesting to a lot of the actors in that so it is a bit unhelpful but clearly the underlying technology of that sits at the heart of what we want to do,” said Harrison. 

The important message being taken from the industry regarding the Digital Built Britain strategy is that the government is clearly seeking a more open data rich approach as pioneered in other industries such as chemical, industrial and mechanical sectors. What this is also leading to is better information for asset owners who must also develop the skills to handle it. “Clients are now asking to have projects designed in BIM but they don’t have the models or tools to do anything with it afterwards so they don’t get the benefit and that is the next step,” said Stephen Appleton, UK head of building services, Ramboll

What do we mean by big data and does it have a place in driving your business forward?

“Big data is open data” said AECOM’s Alex Tosetti. “The more open data we can have to cross share the more efficient we become as an industry and this is the crux of the government push,” he said. A more specific definition was provided by Mott MacDonald’s Simon Harrison. “I would define big data as the collection and integration of rich data sets from disparate sources and the mining of those data sets by sophisticated algorithms to yield new insights.” And from Ramboll’s Appleton gave a more succinct example. “For me the definition is information integration and knowledge management.” Others referred to a more cumulative approach. “We consider the three Vs:  volume, variety and velocity. Score high in all three and you have big data,” said Chris Gage, director at Turner and Townsend.

“There is an interesting issue here. We can design a very sophisticated building management system but we don’t train the building owners how to use it. If you buy an aeroplane with Rolls Royce engines you go on a course for years, we are missing something here, we should be putting that into contracts,” John Turzynski, chairman of ACE and a director at Arup.

Firms pointed to the falling cost of managing big data coupled with more powerful processing power as having a revolutionary effect on the industry. “I believe with things like remote data monitoring and the fact that we can share data in real time, processing power is that much more powerful, the ability to handle larger amounts of data and drill down to the individual components of whatever we are designing building or maintaining, means that big data has burst onto the scene. It is going to revolutionise the way that we operate,” said Brown.

This of course has implications for clients who are set to inherit more sophisticated information. “There is an interesting issue here,” said John Turzynski, chairman of ACE and a director at Arup. “We can design a very sophisticated building management system but we don’t train the building owners how to use it. If you buy an aeroplane with Rolls Royce engines you go on a course for years, we are missing something here, we should be putting that into contracts,” he said.

At a more internal level correlation between the array of fields that big data provides is critical said Deltek’s Neil Davidson. “It is about drawing a correlation that previously you wouldn’t have been able to. For example if you are running a fixed fee engagement with your client how often do you need to measure it to optimise your margin? And that is deep in the data. It needs serious expertise to extrapolate intelligent answers that can better drive the business.”

Are we being genuinely innovative when it comes to infrastructure management? 

The threat of Google was discussed by consultants along with the prospects of new disruptive technologies that could change the way all businesses operate. “Quite what Google X is up to in the construction industry – and we know it is up to something - is a really interesting challenge for us all. They have the planet better mapped than anyone else, design algorithms can be commoditised to some degree. Therefore can we press a button and get a 90% complete design from Google Construct that only needs us to check it?” asked Harrison. 

Arup’s Turzynski meanwhile said he liked the idea of the industry being disrupted. “Disruption is sometimes the way to get things to move and we see that we have a bigger voice than we think. We work with lots of big organisations and it helps us see what we can learn and do better.”

Artificial intelligence too was considered with Gage from Turner & Townsend pointing to research by Oxford University replacement of the workforce by robots or algorithms in the next 10-15 years. “We have started to use machine learning algorithms to predict how much an asset is going to cost - and project controls with automated data flows and live interactive dashboards.”

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