John Stokoe, head of strategic business transformation Dassault Systèmes EuroNorth says that the construction industry needs to catch up with smart city boom
Cities are starting to get smarter with data sources and multiple sensors connecting people, services and things so they can engage with each other. Bringing together infrastructure, social capital and technology fuels sustainable economic and social development with the aim of providing better lives and urban environments for all. However, while cities themselves are on an upward technology path the construction industry is not taking the same dynamic trajectory.
Cities must innovate fast and smart to deal with the major urban challenges of population growth (or decline in some cities), housing, healthcare, energy, education, transport, finances, security, economic development, and leisure. History has shown that balancing these needs and wants of cities and their citizens is complex and fraught with political and financial minefields.
PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that by the end of this decade, construction will account for more than 13% of the global economy. Construction is one of the largest industry sectors of the UK contributing almost £90 billion to the UK economy (or 6.7%) in value added. It comprises over 280,000 businesses covering some 2.93 million jobs, which is around 10% of total UK employment.
But building itself is often an outdated, dangerous and low productivity industry. Steering cities and those that build them in the right direction has challenged planners for decades. This is especially true in the UK which lags behind many countries and much of Asia for modern building practice.
Process models for construction have remained largely the same for hundreds of years, often with highly skilled labour carrying out tasks for which they are often over qualified. Simply outsourcing work, i.e. making components in a factory, enables manufacture by lower skilled operators. This cuts cost, improves quality, reduces on-site re-work and allows total operational control. In this system, on-site work consists of assembly of quality-assured parts, each guaranteed to be fit for purpose. 3D technology has made significant inroads into architectural design and fabrication to excellent effect, but process modelling at the construction phase is virtually non-existent.
The IT Cities
Advancing British cities into an age of smartness and more efficient building practices requires a paradigm that delivers new vision. This can be enabled by the creation of virtual twins of cities in the digital world. These highly visual, interactive and dynamic 3D models evolve with the city and grow as more information, knowledge and data is added. They can then be used as a central reference point for local government, urban planners, architects and citizens to view their city accurately, based on current information which is unified into a single source of the truth.
With this approach, progressive cities can commit their work, including 3D digital models of existing and proposed buildings and services, to a unified platform building up an increasingly detailed model of the city when new projects and live data are added. As more users contribute information a 'time machine' historic model emerges. This allows historic situations to become viewable helping to avoid past mistakes while the progress of current work can be very accurately monitored, recorded and tracked. In short, this 3D platform approach allows city authorities to manage the past, sustain the present and plan the future, enabling legacy to exist sensitively alongside the new.
Interactive, data rich 3D models can also help define the future of cities based on 'what if' scenarios that the technology simulates. These can cover any of the millions of actions and interactions of things and people that comprise the city. Data can be marshalled to create vision for policies and provision of health services, mobility, security planning and energy delivery when the mass of data from sensors and city activities is combined into a single unified platform. Simulating the life of cities and their services using this technology means they can become de-compartmentalized and considered as whole inter-related entities.
This new perspective integrates formerly disparate departments making them better informed, more efficient and able to visualize and simulate with great accuracy to deliver better lives for urban populations.
Without this accurate vision and unified workflows that record actions and decisions, good planning can be compromised because of 'invisible data' - i.e. data that is locked away in departmental silos. Adding all data to the model enables universal and democratic access to current and historical information.
Experience the Detail
Using shared 3D experiences to simulate cities reveals potential problems that may not be seen by any other means. Overlaying data reveals new views and it is possible, with this technology, to actually predict events in transport systems, and hubs, public services, utility provision and security. Seamlessly linking the system to financial software allows cost planning and budgetary predictability. By this means potential problems and their outcomes can be observed, costed and fixed before they occur.
Building up information and knowledge this way helps make complexity visible and more understandable. That saves time and allows projects to proceed more easily with all stakeholders being aware of the consequence of their decisions. Being able to simultaneously see the big and the small picture with detailed financial implications can also help reduce corruption by making it easier to spot.
Recent decades have seen technology propagate across many UK industries to improve efficiency, productivity and profits. By comparison the construction industry is far behind. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills makes this official in their economic analysis of UK construction which states ‘the proportion of firms innovating still ranks low relative to other sectors’.
Studies of the construction industry have also documented 25% to 50% waste in coordinating labour and in managing, moving, and installing materials. In many cases talent and skill are underused, avoidable accidents happen and productivity remains low.
The introduction of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), have changed the way developments around the world are built and managed. The involvement of more parties in larger scale projects within tighter regulatory and legal frameworks requires transparency, openness and a spirit of collaboration. Sometimes these have proven rare commodities in the construction business.
This points to a significant business opportunity because when the same extended supply chain collaboration practices that have powered other industries into innovation, are applied to building, they produce stunning results. A construction supply chain, sharing closed data, can have a major, positive impact on the delivery of a project to time and cost, adding value to the overall process.
Many building projects overrun, outspend their budgets by more than 20% and end in expensive and wasteful litigation. Between concept and delivery of a finished building lie the stages of design and engineering, contracts, bids and awards, fabrication and construction. Each stage is fraught with risk.
Stakeholders risk in a building project of any kind can be more than financial. Buildings define their locations and neighbourhoods; people have emotional attachments to them.
Much of this risk can be reduced when clients, architects, contractors, communities and stakeholders work interdependently on the same current unified knowledge platform where guesswork and misinterpretation are removed, and open yet secure collaborative integration is a given.
The building industry is fragmented with the world's biggest construction companies occupying only a small percentage of the total market. Small firms, often without the benefits of technology, make up the majority of the industry. Attempts to integrate disparate groups and processes have often been the role of the project manager. However, current project management systems have their limitations and are usually used only at the construction stage and without reference to the bigger picture. A system that spans and manages projects from idea, through design, fabrication and build to operation and maintenance, underpinned with a seamless collaborative platform that incorporates rigorous industrial construction practices, and defines and orders workflows, can deliver better results.
The UK building industry would benefit from a business platform that addresses the diverse needs of owners, occupants and other stakeholders including professions such as architects, engineers, fabricators and constructors. This would help British construction focused companies better understand the short and long term business, technical and commercial implications of their projects, support waste elimination, get projects leaner and create safer construction project environments. This approach would take the BIM process beyond the current, limited, design-based BIM level 2 to the ideal level 3 and 4 spectrum of full building lifecycle management, with all the efficiency, cost and waste reduction, and positive return on equity that would realise.
Introducing advanced technology also attracts fresh talent to the construction enterprise, Small firms, often without the benefits of technology, make up the majority of the industry giving it a welcome and valuable intellectual boost. Some elements of the construction industry are being changed by a small number of bright, enterprising people who are taking new approaches unshackled by tradition. Equipped with powerful digital technologies they are achieving changes through disruption.
Law and Order
Commonly litigation at, during, or after a construction project is the result of poor communications between systems and people. Errors with building components and services are expected, and usually occur, but are absolutely avoidable. Simply unifying the change order system on a building project allows people to work collaboratively. They have access to the current status of the building and its information. This enables better-informed strategic and tactical decision-making at all stages and virtually eliminates errors caused by wrong or superseded instructions being acted upon.
Powerful interest groups, complex structures erected between active city infrastructure and mass transit systems, and a baffling array of often conflicting regulatory and environmental compliance issues are forcing some changes in the UK building industry.
Regulatory compliance so often seen as an obstacle to progress can become a valuable asset if handled properly. A well-developed delivery system able to integrate and accommodate regulations ensures that they are tracked over time and complied with long term.
Environmental questions can be answered using unified building data to accurately determine the status of buildings before they are built. Their environmental impact can be fully determined and optimized to meet stakeholder needs. Incorporating weather and climate data as well as energy consumption or output has led to some innovative and ingenious designs that would not have been possible without easy access to and sharing of information.
The movement toward integration and collaborative construction coupled with industrialized off-site modular building methods is gaining momentum and changing both the nature and the management structures of the construction industry. The results are better quality buildings brought in on time and budget within more efficient enterprises.
The next logical step for cities that seek to achieve smartness is for the enterprises that construct them to deploy technology that reduces fragmentation, unifies documentation and safely speeds up design and construction. Making digital the foundation of building planning and construction would lead to contracts based on value rather than price and to openness and transparency replacing inflexible and inefficient supply chains.
This change can be achieved by introducing concurrent, flexible and collaborative working methods that turn city data into accessible knowledge. That delivers better operational efficiency and financial returns for investors and stakeholders while enabling enhanced economic and social benefits for everyone. Construction industry players who don’t step up to the challenge of modernizing their processes are holding the entire industry back. Smart cities are getting smarter but unless they include the construction industry they will never be all that smart.
Image courtesy Dassault Systèmes