It seems that whatever the industry, whatever the sector, you’ll hear the same rally cry: “we need to go digital”.

It’s become a 21st century business obsession with the promise of greater efficiency and productivity, faster and more sure-footed innovation and new ways of dealing with old problems. Not to mention the fact that many customers now clamour for digital solutions, drawn by the cost savings they can bring.

But even though the potential is vast, the pace of digital transformation varies considerably across different industries. So how is the Civil Engineering sector doing?

Well, it’s taking its time. According to the Institution of Civil Engineering (ICE): “our sector is still yet to fully reap the productivity and innovation benefits of digital transformation that have been enjoyed by others.”

Seequent’s own Civil and Environmental General Manager Daniel Wallace echoes the view (he discusses the subject in our newly released Unearthed report). Many businesses are still struggling to shrug off long-standing ways of doing things. “It’s almost like an industry culture, where paper-based processes dominate how work is done. Employees trained in a particular way then train the next generation in the same way, and that process becomes entrenched.”

Today there are some key opportunities for the Civil Engineering industry to break that cycle, says Wallace. The ICE also sees this as the right time for the industry to finally embrace digital skills as the boundaries between engineering, technological and data disciplines steadily erode.

As a global population we are designing and building ever more complex projects in locations we might never have attempted previously, prompted perhaps by population growth or scarcity of resources. Many of the problems those projects face simply cannot be solved by pen and paper decision making.

The advances that come with digital transformation are ideally suited to such challenges. “In particular, it’s possible to completely reframe how problems are presented to stakeholders,” says Daniel. “You can do that by telling a story as well as providing an answer.”

Slow progress and uncomfortable statistics

Last year the ICE issued a State of the Nation report on digital transformation, taking infrastructure in the UK as its working example.

It determined that the industry did indeed need to adopt new integrated digital approaches to managing and operating existing assets and building future infrastructure. But at the same time we should all be thinking about more than the physical asset. Infrastructure’s ‘digital twin’ – the wealth of associated data and information – can reveal immensely valuable insights, as yet untapped.

“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).

The ICE concluded that the infrastructure sector had been slow to engage with new digital technologies compared with other industries. A McKinsey index of key sectors even showed that “construction was rated just above Agriculture & Hunting…”

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.

The importance of human expertise

There had been a great deal of debate about how automation and standardised design would transform the Civil Engineering profession, said the ICE. Some areas of the industry still harboured reservations – though sometimes rightly – about a seemingly frantic charge towards digital.

There was a balance to be struck between the advantages of automated decision-making and standardised design that digital offered, and the expertise and experience of the human engineer.

While data and processes can be standardised, the application of that information for the best result still requires judgement. You can’t take the human out of the equation. Instead the time saved from handing over process-driven tasks to automation should instead be applied to the innovation and aesthetics aspects of a project. Upskilling staff, particularly in soft skills, will be vital to ensure this human value is not just retained but maximised within a changing industry.

The need for infrastructure to drive productivity

Turning to the example of the UK, the report’s focus fell particularly on productivity. (The UK scores 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.

And the report noted that clients, contractors and Government could be using major infrastructure projects as perfect incubators for skills and innovation.

Clients should also 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.” [The February issue of Unearthed also discusses the benefits this can bring, and how Leapfrog Works can negotiate the problems of incompatible data.]

Improved use of smart technology, data and analytics in the construction and engineering sectors will offer new ways to address persistent challenges, leverage previously untapped resources, improve decision making, and reduce resource wastage.

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

How Seequent can help

With all that in mind Daniel Wallace identified five areas where Leapfrog Works products can spur digital transformation within a business and help it make the rapid and dramatic improvements in productivity envisaged by the ICE.

• Improved decision making. Based on the greater understanding that 3D models can bring over 2D cross sections.

• Better collaboration. Employees and stakeholders can work in the cloud in a federated way where every update they do automatically updates for the other party to.

• Greater auditability. A digital record of who did what means, over the course of time, organizations can look back to examine exactly why a particular decision was made, and learn more from it.

• Enhanced business benefits. Improved efficiencies in how work is done and lower risk as a result of greater understanding, and trust.

• Smarter talent. Being able to attract smart, digital native employees who will identify your organization as one they want to bring their ideas and innovation to.

“In many ways ‘digital’ can be as much about organisational transformation as it is about digital transformation, as it’s the impact it has on the individuals that do the work” says Daniel Wallace.

“At Seequent we firmly believe we are enabling that change, and we are passionate about the possibilities our products – and digital transformation as a whole – can bring to the industries we work in.

“Civil Engineering is undoubtedly one of those industries, but we recognise that not every client is ready to embrace every element of digital transformation all at once… If we can help them make a step-by-step transition, in the areas and pain points that really count in their business, I believe we can drive a ‘benign disruption’ that everyone will gain from in the long run.”

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