The importance of connected infrastructure in smart cities

Rebecca de Cicco, Digital Node

9 October 2018

Rebecca De Cicco, director of Digital Node, examines the relationship between BIM for infrastructure and the expansion of cities, arguing that to succeed, we must adopt an open data policy for a smart cities agenda.

Infrastructure development across the world is rapidly increasing to accommodate not only our rising population but also the lack of intelligent infrastructure that cities and rural areas need to support more intelligent development and interaction with them.

Different governments around the world are now beginning to support digital infrastructure policies, yet the development of these incentives needs to become mandated or part of broader open data and technology policies.

Infrastructure policies are sometimes applied with BIM in mind (not at the forefront), and broadly understand the relevance of digital solutions for design, construction and operational phases of assets in the smart city space.

Unfortunately, BIM has very much been focused on the buildings space, and we haven't seen such progressive development in policies around the world when it comes to “smart” infrastructure or policies relating to infrastructure.

We are aware that the BIM mandate developed in the UK has spurred large infrastructure asset owners such as Crossrail, TfL, and HS2 to look more closely at aligning the UK government BIM strategy toward their works. However, there is still a very confused opinion outside of the UK regarding what is occurring in the UK when it comes to smart cities, BIM and digital engineering.

Digital Node works across multiple regions, and within our work, we have noticed an uptake in the term “digital engineering” to relate to the digitisation of the infrastructure sector.

This has brought some confusion when discussing BIM or implementing BIM, as when we use different terminologies it can become difficult to educate on globally consistent policies. As much as this is pushing different regions such as Asia and Australia, there still needs to be an acknowledgement of the push toward BIM in the smart cities space. 

As smart cities rely on everything being connected and intelligent, the technology to enable not only services for citizens, but to connect them with authorities, is the bedrock of how a smart city can be achieved. From sensors to the Internet of Things, geospatial technology to AI and intelligent infrastructure systems, the smart city marketplace is estimated to reach $400bn by 2020.

Fortunately, the UK recognises this potential market, and programmes such as Innovate UK and the Future Cities Catapult are supporting innovative companies to create the solutions to our urban challenges. Other cities in the world, however, are not acknowledging this prediction of growth and will ultimately fall behind.

The crux of the smart city scenario when relating it to BIM or digital engineering is accessibility and understanding of existing data, and how new data can then connect to it. Can you imagine a city where data is open and free and can be used to make decisions intelligently?

What are the challenges?

The information we currently use and source from our buildings and infrastructure assets will need to be connected to the smart city database for access to data to be enabled. Unfortunately, with governing bodies (federal and local governments) restricting access to data this is becoming increasingly difficult.

Within the smart city agenda, there must be an open data policy to enable access and viewing of this data. Having open access to information isn’t confined to just one region, but all over the world as there are restrictions that prevent this from occurring which obviously cannot be changed or altered due to policies within the particular country.

There are many cities in the world pushing the smart city agenda, yet they remain isolated from the buildings and infrastructure policies being developed. It’s obvious then that focusing on one area (eg BIM or digital engineering only) will promote a siloed approach, where in reality there needs to be a complete “future cities agenda” to enable smart cities to flourish.

Innovate UK, and the Smart Cities Catapult understand, acknowledge and encourage this scenario. For example, a “Future Cities Group” per city that includes people not only from buildings and infrastructure but from other sectors and environments to be part of these discussions seems to be an appropriate way forward in these types of discussions.

Without utilising groups from the wider industry to promote and support an open data policy for smart cities, we will not grasp the benefits and opportunities that being “smart” offers.

An excellent example of BIM, digital engineering and a smart city

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has the ambition to make London the world’s leading smart city through the plans laid out in his Smarter London Together roadmap. Encouragingly, when developing the plan, the mayor sought the views of the tech community as to how data could be shared, along with the laudable aims of how it can serve the citizens.

The London Plan, in my mind, relies heavily on innovative data capture and the sharing of that data to enable the benefits for healthcare, transport, security, education, and the environment.

For example, London’s air pollution statistics make for frightening reading, but the rollout of air quality sensors and the availability of that data being shared openly by the London Air Quality Network should enable a more significant dataset that leads to improvements.

London is home to some of the most significant infrastructure projects, such as Crossrail where BIM Level 2 was successfully utilised and implemented. If we could link the BIM data for wider city development, this could act as a massive enabler for smart city development.

I’m not arguing for all data to be freely available as this could be a security risk, but to ignore an open data policy and the creation of a Future Cities Group could see us missing the vital link in the smart cities journey.

Image: Kwanchaidt/Dreamstime.com