COBie inventor Bill East: ‘interoperability is a technology buzzword’

In the second half of our two-part interview with COBie inventor Bill East, he tells Denise Chevin how interoperability is a misguided pipe dream and that AI is not the next big thing.

Missed part one? Read it:

What else needs to happen to ensure more interoperability between vendor software? And should manufacturers be doing more to drive this?

Technology buzzwords have been circulating for decades. Interoperability is one such word. I do not believe the concept of interoperability is one that has value outside a marketing context.

Instead of the vague term “interoperability”, what must happen to move ahead is that people define testable information specifications, then implement and enforce those specifications.

Terms like interoperability give the impression that someone somewhere will wave a magic wand and everyone will have all the information they need. While such magical thinking continues, there will be little progress.

Interoperability is a technology buzzword. I do not believe the concept of interoperability is one that has value outside a marketing context.– Bill East

How could our industry help software companies to implement standards?

First, by requiring compliance with standards. Second, by pre-qualifying staff. Third, by having an information quality control/assurance process. And fourth, by not paying for incorrect information deliverables. This does not apply only to major project milestones, but must also be applied between architects/engineers/consultants and by contractors/subcontractors. Without someone stopping payment for bad data from the start of the project to the end, consistent delivery of interoperable data is not possible. 

What would you say is the long-term future for use of BIM for facilities management in future?

With lessons learned documented by BuildingSmart International’s definition project, the failure of what was envisioned, particularly in the UK, as a comprehensive handover specification is now obvious to anyone who takes the time to read the report. The only people talking about COBie in 10 years will be people with something to sell.

For most owners, the expectation that they will be able to receive, use, and update BIM models during the life of the project is not realistic given the current structure, organisation, staffing, and funding of the facilities management industry. Some outliers will, of course, have well-updated models used by facilities management technicians, [but] most (particularly those in the public sector) will throw the data they get in a box and never use it.

The entire point of my remarks is that until each party, in this case the facilities manager, identifies the information they need and that information is standardised and implemented in software, it is obviously the case that they will not have want they want or need.

In many cases, asking facility managers what they need is like asking someone who rides a horse where they want you to install the electric vehicle charging station. Until the FM office understands how to extract value of the information they could get, they will not use it.

In terms of digital technologies for the built environment, what’s exciting you? And what’s the next big thing?

I see current slate of next big things mostly as marketing smoke and mirrors or academic concepts that will never get out of the lab. The current hype about artificial intelligence, for example, is nothing new. My first citation in the US construction industry publication of record, Engineering News Record, cited work I was leading into AI applications for construction – in 1989.

Now, let me tell you a story about what needs to be done to fix this.

100 years ago, the production and placement of concrete was a company-by-company trade secret. The way that owners would assess the quality of a contractor was by the insurance rates for buildings built by different contractors. Today, we would consider such an approach to procuring concrete structures absurd. We have testable standards and processes for concrete quality control that make concrete a standard construction commodity. How did we make that change? Companies specialising in concrete construction came together to create a standard, that standard was put in contracts and enforced.

Without someone stopping payment for bad data from the start of the project to the end, consistent delivery of interoperable data is not possible.– Bill East

Until our industry gets over the idea that information is anything other than just another type of commodity deliverable for which objectively testable standards can be created, there is no way out of the cycle of marketing hype. Creating integrated supply chains in our entire industry is a process and data engineering problem. It is not a science fiction movie.

I have been encouraged that the turn-out and participation for the buildingSMART international definition project has been the largest of any buildingSMART international project to date. I look forward to working with buildingSMART international members and chapters to engineer our future instead of waiting for it to be presented to us from someone with yet another bright idea.

What are you working on at the moment? Any highlights you’d like to share?

As director of the COBie Academy, my team and I deliver the only educational resource recognised by BuildingSmart International as a registered training provider. More information at–courses/cobie-academy/

My colleagues and I have recently completed two books that may be of interest to your readers. Introduction to COBie is the required textbook for the buildingSMART International Foundation – COBie course and individual qualification exam. The use of this exam in the UK is, I have been told, being held up by those who wish to continue to force non-complaint uses of the COBie specification.

The upcoming book, to be published next month, is the second edition of the “Delivering COBie Using AutoDesk Revit”. This book provides a step-by-step COBie cookbook for Revit users and their BIM teams. We’ve updated all the models and will release these over the summer to those who have purchased our book.

These books are available at:

For BuildingSmart International, I am leading the technical team of the definiton project. Those interested in contributing to the project should contact: [email protected].

To make sure that the work I do works for people in a construction trailer (not just in a conference room), I provide consulting services to construction companies interested in efficiently capturing, using, and delivering building equipment information. This approach, called Lean Handover, is also described in a book written with the help of construction subcontractors in the US and UK.

Image: 198879478 © Ded Mityay |

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