Data-rich design: five obstacles to overcome

Atkins’ Lesley Waud and Donna Huey, global head of design transformation and director of client technology respectively, reflect on why the use of data-rich design has not reached a critical scale and what can be done to drive forward its adoption.

Collecting the right data and mining it properly can transform a project, translating to cost and time savings, and more accurate decision-making – all things that are sorely needed in an infrastructure sector that has suffered from historically low productivity growth: 1% annually for the past two decades. But despite having access these days to great volumes of data, many projects are still struggling to capitalise on it in all the ways they can and should.

Businesses must now get behind the new ISO standards, so that design innovation can thrive. – Lesley Waud, Atkins

Employing data-rich design in infrastructure projects – or simply put, using data to design better – is a prime example of this. New design tools make it possible to incorporate vast amounts of data into a project’s design phase and this can help us not only to boost innovation and identify best practice – rather than create from scratch each time – but also to reduce the number of design changes needed and enable more collaborative decision-making based on concrete insights. It can also help us to learn from our mistakes by measuring the performance of past projects and using that to improve future ones.

Great as all this sounds, however, industry uptake of data-rich design has so far been inconsistent at best. Here are some of the things that might be holding us back and how – and crucially why – we need to change our mindset and our ways of working to start reaping the benefits of data.

1. Supply chains are still disjointed

On an infrastructure project, each party within the supply chain is typically responsible for their own output. Their ultimate aim is to complete their individual piece of the puzzle, as opposed to putting too much thought into the overall picture. Data from a manufacturer, for example, is typically focused on how they manufacture a certain element, not on its ultimate purpose or the information needed to inform a design, or that the client needs to understand how to operate or maintain that element. As a result, each party standardises and optimises according to their own best interests.

But by surfacing and openly sharing the data that’s available at each stage of the supply chain, and becoming aware of its inherent worth, those involved can begin to see the value of working in more connected ways. Sharing success story examples in good data management and design delivery will help to build trust in these new ways of working.   

2. ISO standards are still relatively new

Until recently, there weren’t any guiding ISO standards for design information management and without it, the industry didn’t have a common language with which to talk about and understand data, nor engineers a standardisation blueprint to work towards. With the arrival over the past two years of ISO 19650, an international standard for managing information over the whole life cycle of a built asset, this is now starting to change.

Businesses must now get behind these new standards, so that design innovation can thrive. This is by no means straightforward because the ISO is based on general principles, not specificities, and different countries have different approaches to ISO standards, but it remains vital for us to keep educating owners and the supply chain on best practice.

It’s not only technology and skills, but also a mindset shift that’s required for those in planning, engineering and design to truly embrace a completely new way of working.– Donna Huey, Atkins

3. People store and manage data differently

How and where do we store data? Where should we host design models? To what extent should we use the cloud and how do we keep everything secure? These are all questions we don’t yet have an industry-wide answer to. And because currently everyone is working according to differing rules and expectations when it comes to how they create and protect data, the most risk-averse companies may still decide to dismiss the use of it altogether.

To solve this, data needs to be seen, and treated, as a currency – one that holds real value. In the data-rich design context, it can help companies to predict outcomes and design more efficiently. As the raw ingredient, data must therefore be handled securely and consistently, and ISO 19650 will go a long way towards bringing that about.

4. Not everyone is on board – yet

Many parties still need convincing about the value of good data management in design delivery and want to see success stories – metrics and all – before they understand the benefit of adopting digital tools.

The most important stakeholder here is the asset owner, who must appreciate the potential life cycle cost benefits of leveraging data-rich design before they invest in adopting it – that’s the mark we need to hit. While some asset owners are progressive, many are still working with databases that need modernising, with only limited resources to do this. That’s a challenge, but it’s one the industry must address because digital innovation is key to its future.

5. It’s hard work!

The benefits of adopting data-rich design are clear and we must continue to invest in it financially, as well as upskilling engineers and architects with everything they need to shift effectively from 2D to 3D work. However, it’s not only technology and skills, but also a mindset shift that’s required for those in planning, engineering and design to truly embrace a completely new way of working. As people are pushed out of their comfort zones initially and doing things they haven’t done before – shifting their focus to planning and preparation around data – a certain level of apprehension is understandable and must be handled with empathy.

The fact remains, however, that in order for us to align with other industries in the move to more digital ways of working, we must all prepare to work with data as the norm. With data-rich design, we’ll be digitally rehearsing the sequencing and methods to plan for safe construction and to accurately predict programme timings and costs. We’ll be designing projects in newer, smarter ways, and generating new business models based on outcomes, rather than hours spent. Data is the first step to all of this. Turning it into information that can be used throughout the supply chain and across the industry is where the magic happens. To get there, we all need to be on board. By embracing digital transformation, there’s no doubt that we can bring about powerful results.

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