Infrastructure, BIM and the love of data

Ahead of its London conference on 18 October ICE BIM 2016: Implementing Digital Excellence, the Institution of Civil Engineers gathered speakers together to talk about the impact of new technology on the development of infrastructure. BIM+ joined them. Here are seven of the talking points.

1. With technology developing along so many new lines what did the speakers think might be the one that would disrupt infrastructure?

On this point our guests were a little surprising in their responses: the technology itself wouldn’t disrupt infrastructure in terms of design and construction, but would rather provide a business model that would deliver services differently.

As Alain Waha, global head of BIM and digital at BuroHappold Engineering, pointed out: “I’m not sure the technology will disrupt anything. If you look at Uber – this is a business model where the supply side was recategorised, same as Airbnb. Technology enables it, but it is the business model that has changed there.

Tom Ravenscroft, BIM+ editor: “The technology that underpins Uber’s business model has a life cycle of about 30 days, is the update time for an app. Whereas with highways infrastructure, or water or anything, we’re talking 50 to 70 years as the norm. So there’s this timescale issue there. 

Oliver Hawes, BIM leader water and environment at Mott MacDonald, agreed: “I think it’s a good point, the rate at which those things accelerate is much greater than our current rate. So we’re sat on the skeletons of these things, and we can’t keep up.”

Peter Trebilcock

For Balfour Beatty’s design & BIM programme director Peter Trebilcock, exploiting the value of data repreents a defining change: “We’ve just experimented with purchasing some data from our mobile phone provider for our business. It wasn’t any personal information, but as part of our business we manage the highways in cities, and one of our cities was experiencing problems on match days, people going and coming from football.

“So with the data that we purchased, we had a good enough sample to be able to track individuals making their way to the match and back again. And because we can control the traffic lights, we were able to look at the blockage and those affected by it, and change the signal time, which alleviated a lot of the congestion.

“That’s just the value of data, and using that data intelligently.”

2. How much are standards a barrier to disruption and are they not moving quickly enough?

There was much debate about the role standards play in disruption, in some circumstances holding back advances, but in other ways driving it on.

For infrastructure there was a firm feeling that standards were not keeping pace with technology. As one participant pointed out: “I think we have standards that have been around a long time, and they get updated quite a lot, but I think the technology in a digital world is advancing much quicker than the standards to which we design and build to.

“For example, the project that I’ve been working on, technology innovation has been very high on the agenda, we’ve managed to construct a scheme that has been completely painless, we’ve used GPS and TPS solutions. But the spec still requires us to use traditional string lines and tape measures, to provide data back.

“So if the standards were to embrace the technology, then the standard would be the digital model. But again just not keeping up to date with the technology of today. And that’s not even considering the technology of tomorrow, which will come even quicker.”

Oliver Hawes said: “in the water sector, you’d find asset standards across all the water companies, there’s common themes but broadly they’re different. And if you take the build offsite, and the standardisation, productisation, people are driving towards that, but if you’ve got a mim/massive standard that tells you you need an in situ, you’re faced with the same problem, you can’t drive at the off site productisation acceleration that you want to get to because you’ve got standards…

Alex Bywaters, head of BIM at Highways England, agreed: “The thing about infrastructure is that it’s been around for a long time, roads and sewage etc, so the maintenance organisations are also old. To go to handing over a federated model of the asset at the end will just mean meltdown for the vast majority of organisations, because they haven’t got the facilities, the resources, the money to do it.

“It is something that desperately needs upskilling and updating, but it’s not going to come cheap, and there are different priorities.

“Talking about standards, there are some that are there to be left alone. For the last three years, if not longer, various ministers have been very keen on getting votes by upping the speed limit to 80mph, despite people telling them it’s going to be however many more deaths from that, they still have a go at doing it.

“But it still hasn’t happened because some standards are there for safety, to protect the customer.”

3. If standards are moving slower than tech, can we create agile infrastructure and ensure users aren’t locked into obsolete technology? And how?

Alex Bywaters: “I think it comes down to culture. The culture in my experience of infrastructure and highway is ‘we’ve always done it that way, we haven’t got the money to do it the other way, even if we wanted to.

“The way things change, especially with Highways England, the asset management part of the business has been writing strategies, plans etc, and they are moving towards all these desirable things, and eventually we will move in that direction.

“If you take it from the BIM side of it, the glossy pictures and strategies and plans are somewhat missing, but there’s at least one standard, there’s a load of archetypes, and guidance, and rules, within the contract, that our supply chain have to do, because it’s part pull and part push.

“If you start making the decision for them, it’s in the contract therefore they do it, then gradually the supply chain will come up with some answers for the difficulties.

“So for example, going back to the asset side of it, we have probably a dozen or so data bases, where our asset information is stored. To get digital data from the model into those data bases is not easy. There’s at least three suppliers that are doing work on it right now to actually start this process

“So if you put in the contract what has to be done, and you’re patient and helpful, things will move in the right direction.”

Peter Vale, engineering information manager at Tideway Tunnels, remarked: “When you talk about being agile, the fact that you have a standards body, and working groups, and governance in places, to have governance that is skilled up and can cope with the engineering, and the technology, because often they’re two separate entities.

“I had the experience years ago with London underground, trying to change a standard, it was almost impossible, because of their mindset.

“And I think that’s really the only way to move forward, with an intelligent and dynamic governance, with the two merged together.”

4. How easy is it to be strategic in our approach to technology and infrastructure?

Some remarked that in trying to move forwards many infrastructure projects are not starting with a clean sheet of paper which makes it difficult to always take strategic decisions.

Said David Lowery, project director, A1 L2B, Carillion: “A lot of the infrastructure projects that we work on today are almost like sticky plaster type schemes.

“The example from my personal perspective currently, the project that I’m working on is to close the last bit of non-motorway between London and Newcastle… now that up scales, it increases capacity and all those things, but I think strategically we need to be in the mindset of ‘what is it going to look like in 25, 50 years’, and designing with that in mind, rather than acting reactively.

“In terms of trying to do that, we’ve got to really ask the question of what tomorrow looks like.”

“But also what do we want?” remarked Highways England’s Bywaters: “We haven’t done any studies in terms of highways for 10 years. When I first joined the Highways Agency, we had a raft of studies that just been done, so we knew, generally speaking, that there was a plan.

“And successive governments whittled that away, so we are now very much, as you say, doing sticking plaster. We basically don’t have a plan.”

But what about HS2, that is a clean sheet of paper, that would in theory be perfect for trying to build agile technology into it?

Alex Bywater again: “Yes, but HS2 hasn’t actually proved that it’s got a purpose yet.”

Tom Bartley

Tom Bartley, digital highways leader at WSP, picked up this: “In terms of the agility of the infrastructure itself, we’re talking about futures and examples, none of them are civil engineering [something], the technology actually exists on top of civil engineering. So that’s kind of an existential crisis for this building I think, in terms of agility going forward.

“We know how to pour concrete, but actually agility is the systems that sit on top of it, the control systems, decision making, responsiveness, we can’t be responsive in our civil engineering response, it has to be responsive in our digital technological capacity.”

5. Could early involvement with operators and maintainers and even town planners be part of the solution?

Tom Bartley again: “Yes certainly. Because we’re not building much new infrastructure anyway, HS2 versus the rest of the rail network in the UK is tiny. So when we think about how we’re going to make the new rail infrastructure responsive, it’s not going to be a civil engineering project ie putting the track down, it’s got to be control systems that sit on top of it.

Buro Happold’s Alain Waha: “We were talking about that feedback loop, and how the data is captured, and how it can be used to operate the asset better, which links back to the point that was being made about how we build things, but we don’t actually check. We as an industry are very good at building and then forgetting, like if the air industry never ran a test flight!

“When the world works like your simulation, you’re living in the matrix. The fact that reality does not match simulation, that is the test. And therefore we should pay more attention to that.

“And again another aerospace analogy, if you build your system/asset with its management system in mind, that asset becomes higher performance.”

Peter Trebilcock: “I think for many customers, in both infrastructure and general construction, it’s a big change for them. And while some flagship projects might be pioneering new systems, for many, they’ve got systems that have been in place for decades. And it’s a big change for them. I spoke to one major energy client, and they’re on paper; it’s been around for thousands of years, they trust it, and that’s where they’re coming from.”

Peter Vale from Tideway: “Yes, it’s a reality check, it is a long term strategic thing, you can’t just expect everything perfect handed over, it is a journey.”

6. So in terms of how society is developing how will we use all the data we’re collecting to advance infrastructure?

Social media and the data it generates was held up as a development in society which would impact on infrastructure. As one participant said: “There’s massive data that you can exploit from that about how infrastructure is performing.

Another issue was security. “I think that is one that we need to crack somehow, and as humans once we focus on something we normally find a way to do it. Those are the 2 we’re going to see really influencing our industry over the next 10-20 years, “ remarked another participant.”

David Lowery of Carillion again: “As a society, we love data and graphs and so on, we will have the data and graphs for everything you can think of, there is masses and masses of it.

“The question we’ve got to ask ourselves as an industry is what we’re going to use it for, how is it going to influence the questions that need answering?

“All too often we just collect data and look at it and say ‘well here we’ve got 10 million people going to X&Y.’ But what is it telling us? What do we need to do, how do we need to change our thinking?

“It’s more about data collection right now, rather than analysing it and learning from it.”

Peter Vale of Tideway Tunnels thought that if we are going to harness data to the full then perhaps it was time to “go into partnership with Googles and Amazons, who are the experts at collecting data”.

7. Finally, how can we foster innovation within organisations?

“I think diversity is the answer there, letting everyone feel like they have a voice, and however stupid the comment you’re about to make at a formal meeting, just put it out there because either people will share the laughter, or it will spark another idea,” said Anne Kemp, director of BIM strategy and development at Atkins.

“We’ve also got this thing at Atkins called fail fast, and there’s been some real cultural pushback from some of the older, wiser engineers who think you can’t say fail, but it’s actually got the right spirit, because people feel like they can do something and be forgiven for it, and learn from it.

Anne Kemp

“So it’s that sort of culture of saying ‘don’t be ashamed or try to hide if you’ve made a mistake, share it and we can learn from it’.”

Peter Vale of Tideway explained how his organisation is fostering innovation. “At Tideway, we have three main works contractors, all under an MEC agreement. But what tideway do to really push innovation is to create an alliance. So all parties form part of a separate alliance that is above that, that has an agreement and shared alliance, and is there to empower the supply chain, in order to identify innovation and improvements.

“And we have shortened projects by up to two years, by utilising this alliance and cooperative attitude.

“But this is only on big projects so far, and one of the challenges with BIM is thinking about how you downscale it. Because on big projects you’ve got teams and money and resources, but on smaller projects, not so much.”

Alex Bywaters agreed: “Sharing information is absolutely vital, and something highways England learned, for ages we’ve had contractual incentives to shove stuff into our knowledge bank, and every contractor did, but we forgot to incentivise them to use this knowledge.”

Carillion’s David Lowery pointed out the challenges: ”I think we need to work on that culture of open source material, because when I started, the gist of it was ‘start collecting the information that you need to do your job, so you’ve got a library of stuff, and that’s your stuff, it’s your information’.

“And we have got to a place where we’re breaking that down, and information is open sourced, but there’s a continuum of that culture which is then using it, and actually sharing it in ways where it’s genuinely useful.

“And there’s definitely a reluctance, because we could have done that seven years ago, let alone two years ago.

“I think with the issue of culture, diversity is key.

“The average age in our sector is 56, so there’s some pretty old school thinking, and there’s plenty of people who have been doing it the same way for 50 years, who will keep doing it that way. So I think diversity, and changing our leadership a little bit as well.”

Image: The elevated section of motorway between Junctions 1 and 3 of the M4 in west London includes 126 reinforced concrete piers which support the elevated deck. Designer Atkins utilised BIM to develop a strengthening and management strategy on the £24m project, which was awarded to contractor Osborne, working through the Connect Plus PFI consortium.

Story for BIM+? Get in touch via email: [email protected]

Latest articles in Analysis