The publication of the Construction Playbook has grabbed attention and focussed minds, at a time when industry was already realising that digital is now essential. There’s growing recognition that efficiency, customer benefits, safety, long-term asset management and other outcomes all rely heavily on data.
The key to making the most of data through digital technology is being clear about your strategy, purpose and outcomes. Once you have these defined, then – if you are to have the quality of data you need to manage assets effectively – every process that touches that data needs attention. How do you create a thread through all the different digital tools, systems and teams that handle the data, so it can be easily shared and used?
As Head of Digital and Information Management for the SMP Alliance designing the Highways England smart motorways programme, I am working collaboratively with digital leads from across all seven Alliance Members. We are working hard to establish a solid digital core – for example though developing common coding, which ensures consistency in data references across all of our systems. In this sense, digital is fundamentally about having a robust information management and strategy – and people aligning behind a shared principles and ways of working.
Saying that you should start with the end in mind is a cliché but it’s true. For any project, you need to ask: What level of information do we need, both graphical and data? How should it be referenced? Where should it live? How should tools that use this data link together? With a focus on outcomes, information and data can be harnessed to realise wide-ranging benefits – including increased productivity and operational efficiency, and to decrease the risk to delivery.
Data has huge potential to boost customer value. Not only can it help with use cases such as reducing the length of time motorway lanes are closed for – through efficient design, planning and execution of works – it could also help customers take action to avoid delays. For example, logistics companies armed with data on how schemes will affect them enabled to plan ahead – something that will become increasingly important as the road network fills back up after Covid-19.
Safety is massively important for the industry, and there is recognition here too of the role data can play. Design for manufacture and assembly can shift more of the construction process into a controlled factory environment. Digital rehearsals enable construction sequences to be tested in a virtual environment where safety issues can be addressed before going to site. Then, on site, wearable devices can shut off heavy plant if people get too close.
Data also has an important role to play in achieving net zero, by helping to cut carbon and protect nature. Parametric and generative design practices enables multiple options for schemes to be considered and evaluated for carbon impact. And ecologically sensitive areas can be geofenced in digital designs to ensure there are no accidental incursions and no damage to wildlife.
While the rapid pace of change is opening up new possibilities for data and digital to achieve impressive outcomes, it also means less certainty that the schemes we design today will be able to stand unchanged for decades. Digital design can help the industry respond to trends such as climate change, by ensuring that infrastructure is adaptable and, in a circular economy future, reusable.
Digital also has a vital role to play as society looks to build back better following the Covid-19 pandemic. To fully understand the wider value and impact of infrastructure for the UK’s economy and society, we need the right tools to simulate, model and track design in use. Otherwise, how do we measure whether we’ve built back better?
Other sectors are already making widespread use of data to manage their assets and understand how people interact with them. A shopping centre, for example, will use data on footfall, customer behaviours, deliveries to stores and the physical environment in the building. Now convergence of digital technology and data gives us the opportunity to unlock value in a similar way for infrastructure assets. With infrastructure such as highways typically spread over wide areas, and with multiple interactions with both people and the environment, it will be a challenge. But now is the ideal time to rise to that challenge.