opinion piece

Opinion Piece by Ana Ruiton, Mott MacDonald

Digital Transformation to build back better

“Building back better” phrase is everywhere right now, from presidential campaigns slogans to pandemic recovery programmes, and we will be hearing it even more in 2021 with the potential of becoming a global motto in the years to come. But what it actually means?

The phrase “Build back better” became popular after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami relief effort, but was officially adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a post-disaster approach to increase the resilience of nations and communities, through integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration of physical infrastructure and societal systems, and into the revitalization of livelihoods, economies, and the environment.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedent global damage and disruption to all industries, people, economies and businesses; mainly, it has exposed like never before the urgent need for quality, resilient, smart, inclusive and sustainable infrastructure globally.

Building back better means recovery with not returning to business as usual or not returning to the way things were before. Instead, we need to “reset” and work towards building real resilience, driving equal and sustainable development and reinventing capitalism. Tackling the world’s latest challenges, requires determined bold actions and new ways of thinking by governments, businesses leaders, investors and by all the built environment professionals.

We are in the time of digital and data abundance, automation and emerging technologies; which are disrupting existing markets, giving us the tools to address today’s problems and looking into the future. Yet the infrastructure sector has lagged other sectors in embracing and adopting emerging technologies. In 2019, the World Economic Forum remarked that it remains “one of the least digitally transformed sectors of the economy”. As such, the time is now for the infrastructure sector to accelerate its transformation and be much more digital and tech-driven.

Over the last ten years, the development and wider adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) by the AEC industry changed the way we deliver projects and mostly the way we create, interact and manage information. BIM drives efficiency throughout the project lifecycle while fostering and enabling closer collaboration and innovation in the whole supply chain. BIM on its own provides several benefits but when combined with emerging technologies it generates enhanced outcomes. For example, using drones technologies to take measurements and record of construction for as-built information or surveys; or the use of thermal and dynamic simulation modelling through BIM is informing the delivery of net zero buildings.

One of the main aspects of BIM and any digital transformation is for the right people to have the right information at the right time, to make better and smart decisions that deliver social, economic and environmental outcomes. But to make better decisions at the right time, it is needed to have information you can trust. Through live information carefully curated, you can discover new efficiencies, forecast what is coming and address issues before they happen, allowing you to act with confidence.

Right now, information is the most valuable asset in infrastructure, and a new concept is shaping the way we use that data to unlock enhanced social, economic and environmental outcomes: digital twins. The fundamental concept of digital twins is a digital representation of a physical asset, process or system that connects with its physical counterpart in real time, to enable making better decisions to optimise performance and value throughout the asset lifecycle.

The vision of the potential value of digital twins is grand, as we can now imagine connecting digital twins with other digital twins to generate an ecosystem of digital twins, looking very much as the digital representation of a city. According to the World Bank, by 2050 nearly seven in 10 people will live in cities, which already account for two-thirds of global energy consumption and more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, having real time digital representation of cities systems that allow us to understand how they interact would give us the insights to make more informed decisions on the use and design of infrastructure networks and assets, hence increasing city’s infrastructure resilience and sustainability.

In the UK the proposed National Digital Twin has been cited by the National Infrastructure Commission as having the potential to unlock an additional £7 billion per year of benefits across the UK infrastructure sector. Similar international bodies are also identifying digital twins as a key component of their own digital transformation agenda.
Governments around the world are beginning to wake up and accelerate the untapped potential of technology, digital transformation, digital twins and smart cities to accelerate real and sustainable development, that could shape our world for generations.

From my experience working with governments in developing countries in their National BIM transformation programmes, I have seen first-hand that digital transformation is not only about technology. At the heart of digital transformation is information, innovation, people, processes, technology and culture. Organizations that commit to digital transformation must have a clear strategy and roadmap of priority activities across different enablers. To then drive the strategy across the wider organization to change and improve the way the business operates and interacts with their value chain and customers. Digital transformation should take everyone on the journey and change behaviours beyond the IT department, improving the way people approach problems, learn new skills, communicate and collaborate. People and the right leadership are key to enable new ways of working and driving change.

Looking ahead, now more than ever as a society and as an industry we need to connect across silos, enabling wide-reaching collaboration both within organisations and with external partners to build our way out of the crisis and to seize this opportunity to build back better. And above all, we should not forget that all starts and ends with people – Infrastructure connects people and creates opportunities that benefit society.

To continue the conversation join the webinar ‘Talking Digital: Building Smart Sustainable Futures’ on 27th January.

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