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Technology, opportunity and us

Prof Dr Uwe Krueger | 11 Sep 2015 | Comments

How can we embrace technology – not for technology’s sake – but for the real benefit of our customers, our own companies and the communities we serve? Atkins’ CEO Uwe Krueger provides a perspective from the ENR Global Construction Summit in New York.

The nature of the construction industry is changing rapidly, driven by tougher market and trading conditions and by demands from clients for better value and more innovation. There are higher expectations from funding institutions for cost efficiency and project certainty. There is also political pressure, as governments seek better value for money.

We are also facing rapid growth in both population and urbanisation, creating an enormous infrastructure funding gap, but the challenge is not funding: financial institutions are willing to invest if they can see a clear investment case and cash stream – and a stable political and tax environment.

The challenge is matching capital to suitable, financeable projects.

What can the infrastructure industry do to attract investment into the sector? It has to improve and not be afraid to innovate.

For the investment community, risk is a key consideration. The technology used by our sector can play a critical role in identifying, and mitigating, risk and make a huge change in the pace of progress.

Risk can be mitigated, in part, by increasing certainty around project input costs (which reflect complexity of design and construction and engineering delivery risk). Innovative technology, in the form of digital engineering, can make a big difference.

Digital engineering in essence is the automation of all or parts of the life cycle of a built asset. With digital engineering and building information modelling (BIM), value creation can be mapped through the design, construction, operation, maintenance and renovation phases of any project.

The use of big data analysis can help our clients make better informed decisions, resulting in greater resilience in our infrastructure. More effective safety and security measures can be implemented based on the complete picture offered by digital engineering. Even productivity can be improved, as new tools – like BIM – enable project managers to improve efficiencies by collating all project information into one digital location.

New, advanced materials and production methods are being added to the mix: additive fabrication such as 3D printing processes are now being increasingly used in the construction industry to speed the building process.

From Crossrail to the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street station in the UK, digital modelling is at the heart of these projects. Cities must prepare for the coming technologies that will fundamentally change how people move and interact with their surroundings. We are only at the starting point to comprehend how smart phones and other intelligent personal devices will interact with infrastructure in the future.

So, which technologies and approaches should we apply? There are some important considerations:

Pace: we need to attract a new generation of technology savvy youngsters to our industry, to keep up with this evolving digital landscape.

Compromise: the available technologies, even in combination, don’t provide a “one-size fits all” solution – we need a trial and error approach. It is all about quantifying risk and the certainty of delivery for our clients.

Adaptation: the notion of “best practice” is shifting with each new tool – we need to get much more agile in the way we embrace technology.

If we, as an industry, take these opportunities seriously, we have the chance for a period of technology driven growth. We have the privilege to shape the environment where people live and work tomorrow, to attract the right people and to create the future with them.