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The digital evolution of physical infrastructure

Russell Cameron | 18 Nov 2016 | Comments

Our technology director, Russell Cameron, looks at the challenges and opportunities created by the increasing digitisation of infrastructure projects.

We all recognise that the physical and digital worlds are colliding. Increasing digitisation in the way that businesses operate has resulted in new players coming to market with disruptive business models. These include the likes of Uber and Airbnb; companies that don’t actually own any assets but are taking a competitive lead in their respective market places through innovative digital service offerings. We are already seeing the global technology leaders and disruptive start-ups entering our markets too.

Digitisation creates efficiencies, and potentially unlocks agility, responsiveness and adaptability, all of which are big drivers for the future of the delivery of infrastructure projects.

Intelligent infrastructure

You can see the appeal to infrastructure asset owners. The digitisation of infrastructure helps service providers to track and manage their assets more effectively, as well as to focus more on the total lifecycle of infrastructure programmes. Digitisation also allows for the optimisation of the performance of assets, both for the asset owners and the ultimate end users/customers of those services.

Across our critical national infrastructure, we’re also seeing the worlds of IT and Operational Technology (OT) coming together to drive greater efficiency. OT includes the hardware and software that controls or monitors the state of a physical system, such as water supply. However, the digitisation of OT is a particular challenge given the sheer range of often aging systems – all of which are now being connected to the internet and are expected to run at 100% uptime. Ensuring that they continue to do so safely and securely is a key challenge for many of our clients.

Big data

As the world becomes more connected there’s a great opportunity to collect more data, especially through the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT). But as a result, many of our clients approach us for advice on how they can drive value from that; there’s no point collecting redundant data.

There’s also a real challenge about how data is managed through an asset’s lifecycle, especially when those assets are not yet built or even designed.

Cyber security or resilience is a major area of concern when it comes to big data. Not only is the protection of intellectual property theft an ongoing issue, but also the potential to cause disruption by influencing the algorithms that engineers use to determine outcomes. We no longer live in a single relationship world; everyone in the supply chain is now collaborating or at the least working in ‘coopetition’. As a result, exchanging, managing and securing data between a larger number of organisations is a growing challenge.

The skills requirement

In order to support the increasing digitisation of infrastructure assets there is a growing need for additional skills. Engineering expertise has become even more relevant, but we also need technology, systems engineering skills and data science skills.

Given the technical skills deficit we face in the UK, we need to harness innovation and talent from more disparate skill groups – whether that’s geographically or demographically - in order to achieve this. Businesses will greatly benefit from a more diverse and cross-sectional view from across their organisation, and moving to a fully networked organisation is key.

There is, of course, a challenge to keep the best we’ve got while also building flexibility, agility and diversity. We need to strive to create more hybrid rounded professionals who can meet this digital demand. Traditional engineering professional routes need to be adapted, or overhauled, to be able to meet some of these future challenges.

Procurement barriers

The infrastructure world has been traditionally conservative and understandably risk-adverse, relying on proven and trusted methods in order to deliver safe and robust outcomes/services. I have a view that, as a result, a lot of big infrastructure organisations have invested significantly in assets and systems that are already potentially obsolete. It creates an Achilles’ heel and hampers their ability to compete in the future.

Procurement methodologies need to adapt to meet these changing needs. Organisations are used to procuring solutions using a price-competitive approach, rather than looking to deliver innovative outcomes and pricing for value rather than cost. New approaches can often have a higher upfront cost, despite offering considerable whole-life savings, and this can prove a real barrier to adoption. Furthermore, the risk of investing in an ultimately unproven solution, however technically sound, often stymies the adoption of innovative new approaches.

Digital by design

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that, as an engineer, I believe that fully embracing the opportunities, and mitigating the risks, of making our infrastructure more digital requires a greater focus on planning.

More emphasis needs to be applied to upfront visualisation to allow infrastructure asset owners to make better choices about how they invest in and manage those assets, what data they need and how they might improve the performance of those assets.

This can be achieved through the introduction of tools and techniques in the design process, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), digital (enterprise) asset management (DAM or DEAM) and digital engineering. We’re also exploring how virtual reality can be employed to this end to help model different potential outcomes or build data onto things e.g. 3D BIM Models or scheduling. By displaying this raw data in an interactive way, people can see the impact of their choices and make better investment decisions.

By focusing on design, we also have the opportunity to build intelligent infrastructure that is more resilient and robust. We can achieve this by looking at the system-of-systems/holistic view of interdependencies between various elements of the end-to-end customer journey rather than just looking at providing individual elements of the infrastructure required to enable that journey.

Finally, we have an opportunity to invest with organisational and asset resilience in mind. I’ve had many conversations with our clients about how their investment in new assets and processes can actually drive resilience in their business at the same time as achieving the KPIs they are working toward. It’s not only practical and possible to achieve this but, in doing so, you almost get the security and resilience for free.

The leadership challenge

Adopting a more holistic industry or sector view, taking risks with innovative procurement opportunities, and handling infrastructure assets strategically ultimately requires a leadership, board-level approach.

As the designers, builders and operators of infrastructure that millions of people rely upon every day, we are not only taking steps to address these challenges, but are helping our clients to seize the opportunities and thrive in this new digital age.

 

This article first appeared in the New Statesman's November 2016 Future Technology Report. A copy can be found here