Why digital transformation is now more important than ever for the civil infrastructure industry.
Back at the end of 2019, no one could have imagined what 2020 would bring. While we predicted that digital transformation would continue across much of the civil infrastructure sector, and the adoption of AI underpinned tools would increase across construction companies, we had no idea the world would be hit by a global pandemic that would change the way we all think, work, operate and collaborate.
Half a year on, and we are all looking at things very differently. What we expected to happen was:
Digital tools would be increasingly embedded into the business process, with more companies starting to recognise the true value of digital adoption to support working practices.
The adoption and expansion of artificial intelligence (AI) and Digital Twin technologies, to recognise patterns and predict outcomes, enabling a more holistic approach to the entire asset lifecycle and supporting revenue generation.
Acknowledgement that trusted good quality data is a must-have - from collection to visualisation, management and collaboration, the true value of data being finally recognised as fundamental to business success.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit much of the world in March, and when many countries went into Lockdown it actually made digital more relevant and challenged infrastructure companies to rethink how they operate.
Still largely using digitally outdated tools and devices, COVID-19 created a forcing function never seen before in the civil infrastructure industry, where businesses had to move to digital solutions because the reliance on physical information collection almost came to a grinding halt. Lockdown disrupted the value of the entire downstream information chain, including the carrying out of work on-site, and alternative methods of working were needed and this is where digital came into play.
What this meant:
To be able to continue work, and much like we predicted, the civil infrastructure industry started to accelerate their use of digital tools in both construction and operational phases of projects. This was largely to continue operating but also because digital data was going to help them visualise their site, and make decisions when they couldn’t be on the ground physically. Suddenly, for an industry that was struggling to understand the real purpose and value of digital data-driven tools, it saw the productivity value and benefits, in addition to the enablement of remote working for a job that had always been present on site.
Construction output fell by a record 29.8% in the three months to May 2020, compared with the previous three-month period, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). This was driven by record falls of 30.3% in new work and 28.9% in repair and maintenance work.
Additionally, at a time when cost reduction (Financial: 81% of CFOs are considering cost reductions in response to the crisis) was a huge priority and deferment of investments was being discussed, particularly in areas such as facilities and capex, operations, and workforce, it clicked that digital would help them continue working while:
Keeping the workforce engaged and safe. There are limits on how many employees can work from home: many workers simply must be on the job site, but with remote tools, some employees can work remotely with less having to go on site.
What needs to happen next? (and how tech adoption can help accelerate)
While many companies now have to manage the fall out from the crisis, they also have to think about the future and what will make them successful longer term. Increasing digital appetite and taking a more holistic approach to the entire asset management lifecycle is still needed, with the adoption and expansion of AI and Digital Twin technologies that will help drive this, so that companies can recognise patterns and predict better outcomes to drive up revenue and be more efficient in approach.
Trusted data will be key to this, housed in tools that provide a single source of truth and common visualisation platform, that allow for work to be done remotely in one place, and encourage collaboration. By working together we can kick start operations and the economy and use data capture, visualisation and tracking as a key component to the success of the industry while supporting better-informed decision making in the longer term.
Across the industry and sectors, we need to break down silos, gather new and better data, and enable the interlocking of data and projects while opening up the digital market to continue to improve understanding, productivity, costs, and overall support sustainability. Additionally, with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, setting out his government's plans for national economic recovery, and announcing a multi-billion pound "new deal" for infrastructure projects to stimulate the UK economy, the time is right to think about digital in a new way, how it will support this and how we can work better together.
And for those that haven’t yet, rethinking the organisation and accelerating digital adoption is key. Companies need to reimagine their business models, and digitally transform to increase efficiencies, while safeguarding the health and safety of employees, and upskilling them.
With the rise of data usage across infrastructure sites and a maturing approach to digital, we also need to pay more attention to security and privacy. Data can open up risks, and as an industry we need to ensure we protect our business, people, process and our environment, particularly in uncertain times.
The future is unpredictable, but by making better use of digital tools we can make it more predictable.