How to navigate a post-COVID world

Digital transformation to data-led transformation - embracing digital and data for the next wave of civil infrastructure

Last month we hosted a live webinar ‘Navigating What’s Next’ where we addressed how digital and contextual data can help civil infrastructure firms navigate ‘newmality’ in a post-COVID world. Our very own Sensat CEO, James Dean, and Managing Director, James Fricker, were joined by Howard Mitchell, Head of Innovation at HS2, and Adam Green, CEO of FM Conway, to reflect upon the present and future state of the industry, giving their insights and predictions into a post-COVID recovery.

The webinar focused on exploring the relationship of digital transformation in the Civil infrastructure and AEC industry as a route to recover from the pandemic, including a panel discussion on market perceptions. Here we review some of the key takings from the session in preparation for our next webinar, which you are invited to join or download on-demand 26th November at 4 pm on ‘Overcoming data pain points', which is part of our data-led transformation webinar series.

Why is digital transformation needed?

Most of us in the industry would agree that over the past half-century few digital technologies have disturbed and innovated Civil infrastructure and AEC business models, despite the significant wider digital progress. When comparing our industry to others, such as automotive and aerospace, “standard civil engineering processes are pretty dated”, reported Howard Mitchell, and now more than ever it is time for change.

In our latest insight paper, we looked at how the pandemic brought about new pressure on both the construction sector and the UK as a whole, in terms of adapting to different ways of working to comply with lockdown restrictions and social distancing. The impact of the pandemic had a profound effect, and in the months leading up to May 2020, construction output fell by 29 per cent, an incredibly large and drastic fall in such a short period. As a result, it has forced the construction industry to adopt digital technology to manage sites, and has started to increase the pace at which we look into digital adoption in the construction industry.

Before Covid restrictions, many industry construction business models relied solely on sending people to and from different sites, collecting information and passing it on. However, this almost came to a grinding halt in March when lockdown disrupted these traditional methods along with the overall value chain.

“Fundamentally the pandemic created an urgency to look at, and implement, digital solutions that ensure the same level of data access, data collaboration, and ultimately business continuity as well,” explained Sensat CEO, James Dean. “Now, for the first time, we are seeing the industry rebuild and rebound in new ways. Value chains are being rebuilt, with increased usage of digital solutions to create a more stable and agile business model, adopting more innovative technologies than ever before.”

Why has the construction industry taken so long to adopt digital technology?

Construction is a very physical sector, and digital transformation has the potential to unleash both time and money-saving capabilities, which is essential in order to keep up with the growth of humanity. It has been forecasted by the World Bank that by 2030 at least $89 trillion of investment will be required in the construction industry for infrastructure to keep up with population growth.

James Dean reflected, “It's a world of diggers, it's a world of earthmoving, it's a world of concrete, you know, that is not the world of computers. And actually what is really interesting is they [the construction industry] are starting to change the first time.”

So why has the construction industry taken so long to adopt digital technology?

During our webinar, Adam Green, CEO of FM Conway spoke about the three pivotal challenges we must overcome to embrace digital transformation:

1. Disparate data sets

Without the implantation of cutting-edge collaborative tools, such as Sensat’s own platform, it is difficult to aggregate data in both aspects of compatibility and quality. “We are data rich, we have it going out of our ears, we just cannot leverage it” states Adam Green. Due to this disjointed nature of data, often decisions are made using only partial pictures of projects.

Instead, Adam Green explained that the industry needs to take a more holistic view of data sets to include environmental data. Everything needs to be looked at holistically for decisions to be made more rationally and logically, basing decisions on assets. Only through this collaboration of data sets, can we gain a more holistic view of projects.

2. Client organisational structure and procurement

Data in organisations is siloed through both geography and asset. Different departments use different file types and software which are often incompatible with one another. As a result of this fragmentation within projects, information is siloed and data is often collected and used inefficiently. For example, departments end up collecting data and due to these restraints end up not being able to share it with other teams.

Howard Mitchell, Head of Innovation at HS2 says, “we are just wanting everybody to be working on the same piece of information at the same time… working towards developing a single project, that is a significant challenge and one that we are working on at the moment”. Looking forwards, digital tools can help to knock down these geographical and asset barriers, helping to share information and allow all stakeholders to be able to access the full picture of a site in digital data.

Data from the HS2 project captured and visualised in Sensat's cloud-based platform.

3. Contractors – investment and appetite for new thinking

It’s understood that construction is a high risk and low margin industry, driven by investor short-termism. There has been a lack of urgency to invest in innovative digital tools due to this short-term focus. Projects are often structured with minimal expenditure headroom, making it difficult to unlock innovation and allow Infratech investment to evolve within the AEC spheres.

However, in reality, investing in digitising the physical sector will help to improve productivity and allow budgets to stretch further. “We have a huge need for increased digital visibility”, says Howard Mitchell, “ toolsets allow us to deliver a programme on time, cost, and quality, and … where possible minimising the carbon impact of these activities”.

Are we as an industry future-ready?

Despite some setbacks caused by the pandemic, it has created a great space of opportunity for the industry in terms of digital innovation and its adoption. For the first time, digital solutions have been brought to the forefront of the construction industry's attention and forced the industry to think differently about Infratech usage and investment. Utilising the latest digital technology in data management, tracking, visualisation and collaboration, technology has allowed for projects to carry on whilst teams worked remotely or from home.

Now, more than ever, we are having to make better use of data collaboration, using systems which can aggregate data effectively, employing different data pools, and presenting them in a way to allow data-informed decisions to be made around assets. Through the adoption of data-led techniques, these digital innovations are having a direct impact on bottom lines.

When our panel explored this question, ‘Are we as an industry future-ready?’, optimistically Adam Green reported, “In terms of now being future-ready, I think that people are thinking differently, and are accepting the fact that they can do things more remotely and indeed have to. And that itself will spark a whole new conversation around the board table”, he continued, “I think we're probably more ready than he ever had been.”

Since Covid-19, digital tools have been essential, supporting the industry like never before, and through this, perhaps the future of digital tools as industry aids will develop further.

To hear more from the panel watch the webinar on-demand.

To read more about Navigating through the post-pandemic era, download our positioning paper for more information (link).

To understand more, join our data-led transformation webinar series from the 26th November.