To read more about “What’s Next” in civil infrastructure, download our insight paper.
Living through a pandemic is causing us to reach for more innovative and rapid solutions to help us be more productive, particularly as more of us are working remotely and digitally. This has provided an opportunity for construction to rethink priorities, so we can better use technology and data to work more effectively and support immediate societal needs through the creation of a more resilient built environment that works for everyone.
Companies in civil infrastructure as a whole have been laggars rather than leaders in the digital charge, and always struggled to employ the full benefits of digital technology that could help them with better data, better design, better infrastructure builds, and increased automation of processes and procedures.
However, is this all about to change?
The effect of Covid-19 and social distancing has had an effect on both the construction sector and the UK as a whole. For the first time in infrastructure, restrictions were put in place for onsite management to reduce human contact and many project workers, construction and design engineers were forced to work remotely and from home. Because of this, there has been a huge increase in the use of technology and software that allows individuals and teams to communicate and collaborate remotely. Without the latest digital technology in data management, tracking, visualisation and collaboration, for example, productivity and work can slump if people can’t manage communication and data effectively - putting projects at risk. The UK government estimates that this productivity lag could be costing the industry as much as £15bn a year, and this was before the impact of COVID-19.
While some of this technology has been around for a while, people are starting to become a lot more comfortable with it because we are in a position where we have to use it to keep working. This is building up simple routines that will have a lasting effect. COVID-19 created a forcing function never seen before in the civil infrastructure, where companies had to move to digital solutions because physical information collection almost came to a grinding halt. Lockdown disrupted the entire information chain - including carrying out physical work on site.
Going forward, there will be an appetite among certain segments of the workforce for continued remote working and living. Investments geared at accelerating the roll-out of both full-fibre and 5G communications infrastructure will be fundamental to this. The benefits of active travel were laid bare during the lockdown and hence respondents to the call for evidence identified the need to improve infrastructure provision for cycling, walking and running.
To be able to continue work, the civil infrastructure industry had to accelerate their use of digital tools in both construction and operational phases of projects. This was largely to continue operating but also because reality capture, with the data hosted in the right digital platform, was going to help them to visualise their site, while also allowing them to make decisions on next steps both now and into the future - all remotely when teams couldn’t be physically present to capture data, as well as monitor and measure progress. Deployment of digital tools, such as work management software, communication applications, consultation tools, and data capture technology, were all put into place to meet needs.
Data captured and visualised by Sensat for Network Rail and WSP
The role of infrastructure as part of the recovery
Investment in infrastructure can play an important role in stimulating economic growth and recovery. Within advanced economies, research conducted by the IMF has shown that increasing investment in infrastructure by a single percentage point of GDP increases the level of output by 0.4% in the same year and by 1.5% four years after.
By taking a more innovative approach to digital engineering, surveying and project management, the industry at large will be presented with new opportunities including increased revenue opportunities, increased collaboration across the supply chain, and increased productivity. Companies also need to take advantage of investment - such as that being provided by the UK government who plans a huge boost for the country’s infrastructure with planned investment and reviewed processes across roads, railways, affordable housing, 5G and broadband over the next five years.
Navigating this path successfully will only happen if we can capture accurate data quickly, and visualise different project elements and layers to build context. By working with data like this, we can kick start operations and the economy to be better informed and support strategic decision making in the long term, while accelerating the next wave of civil infrastructure to drive double-digit growth.
While we are all starting to find our way with digital, we must take the time now to be flexible and open to change, as we adapt to a new normal, in order to maintain focus on revenue generation and overall business success. Being digital and capturing data in construction nowadays goes far beyond paperwork and spreadsheets, and the benefits can be exponential if harnessed in the right way.
If we can translate data into something understandable that can be used in a
meaningful way, we can move towards a more productive work life and more a sustainable built environment. However, where digital tools can really create value for the civil infrastructure is in allowing the planning process to keep in perfect sync with the real-live project. With today’s constant influx of real-time data, having a place to aggregate this, visualise this, add to this, and manage this, means the planning and construction process is always aligned with the actual state of construction— this is the next wave, this is true digital transformation!