…but you can’t digitise bricks!

Author: Andrew Krebs, Digital Studio Manager, Sweco

In my last blog, I linked the human chemical desire driving the inexorable adoption (and tolerance) of anything that allows us to communicate more, and how the often-underappreciated move towards digitisation of our built environment carries hallmarks of that innate instinct.

In this second instalment, I want to temper that somewhat and explore where the physical and digital worlds intersect.

To do so, I need to go back a few years to a conversation with a client, who, despite being the unalloyed hero of this anecdote, shall remain nameless. Their clarity of purpose served to me as a major reminder of what is important when I could have been accused of perhaps delving too far down the road of digitalisation proselytizer.

It is a scene familiar to many of us, a conversation with the estates team who were grappling with the idea of implementing Building Information Modelling (BIM) for the first time across their full gamut of projects from buildings to transportation infrastructure and everything in between. But I wasn’t really making headway.

I had pulled out all the stops:

  • The power of information management;
  • Digital twins;
  • Structured datasets for them to adopt post-completion;
  • The potential for SmartBuildings™;
  • ISO 19650 compliance.

You name it, and they didn’t have a complaint at all with the merits of each idea as they stood. The concepts were good, I was on a roll, but they weren’t biting. I stopped and asked them outright why they were agreeing with everything I said but not signing up and the response was very simple and one I suspect many of us have heard:

“But Andy, my job isn’t to produce a digital model, it’s to keep the lights on and people warm.”

Needless to say, that was as good an answer as I could have hoped for.

It rather took away the need for reflection, the answer was obvious. You cannot digitise bricks. My client’s job was to produce and maintain physical buildings and I wasn’t telling them how I could help them be better at that, I was telling them how good digital tools were. The job of this estates team was to ensure that the inhabitants of these buildings had the best chance of staying as warm and dry (and preferably lit and fed) as possible. If paper and pen was their best way to do that, then that was the best solution for them.

The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate that digitalisation shouldn’t be the focus, or the goal.

We are here to make our respective industries the best it can be. Bricks, beams, sheet metal, they tend not to respond with any great vigour to sophisticated electronic inputs. However we can use data and devise algorithms which enable us to plan and produce ever better and more efficient arrangements of these materials. We can produce building services systems which can allow us to coherently interrogate their performance, as well as learn from our previous designs, and to say with increasing certainty, that our next one will be better, more efficient, and possibly cheaper to run instead of the (educated) guesswork we currently employ. However, we must not lose sight that we are only digitising because it is the best method we currently have to achieve this and to improve how we create the best possible built environment.

The conclusion to the anecdote above was that after the penny-dropped, we realised that what was needed was to create a “digitally enabled estate” because that would allow my client to use better tools to predictably maintain their estate, get the best feedback from their plant and manage their distributed supply chain requirements. There was an acute need to digitalise what they do, but not because it was digital but because it gave them more of what they valued at a good return for their investment.

I think it’s important to remember that digitisation isn’t a panacea. It’s simply an information paradigm that allows us, as current technology stands, to do the most interesting and useful things with data. That won’t remain true for eternity and neither is it a flawless method. Creating digital assets won’t stop - hasn’t stopped, bad things happening. Humans are still the ultimate arbiters of what happens, and when we create bad data, don’t question our sources, or fail to understand what the end point of our digital endeavours are, we create risks. The only difference is that these risks currently carry the veneer of technology and many of us are apt to not question what the computer tells us.

In the next blog I will explore how the changing legislative environment in the UK is putting a stronger onus on data production, dissemination, delivery and processing than ever before. In doing so we can start to look at solutions which enable us to prosper in our changing sector.

About the author: Andrew entered the industry in 2008 as a graduate electrical engineer in a building services consultancy after spending 4 years as an apprentice electrician in the manufacturing industry and studying electrical and electronic engineering at University. Andrew was an engineer on his employer’s first BIM project in 2010 before becoming their first Task Information Manager in 2015 and has spent years working to define the topic and role of Information Management within the consultancy sector, Andrew joined Sweco in 2021 as the Building’s Digital Manager and became the manager of their new Digital Studio in 2023. A long serving member of the CIBSE Digital Steering Group, Andrew was one of the founding members of the Society of Digital Engineering of which he is now the Chair. Andrew has contributed to numerous industry documents and standards from BSRIA BG6, through to the CIBSE Digital Engineering Series and Guide K: Electricity in buildings.

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