Digitalization - The Choice is Ours

Author: Andrew Krebs, Digital Studio Manager, Sweco

It is quite some time since I wrote musing about alternative approaches to digitalisation of our sector. One reason for the delay relates to goings on, in particular, the legislative changes around safety and regulation.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the new and emerging legislation and the effect it should have on every entity involved in the conception, design, creation, use and decommissioning of existing and new buildings and infrastructure work in the United Kingdom.

As always, it’s beneficial to step back and widen our gaze to other sectors. Let’s look at how they have responded to comparable changes.

Please allow me to recount a childhood experience of going into my dad’s work in the late 1980’s as a young boy, he worked for a large American oil company, and his office was a place of wonder. Based in Aberdeen, he had a large console covered in flashing lights which, as I only vaguely understood at the time, was a (near) real-time monitor for oil fields hundreds of miles away. From this console he was able to understand what was going on in these large, complex and frankly dangerous systems which comprised miles of distribution piping, drilling and pumping equipment and the support machinery required to enable it. Furthermore he was able to directly impact the operation of this equipment from a position remote from the operational theatre.

From this we can start to see parallels of where we are within our own sector. Step forward thirty-odd years, we can see that this is exactly what we are aspiring to . Now, technology for transmitting information is more advanced. We have cloud based systems enabling us to transfer data around the globe with the minimum of proprietary equipment.

What an opportunity for a sector whose journey along this path is still in the opening stages!

I hope it’s not too crass to draw parallels between disasters, I think it enables us to look at how we respond to adversity. The Oil industry had it’s Grenfell moment in 1988. On the 6th of July, the Piper Alpha oil platform exploded and sunk, killing 165 members of its crew and 2 rescue workers.

Living in a community which was largely made up of oil workers and their families and being around 6 years old when the disaster happened, and it touched every family in the community in one way or another. The echoes between this dreadful event and Grenfell are, in some ways, uncanny. No one actively sought to enable either event, but a forensic examination of the events before and on the 6th of July 1988 showed that there was a concatenation of operational and regulatory decisions, each possibly innocuous. It is these events which, due to a lack of attention to the wider consequences, led to the deaths of many innocent people, none of whom had any control over the events leading to their deaths, and all of whom, had been assured that they were living in a safe environment.

The reason I bring these two events into focus is to demonstrate that the driving forces behind the changes in our sector aren’t unique. They’ve happened before, and largely, the response was the comparable. There is one important difference however, and it must be laid bare, after the Piper Alpha disaster, one organisation was successfully shown to be largely responsible for the decisions which led to the deaths of 167 people, although, like Grenfell, there was a conspicuous absence of personal accountability, and no one was charged with any crime.

To overcome the obvious sector wide failings, in both cases, it became necessary to ensure the correct specification, installation, maintenance and monitoring of all relevant assets.

In 1988 the systems available to carry out remote monitoring were rather more expensive than they are today, however the strictures which needed to be overcome to achieve this were largely similar.

Turning focus back to the built environment, they can be summed up thus:

  • An asset’s physical and performance characteristics must be made available easily and in a format which is usable by everyone who will encounter them
  • An asset’s suitability for its intended purpose must be provable and ascertained by a provably competent individual prior to selection and use
  • Installation and maintenance of any asset must be done in accordance with manufactured requirements, interact holistically with the assets around it, and all work carried out by provably competent individuals
  • The information relating to every asset must be stored in a digital format and made accessible in a manner relatable to each individual who may encounter it
  • All the above must be provable to an independent regulator upon request with rather direct consequences to those unable to do so

I have already written about the digital landscape today, it is wonderfully sophisticated and there are software and hardware manufacturers out there who are successfully creating systems allowing us to carry out every single task asked of us and more. We have discussed the data stores, such as BSI Identify at our disposal to ensure we select the right products and materials. The only thing stopping us from creating collaborative and useful asset models is the one fundamental difference between built environment and every other sector I can think of:

The built environment is the only sector where the stakeholders who come together to create the asset are contractually compelled to be as unhelpful as they can to the other organisations in the project.

Our insurance ensures this. Each organisation on a project has only got to answer to its own insurance risk. This ensures no benefit to an organisation for putting itself out to help another who has erred on a project. We simply rest in the knowledge that if it all goes wrong, we can sue. This is uncomfortable to hear because I think, as individuals, we all want to act differently, but this fact sustains despite this.

Ironically, collective responsibility is shown to drive successful outcomes. Sharing accountability is proven to enable success for all.

Yet despite the rather direct language of Dame Judith Hackett, the response of the sector so far is to try to get everyone else to shoulder more risk. Instead of fixing the biggest issue facing us, we are doubling down. Frankly, it’s disappointing.

Over the last decade, all over the sector, quietly, the digital landscape required to enable the golden thread, to enable clear, consistent and competent information creation, sharing and use has been created. There are challenges, there always will be, and to coin an analogy, you can lead a horse to water, you cannot stop it being wilfully self-destructive.

The three blogs I have hitherto written, have been encouraging, to help us understand that things are out there for us, that we have been doing what is necessary and in some ways, I feel uneasy ending on such a note. However, I think we are getting to the point where we need to wake up as a sector and realise that we have everything we need to be brilliant, but we are hamstrung by our insurers, our procurement methods, and by our narrow-minded approach to risk.

The digital landscape is there, we have all we need, we have more than that! I count myself extremely lucky to get to speak to some of the brightest minds in the sector, people who have created a digital landscape which could allow us to do incredible things, today!

We have seen from other sectors that if we put the collaborative delivery of buildings and infrastructure works at the heart of our project and contractual structure, then we unlock all of this overnight. If we continue to only care about our individual liabilities, nothing will change.

The choice is now ours.

Completing the Circle

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