Engineers with digital technologies and smart engineering to transform the built environment
Author: Dr Seyed Ghaffar, PhD, CEng, MICE, MICT, FHEA
One of the key components of the global economy is the built environment sector where an array of professionals attempt to innovate and refine processes to meet the demands of today. Engineers now have the opportunity to make substantial changes and transform the built environment to fulfil societal demands, respond to well-recognised environmental problems, and drive the economy toward sustainability, decarbonisation, growth, and inclusivity. Although this transformation should be led by policymakers, engineers in the built environment and its value chain can play a significant role. Delivering high-quality projects for the built environment depend ever more on digital innovations and smart engineering. Breakthrough digital technologies such as robotics, AI and machine learning, 3D printing, BIM, AR/VR, laser scanning, prefabrication and DfMa platforms, analytics software, blockchain, digital twins and IoT may play a critical role in a number of areas, including enhancing on-site efficiency, involving stakeholders, and guaranteeing a smart asset to lead the transformations required to combat the global challenges.
In addition to the operational advantages of adopting digital technologies for construction, young talents would also be increasingly drawn to the built environment sector where they would devote their time to have an exciting career in contrast to the current perception. To ensure retention of this talent, digital training opportunities and educational system supports are vital for the future of engineering discipline. Through the augment of digital technologies, the construction skill-base can be digitally empowered, and construction processes can be transformed. The application of digital technologies in the built environment can lead to the rise of new construction skills, displacement of jobs such as traditional cost quantification, and the fruition of new tasks such as sensor monitoring . Through the onboarding of a younger generation of construction workers, there would likely be less of a reticence to embrace digital technology and implement new working methods; catalysing opportunities for innovation.
The fourth industrial revolution is allowing for the blurring of the lines between the physical and digital worlds, opening up possibilities for the creation of tools that will enable continuous state awareness and proactive decision making to manage buildings and infrastructure systems more effectively and efficiently. Smart infrastructure presents plenty of opportunities for a digitised built environment. Learning from real performance to change the way assets are designed, delivered, operated and integrated into infrastructure development using digital twins, AI and machine learning presents an incredible advantage for sustainable development. Other opportunities include the reduction of uncertainty in design, condition assessment, construction and asset management, delivering knowledge, tools and approaches essential to meet the challenges of resource scarcity, zero carbon and the need for resilient infrastructure.
Some of the requirements for a smart and digitalised built environment are the use and development of sensor systems, data-driven decision making and demonstration of the value of smart solutions to the decision makers and other stakeholders.
If targets are set low and only focused on continued optimisation of the current practice, the digitalised built environment will never come to fruition. The engineers in the sector must be encouraged and inspired to be passionate about changing the mind-sets of stakeholders and the general public, and to open their eyes to the potentials of smart infrastructure solution. This is an enormous challenge for the sector, and it needs to be tackled by a combination of innovative design, focused academic research, applied breakthrough technologies, stakeholder collaboration, external industry engagement, and flexible regulation.
If you are an engineer looking to better understand and embrace digital technologies it may be worth exploring this topic with organizations such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
Dr. Ghaffar is an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering. He is a Chartered Civil Engineer, a Member of the Institute of Concrete Technology and a Fellow of Higher Education Academy. He has authored more than 50 peer-reviewed journal papers and recently edited a book titled "Innovation in construction". He has been successful in attracting research grants of circa £6 million on 8 projects funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, British Council and the European Commission.