Becoming a data-driven organization

It is now more than 10 years since the UK government first urged the UK’s built environment sector to embark upon the adoption of building information modelling (BIM) and more than five years since the so-called BIM mandate came into force. Since 2016, much of the BIM effort has focused on incorporating the emerging suite of ISO 19650 standards, plus supporting guidance in the UK BIM Framework, into daily business and project processes. However, the UK government’s desire for digital transformation across the built environment sector is growing, and becoming data-driven is going to be critical to many businesses’ survival and future success.

The digital drive is accelerating

For example, the Construction Playbook, published in December 2020, gives guidance to government bodies and arms-length organisations on sourcing and contracting public works projects and programmes, and its 14 key policy areas include two that explicitly mention ‘digital’.

  • First, client organisations are urged to “harmonise, digitise and rationalise demand”. To accelerate the development and use of platform approaches, standard products and components - seen as critical to transforming the market’s ability to plan, invest and deliver digital and offsite manufacturing technologies.
  • Second, they are also encouraged to “further embed digital technologies”. Contracting authorities should use the UK BIM Framework to standardise the approach to generating and classifying data, information security and information exchange.

Many organisations continue to suffer from a poor digital legacy. “While the volume of data relating to UK construction is rapidly increasing,” the Playbook notes “it is often fragmented or not easily accessible.” This can be a result of industry project teams that historically engaged in ‘silo’-based working, with companies and professional disciplines adopting proprietary software applications that hampered sharing, access and reuse of information. Digital transformation will require improvements to the consistency and quality of data, and the Playbook highlights the need for standards, guidance and other resources that will enable the interoperability of information including standardised approaches to: Defining information requirements, Generating and classifying data, Information security, and Information exchange.

Greater sharing of better data

The requirement for interoperability is deepened still further in the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030 (TIP), published on 13 September 2021. With the Playbook, this now constitutes the UK government’s construction strategy, and with both documents endorsed by built environment organisations, greater sharing of better data is now set to be widely demanded.

The 62-page TIP document repeatedly stresses the use of modern digital approaches and technologies, and interoperability is a vital consideration for a government set on optimising long-term societal outcomes from projects and programmes. To help achieve this, an Information Management Mandate (note, no longer a BIM mandate, but a demand for better information management) sets out improvement needs using existing processes, standards and technologies, and expects this to evolve and support greater interoperability in the future – mandating that the standards within the UK BIM Framework be conformed to. In addition, a Government and Industry Interoperability Group has been established to focus efforts on areas including classification, client information management practices, technologies, and procurement.

Better whole life value

Many organisations across the UK architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) industries are already well advanced in their digital capabilities, but UK government construction policy now demands continued evolution of these. Supply-side organisations’ people, processes and technologies will need to be adapted not just to help them deliver better outputs, but to collaborate towards satisfying growing client-side demands for better long-term outcomes (mentioned 214 times in the TIP Roadmap), for better whole life value. Relevant support is offered through the Construction Innovation Hub’s Value Toolkit - “driving better social, environmental and economic outcomes through value-based decision making” - and there are also sectoral initiatives; for example, in August 2021, the rail regulator, Network Rail and the Department for Transport jointly launched a Better Value Rail Toolkit.

The TIP vision is of a data-connected ‘system of systems’ Built Environmental Model where investment and operation decisions are driven by insights derived from data. Client owner-operators will have exacting long-term asset information requirements that they will expect suppliers to meet. And, to be competitive in a market where increasing volumes of rich information move increasingly quickly to sustain longer-term collaborative relationships, more AEC businesses will need to digitalise – to use data to drive new and more efficient ways of working, even creating new opportunities and business models.

Better whole life data

More than 10 years ago, the original UK government BIM hypothesis was that “Government as a client can derive significant improvements in cost, value and carbon performance through the use of open sharable asset information.” This remains as true today as it was a decade ago, only we are perhaps now even more painfully aware of the issues of climate change, and we have yet to achieve that nirvana of ‘open sharable asset information’.

In its latest policy announcements, therefore, UK government is setting out its heightened expectations of seamless and secure exchange and use of information across organisational boundaries and systems, and over the whole life of physical assets. This will create, ultimately, an interconnected national digital twin. AEC organisations, and the technology businesses supporting them, will need to be driven by the need to efficiently create and then securely share, manage and maintain clients’ asset information that supports that long-term vision.