Infrastructure lacks digital readiness – will investing in capacity building drive the digitalisation of delivery?
Technology to support the built environment has evolved at lightning pace in recent years - from computer-aided design (CAD) to building information modelling (BIM) to digital twins to ecosystems of connected digital twins, and everything in between. The potential benefits for infrastructure are enormous. We now have tools at our disposal capable of transforming the industry and radically improving efficiency and sustainability. Yet we simply do not have enough people with the right skills to harness these emerging technologies.
The GI Hub’s Improving Delivery Models initiative highlights several challenges and associated improvements with respect to the efficiency of infrastructure delivery. One of the most biggest opportunities to improve infrastructure delivery is the digitalisation of infrastructure yet the sector lacks digital readiness, meaning projects forfeit the efficiency gains possible from digital capabilities.
Digital readiness is not just in relation to having the technology available – it already is in most countries – it’s about having data standardisation, compatible systems, clarity of roles and responsibilities related to digital capabilities, and (most importantly) individual capability.
One policy approach to addressing this challenge is the adoption of digital design-built policies by government. The United Kingdom (UK) Government adopted such a policy in 2014, which led to the formation of the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB). Alexandra Bolton, Executive Director, CDBB shares with us below her experience and insights on why we need to invest in digital capabilities to improve infrastructure delivery.
A socio-technical challenge
At the CDBB we’ve had many conversations with industry, academia and government. One thing that has repeatedly struck me is that digitalisation is often viewed as a technical challenge, rather than the socio-technical change programme we know it to be. This view is one of the biggest roadblocks to greater adoption of technology. People are vital to the process of infrastructure digitalisation, and our focus needs to be on talent as much as technology.
The built environment creates huge amounts of data. The value comes from the information and insights that we gain from that data, to improve outcomes for people and the planet. Data must be structured, managed and shared in an effective way to allow us to create those insights and thus create those better outcomes. And it needs people with the right skills and training to make that happen.
We can create technically perfect solutions, but if people aren’t brought along from the very beginning, if people can’t use it, understand it, or appreciate how it relates to them and their quality of life, that solution will never be used but will sit on a shelf gathering dust.
There needs to be a shift in approach
The old, hierarchical way of doing things doesn’t work anymore; we need to shift to an industry where collaboration and coordination expand the skillsets and knowledge of all. And we need to educate every level of an organisation, from the C-suite to those at the technical cutting edge.
Currently, people with significant time, knowledge and experience in the industry, haven’t always been trained with the digital skills that are needed to transform industry. Consequently, there is a need for two-way mentoring: (i) digital natives, new to the industry, exchange their skills and knowledge about digitalisation and new ways of working, with (ii) longer-serving colleagues with in-depth experience of the industry and its evolution.
It is a new approach, particularly in the built environment which has generally had a traditional career progression and established ways of doing things. But this collaborative, two-way sharing of information is crucial for these two sets of employees to develop and build capacity in digital skills.
Capacity building is a win for everyone
It will take considerable investment in capacity building to achieve the right breadth of skills and training in digitalisation. And we know there is some concern over the risk in making these investments in people, only to potentially lose them to the next employer.
Although I understand these concerns, I would argue that the bar is raised for everyone if we all take the time and money to invest in digital skills and training. Ultimately there will be a bigger pool from which to recruit. The long-term improvements in outcomes and profitability that will come from these investments will outweigh any short-term objectives.
In a time described as ‘the Great Resignation’, digital skills training can be a helpful employee retention tool. The latest AWS Global Digital Skills Study showed that 82% of employers report higher employee retention after implementing digital skills training in the workplace, while 73% of workers agree that workplace-based digital skills training opportunities have resulted in greater job satisfaction.
A starting point for digital readiness
The National Digital Twin programme, part of the CDBB, offers a Skills and Competency Framework in partnership with the Construction Innovation Hub. It’s a practical tool for any organisation in the infrastructure industry that wishes to assess and resolve any potential skills gaps, it also helps employers to understand the roles and competencies needed to support digital twins.
For those that want to discuss what others are doing in the sector and ask for advice, or offer it, the Digital Twin Hub is another starting point. It is a free-to-join online community that hosts various discussions and provides a wealth of resources for anyone wishing to improve their information management.
The development of people and skills must be an integral part of the strategy of any organisation, but just as important is that they undergo a cultural shift to managing data and information as a valuable resource. When we do so, we will create a bigger market, run our businesses more profitably, make better decisions in the short-and long-term, and ultimately create better infrastructure outcomes for people and the planet.