Decoding productivity

How digital will transform infrastructure to deliver better outcomes for all

The ways in which we live and work, travel and socialise, connect and communicate are evolving rapidly, driven by exponential growth in technology. At the same time, an explosion in population growth and the spectre of climate change is creating unprecedented challenges for society and the lived environment. At the heart of this is the infrastructure sector.

“Infrastructure helps to create the lived environment,” according to Philip Hoare, president of Atkins, a global design, engineering and project management consultancy, and part of the SNC-Lavalin Group. “It shapes our lives in profound ways, helping to define our quality of life, our health and wellbeing, and a sense of trust and belonging in our communities.”

But there is a challenge, he continues: “There is no doubt that our sector does critically important work, every day; brilliant, dedicated people working on things that really make a difference in people’s lives. But we are also one of the least digitalised industries in the world and as a result we have lagged behind other sectors in productivity. I see this as a huge opportunity; there is clearly room for improvement and that’s exciting.”

And it is hard to argue with this when you look at the facts. According to McKinsey & Company, the construction sector is one of the least digitalised industries globally. But leaders like Hoare see that as an opportunity. “The good news is that our industry is already full of data; it’s just invariably disconnected and fragmented,” he says. “Valuable insights, which could be used for making better decisions, are often lost. And with that goes productivity and growth.”

In 2016 McKinsey estimated that major projects took 20 per cent longer to complete than planned and were 80 per cent over budget. “This is often, unfairly, the way infrastructure is portrayed to the public,” says Hoare. “They read stories about mega projects being delayed and budgets increasing. The reality is these are complex projects, with multiple stakeholders and intricate supply chains. We believe this is where a connected ecosystem for infrastructure delivery will be a game-changer.” 

Atkins’ vision is to completely integrate infrastructure delivery across the whole life of a project, harnessing efficiencies and insights from all stakeholders in the ecosystem to drive value for clients and better outcomes for society. It is doing this by investing in three key areas, each a different stage of the asset life cycle. 

The starting point is the design stage. Data must be built in from the beginning, creating a rich virtual environment to enable collaboration. The company currently uses digital platforms which allow designers and clients to simultaneously access the same data environment in real time. This increases the pace of project delivery, improves productivity and facilitates unprecedented collaboration across disciplines. It also means all stakeholders are working on the same thing.

Atkins claims that most clients accept the need to move away from manual processes in the design phase. “A number of our clients have embraced digital design and we’ve embarked on a journey together with data at the very heart of what we do,” says Hoare. “For example, shared digital common data environments have allowed us to carry out ‘digital rehearsals’ of projects prior to construction, a kind of virtual road test which saves time and money.” 

A number of our clients have embraced digital design and we’ve embarked on a journey together with data at the very heart of what we do

In another example, its digital content library recently provided 50 per cent of the project components for a major highways scheme, straight off the virtual shelf. Additionally, by automating elements of design, services can be delivered more efficiently and solutions discovered much faster.  Modifications in bridge designs can be made using elements of past designs, piecing them together to optimise use of materials. This ‘design once, use often’ approach embraces the best elements of digital and ensures faster delivery without comprising quality.

The second stage is in the actual construction. Hoare cites one client who told him: “We collect a lot of data, make a lot of decisions. But how can we use this data to make better decisions around programme delivery?” Getting the first stage right is key, but it is then crucial to ensure data continues to be used through tools, apps and dashboards to improve project pathways, increase predictability and ensure modifications do not create delays. 

Finally, the use of digital twins will become the norm for the company. The future of the asset will become the heart of the design process, embedding digital twins into projects from the planning stage, through construction and then throughout its life cycle. Earlier this year, Atkins launched a digital twin survey platform, enabling clients to access, analyse and develop ultra-high resolution 2D and 3D models of their assets.

“Much has been written about digital twins,” says Hoare. “In infrastructure, they are critical.  Imagine a future where digital twins not only help to construct an airport, a hospital or a train line, but are used to more efficiently operate them afterwards?” 

He believes digital twins will be an important digital tool in helping nations to minimise the impact of the lived environment from a sustainability perspective. “To meet the Net Zero targets, we have to change the way we build, power and move the world in the future,” says Hoare. “But we also need to remember that 75 per cent of buildings already built will still be in use in 2050. That means we have to find ways of ensuring they also contribute.” 

To help tackle this, Atkins has teamed up with Cardiff University to develop a digital twin programme that will also seek to drive digital transformation across the UK’s existing built environment. Part of the focus will be on creating digital twins of existing buildings, infrastructure and cities to help optimise how they operate.

Hoare believes we are on the cusp of a new revolution. And the benefits seem to be obvious. With global infrastructure spending expected to be more than £70 trillion between now and 2040, a mere 1 per cent increase in productivity would reap enormous rewards for the industry. 

And what of those broader societal outcomes? Hoare is very clear on this. “What we do helps to shape the lived environment for the future,” he says. “We have a unique opportunity to ensure it works well for the communities it serves, allowing people to live healthier, more prosperous and happier lives for generations to come. By harnessing the power of data and technology, we believe we can help our clients to design, deliver and maintain infrastructure that helps create a world that works better for all.”

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