Information: Infrastructure's most valuable asset

By Mark Enzer, CTO, Mott MacDonald

Mark Enzer, CTO, Mott MacDonald

The digital revolution has transformed industries as diverse as finance, health, media, law, and manufacturing. Now, digital transformation is disrupting the infrastructure industry, with new tools and processes enabling greater awareness of asset condition and performance and the potential for much-improved asset management.

What will this digital transformation look like? Exciting technologies like robotics, artificial intelligence, and AR/VR may be the first things that come to mind, but information is the golden thread that joins everything together. We need to recognise that infrastructure is an information-based industry in which better decisions based on better data lead to better performing assets, with benefits to our clients, their customers, and wider society. This ‘information value chain’ demonstrates a direct connection between data and outcomes. So we need to start treating information as an asset, with coherent digital transformation strategies in place to unlock the value of the information at all stages of the delivery process.

The value of information

Digital transformation applies to every aspect of the built environment; not just the delivery of new infrastructure, but also the operation, maintenance and use of existing assets. Building information modelling (BIM) can be seen as a key foundation of digital delivery, which is why the UK government mandated it for public projects, and many private clients followed suit. Digital component catalogues are increasingly popular, and it is easy to imagine end-to-end delivery platforms that could facilitate digital design and delivery across the industry. In the coming years, it would be good to see the delivery process looking more like ‘production,’ being driven by information-rich models on enterprise-wide connected data environments.

We need to recognize infrastructure as an information-based industry, in which better decisions, based on better data, lead to better outcomes for the ultimate customer

As well as basic geometric and geospatial data, there are many other classes of data that relate to the asset, such as its condition, performance, and status, which can be integrated with a ‘digital twin’ of the physical asset. It is conceivable that a data-rich digital twin could have comparable value to the physical twin, but these twins have the greatest value together as a cyber-physical system. 

And this is Smart Infrastructure, where physical and digital meet. The key is that it isn’t about any single technology; technology without a purpose is just a toy. But the technology that is an enabler of the information value chain has great purpose and value.  Better information management will help us boost productivity and improve infrastructure performance in our sector. 

So, the opportunity of digital transformation requires us to rethink the connection between value and information. If we redefine value in terms of outcome per whole-life pound for the ultimate customers, then integrated digital-physical solutions are the most cost-effective way of providing value. 

Developing a maturity mindset

We know that digital transformation built on better information management is taking place. But we shouldn’t let it happen in a ‘Wild West’ sort of way, where different organisation—or even different parts of the same organization go at it alone, missing out on the efficiency of a joined-up industry. To realise the true benefits, digital transformation has to be done as a matter of strategy.

Physical infrastructure in developed countries is already ‘mature’, with existing infrastructure far exceeding the new infrastructure that is added each year.  The industry is often focused on asset creation, initial build cost and outputs. A ‘maturity mindset’ would see a greater emphasis on asset management, whole-life costs and delivering better outcomes for the ultimate customers – the citizens. Our industry must adapt to reward the supply chain based on outcomes, not just how many hours they spend doing design or how much they build. 

Looking ahead: national digital twin

Digital twins – realistic digital representations of physical assets are already being used, to varying degrees of complexity, to support better decisions, interventions, and outcomes.  But connecting digital twins to create a national digital twin (NDT) will unlock additional value.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s report ‘Data for the public good’ recommended the development of an NDT, which will become a national resource for improving the performance, quality of service and value delivered by assets, processes, and systems in the built environment. The NDT will not be a huge singular model of the entire built environment. Rather, it will be an ecosystem of digital twins connected via securely shared data.

As part of the move towards developing an NDT, last year the Digital Framework Task Group (DFTG) published the Gemini Principles to be the ‘conscience’ of the NDT and to guide the development of the Information Management Framework.  This framework is intended to enable effective information management and secure data sharing across the built environment, which is the basis of the NDT. 

The DFTG has now just published the ‘Roadmap’ that provides a prioritized plan for delivering the Information Management Framework. We invite all interested parties to embrace the Gemini Principles and engage in this exciting journey.

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