It's time to get to grips with digital
While the construction industry agrees that digital ways of working should be at the heart of everything we do - there is still a long way to go to make this a reality. That's because two barriers - people and commercial models - remain a roadblock to our brighter, digitally-driven future.
By people, I really mean a culture and a mindset: a perception by many that doing things 'digitally' is a threat to long-held technical specialism or expertise. But I don't see it in those terms. To me, the risk is in us not helping people embrace the benefits of using digital systems and processes in their work. As leaders, it's up to us to empower our teams to use technology as an enabler, and it's up to us to have the appetite and desire to show leadership as to why doing things differently now matters.
That means upskilling our workforce and helping people who may be resistant to change by providing the right support and opportunities for them to develop. It's about reassuring them that digital transformation isn't a threat, but an opportunity to learn new skills to equip us to face the digital future. If we don't tackle this issue now, the discourse will continue to be dominated by those that would rather tell you all the reasons for not doing something, rather than finding ways you can - which alienates those who are eager to adopt new technology, and who are snapping at our heels to use it.
When we deploy digital processes to carry out repetitive activities it frees up our valuable time and lets us focus on what really adds value for our clients. At a recent presentation to clients, an Atkins engineer told of how he and his team had developed a simple algorithm that could come up with literally thousands of design options in a fraction of the time it would take for them to develop one design had they been using traditional, passive methods. The algorithm now helps inform their decisions at each stage of the design process - while outsourcing the time-consuming task of data processing - so that the team can dedicate more of their time to what's important: validating the findings, assessing the best options, and improving the ultimate final design. In short, applying their expertise to the higher-value end area of the process.
Embracing digital doesn't mean the prestige of a career in design and engineering is diminished. Today, we are fortunate that we have game-changing digital technology to support our tasks, that many before us simply haven't had access to, so let's capitalise on that, and use it to our advantage.
The second barrier to digital transformation within our industry is commercial models, and how they are structured; in fact, in my view this is a serious barrier to digital transformation happening at all. This is where we must start thinking very differently: we need to reshape commercial models, root and branch, a tough ask, perhaps, as many clients are still comfortable with current models based on unit cost and input of effort, as opposed to thinking how, as an industry, we might link cost instead to the value of the service. We need to redistribute value earlier in the process and capitalise on the benefit of doing so.
We need to start asking how we can create components and constituent parts of a project - supported by digital transformation - that are compatible and that can be configured more intelligently so they have a life afterwards. We need to be asking: how could we break a project down into components that allow an element of selection, for example, like choosing from a car brochure, without reverting to bespoke designs for every element, and whereby certain design elements can be reused?
Take motorway construction, for example: there's a perception that if you have a one-size-fits-all approach, you'd be wasting material because it would be overdesigned for the majority of circumstances. But in reality, we know that we don't necessarily save material by designing precise components for a single location due to the challenges we face on site in achieving a consistent quality in variable conditions and not using surplus materials - for example, the partial concrete load that goes to waste. By manufacturing a standardised solution, offsite, even if it's going to be oversized in some circumstances, it will have been manufactured in a very controlled environment, and with very precise material quantities and quality control. So already, significantly less material is wasted compared with building it from scratch on-site.
However, if payment and the measurement of value is linked to time and materials, we will not recover the considerable investments we are making and will continue to make in transforming our industry. A single standard solution that will add considerable benefit needs to have its value linked to the outcomes it enables rather than the input effort in creating and, importantly, maintaining the relevance of the product and we all need to work together to create long-term sustainable future models for our industry.
The good news is, some of our clients' responses to the government's agenda to do things differently and drive productivity have been very positive. We are already seeing some good, early examples of commercial models that incentivise suppliers, based on results. I believe our clients want more digital solutions to infrastructure questions, and that they want to improve productivity. But to get this right in the long term we need to get real and stop mixing old-world commercial models and behaviours with new expectations.
If we're serious about innovative solutions, we must grasp the opportunities of working to innovative commercial models - and that means being emboldened by the transformative powers of digital technology, not threatened by it. When we do so, we will not only uphold our professional status, but it will also mean we may collectively share in the added-value of a project's lifecycle.
Seven things we can start doing right now...
1. See digital as a game-changer that can support traditional roles
2. Understand, guide and develop those fearful of change
3. Foster new digital behaviours and upskilling, such as knowledge-sharing
4. Reshape commercial models to encourage digital ways of working
5. Use digital to encourage value through standardising components
6. Use digital to behave and act more sustainably
7. Procure services in smarter and more sustainable ways
Lesley Waud is design development director for transportation at Atkins, part of the SNC-Lavalin Group. Lesley will be exploring these themes further as part of the Big Thinking programme at Highways UK on 6/7 November.