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News & opinion

3 APR 2020

How will data and technology deliver solutions in the built environment?

We are faced with a series of major issues, including the housing crisis, mobility, an ageing population and the climate emergency. We need to ask ourselves what the economy needs from us. This is where the opportunity for the sector around technology and digitisation comes in. My view is that digitisation is our lever to deliver solutions to these problems. That is happening in four main ways.

Tactics and automation

The first is at a tactical level. Technology is changing the way we work in the sector. In Arcadis, we now talk about digital teams, which we didn’t at all five or six years ago. It allows you to draw on the right people, at the right time, through a virtual network.

People no longer need to be co-located to work together, which is a big shift for a sector that traditionally involved having everyone sat in the same room. Particularly for the generations coming into the sector now, it’s a natural thing to do. For clients, it means that we have access to talent that perhaps we wouldn’t have done in the past. For instance, we now have a growing digital analysis team based in India who work alongside our UK teams delivering projects for our clients.

The second area relates to automating and augmenting what we already do. Building information modelling (BIM) platforms, for example, are changing the way we deliver projects. They can generate much better data sets and also provide an opportunity to work together across professional silos in quite a different way.

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Building Information Modelling (BIM) is an example of how projects can be delivered in a different, more digitised way

We’re starting to see this happen in the development of digital twins, where different professions visit the same information at different points in the asset’s lifecycle and provide additional information and datasets. The result is improved programming and better visibility on time and cost.

Data and disruption

Then there is the opportunity to develop propositions not seen in the sector before. This is about pulling together different datasets to be able to drive more productive outcomes. For example, by pulling together better data around housing capacity and allocation, as well as information on site viability, to name a few, you can take a more systematic approach to bringing land forward for development.

Finally, there is the issue of disruption. Where is the Amazon or Uber of the built environment sector, and what does that mean to the incumbents? We’re already seeing some of this type of company appear. For instance, Sidewalk Labs [a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet] is developing the Toronto waterfront using a data-driven model rather than an infrastructure- and assets-driven model.

What is this likely to mean for RICS professionals and other professionals in the built environment? It is already clear that the proportion of chartered professionals has gone down at the big consultancies, from approximately two-thirds to around a half. But it’s not that the core professions are no longer important, it’s that the companies are diversifying.

We have access to talent that perhaps we wouldn’t have done in the past

Dr Lara Potter
Director, Workforce for the Future

People are also looking to gain new, transferable skills to supplement their core discipline – skills relating to data, automation and process thinking, client understanding and insight. We are hearing words such as “creativity” and “empathy” in the built environment sector more than ever before. With the rise of the machines we are also seeing a greater emphasis on the things that define us as humans.

However, there is a huge challenge around how professionals of the future will know that machines are producing the right solution. Engineers in particular are talking about the possibility of there being failures before we know how the human and machine elements are operating alongside one another. In that sense, it’s a disruptive time.

Then there are the shifts in demographics and the challenges to traditional forms of hierarchy. We normally expect people to come in as graduates or apprentices and work their way up, but what we’re seeing through digitisation is people coming in with very little experience but actually very valuable knowledge. Different generations are now working together in different ways.

So, technology and digitisation are already changing the industry, both in terms of our capabilities and the work that professionals do. There will no doubt be bumps in the road – and professionals will need to embrace change – but ultimately the result should be a more productive built environment industry, with social value and sustainability at the heart of decision making. And that, surely, is something to be welcomed.

  • Dr Lara Potter is director at Workforce for the Future, and a partner at Arcadis where she leads on strategic workforce insight and planning for the built environment