Dr Jennifer Schooling: the opportunities and challenges for the public sector digital agenda

Rapid technological developments and digital abundance bring opportunity to transform our infrastructure and construction. Smart Infrastructure – the result of combining physical infrastructure with digital infrastructure – has the potential to make a revolutionary impact on the efficient use of both existing infrastructure and new build and is a global market valued between £2trn–4.8trn.

How best to engage with and benefit from the digital agenda is a compelling focal point for many organisations, but one that requires collaboration to overcome the challenges that accompany this opportunity.

Communication between various stakeholders is key to successful engagement with the digital agenda. However, the technology-driven presentation of this agenda, often adopted by solution providers, does not always lend itself well to answering the broader, outcome-focused questions that the public sector needs to ask. Likewise, the client who needs a solution to a set of problems they are facing may not be able to articulate what they need – the outcomes they want – in a way that the supply chain can engage with. This disparity can lead to a disconnected dialogue between the parties. We need to enable these dialogues to happen in a more informed and constructive way before the full worth of Smart Infrastructure can be realised.

There are other areas that require our attention and combined efforts. In order to manifest the value of better data about our infrastructure we need to think about infrastructure from a whole life perspective and consider exactly what information is key to informing the best decisions for managing our assets.

The need for long-term curation of data is another factor – the data we are generating will be used to make decisions about the assets over many years to come – potentially 100 years. This means that the data needs to be well curated over a long period, and that data is recognised as a valuable asset in itself.

One of the main challenges in the transformation to Smart Infrastructure is that of conflicting timescales – investments in data made now will bear fruit in the future. This does not sit well with current contract models for infrastructure assets; even though we are dealing with long-serving assets, our procuring and contracting typically runs over a five to 10-year time horizon. The discrepancy between the long-term benefit of data and short-term contracting model makes investment unappealing for the supply chain. Overcoming this challenge requires open collaboration between clients and the supply chain, with clients taking responsibility for specifying data requirements, the supply chain being transparent about the provenance and quality of the data, and everyone working together to ensure good transmission of data from one custodian to another.

This collaboration is also critical to implementation of innovation in construction projects. Often, large projects are subject to a long design stage followed by a lengthy construction period before operation can begin. Output-based specification in contracts up front predefines and constrains the solutions contractors can deliver during the project, acting as a deterrent to introducing new innovations. We need to look for ways of enabling outcome based contracting so that solutions can be modified or adopted later in the process – particularly when it comes to technology, which changes much faster than the build cycle. Even though many of our big public sector projects do have a desire for innovation written into them, contracts remain prescriptive and preclude opportunities for innovation to be introduced.

As an industry we need to start considering how data about our structures can help us manage them more intelligently. BIM Level 2 is mainly focussed on the delivery of new infrastructure whereas the real prize is applying digital approaches to existing assets that represent the largest part of our country’s infrastructure estate. It is here that we can create value – by managing and curating our data to gain insights and make better decisions which deliver efficiencies and sustainability throughout the life of our built assets. Developing knowledge of how our assets perform and better serve the purpose of the organisations that own and use them is crucial. Only when we understand the role of an asset in the delivery of the purpose of an organisation can sensible and effective investment decisions be made.

We are still in the early days of developing whole-life, value-based smart solutions for infrastructure and many organisations are actively looking to engage with the digital agenda. This opportunity does not come without challenge but open collaboration between all stakeholders will bring benefits for all.

By Dr Jennifer Schooling, Director, Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, Cambridge University

If you would like to know about mega-trends and the future direction of digital infrastructure, please visit the Public Sector Show on 26th June, at Excel London.