Enabling a Data and Digital Transformation

Mark Enzer OBE FREng, the Chief Technical Officer at consulting engineers Mott MacDonald, presented the 47th Annual Paviors’ Lecture at Imperial College. Well over 100 people attended it. In addition to being the strategic adviser at Mott MacDonald, Mark is the former Director of the Centre for Digital Built Britain and Head of the National Digital Twin Programme. He is Visiting Professor in the Digitalization of the Built Environment at the University of Cambridge. He led the Infrastructure Carbon Review that set out the actions required by the government and industry to reduce carbon in UK infrastructure and the Digital Transformation workstream for Project 13. This project is an industry-led response to infrastructure-delivery models that have failed not just clients and their suppliers but also the operators and users of our infrastructure systems and networks. It has sought to develop a new business model to boost certainty and productivity in delivery, improve whole-life outcomes in operation, and support a more sustainable, innovative, highly skilled industry.

Just before the start of the lecture, the University had been visited by Bill Gates and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as part of the launch of a new initiative to supercharge the UK Cleantech Innovation, so the Paviors’ Lecture audience was in good company! Before and after the lecture, participants could view exhibits about several projects being undertaken by Imperial College in the built-environment area and had the opportunity to discuss and question those involved in these projects.

Professor Washington Ochieng FREng introduced the Lecture, Head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Imperial College, who it was noted had recently received the honour of being made an Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear by the Kenyan President Dr William Ruto. He welcomed everyone to Imperial College and introduced, in turn, Mr Neil Sandberg, Master of the Worshipful Company of Paviors. Neil gave the audience some background on the Company, which produced its first records in 1276, and how an essential focus of the Company had always been to support education. The Annual Paviors’ Lecture was part of that ongoing process. He then introduced the speaker, Professor Mark Enzer.

The lecture’s theme was how the built environment could be viewed as a system of systems and how data could provide a digital transformation to help enable people and nature to flourish together in future generations. It was presented in a very clear and lucid manner facilitating the audience’s understanding of the wide-reaching issues and implications considered by the Lecture. The speaker is to be congratulated on this. It was noted that the built environment included three main elements: economic (including physical) systems, social systems of the people involved, and the natural environment in which all this sits. These systems are all interconnected, and society depends on the sum of all these parts. Despite this, the three types of systems tend to operate in ‘silos’ that do not communicate very well with each other. There are many challenges ahead for these systems, and climate change is a significant issue that affects all of them. Targets for the future should include achieving net-zero carbon usage, climate resilience, a ‘circular’ economy (i.e. each part feeding effectively into and off the other parts) and preserving bio-diversity. All of these are affected by the whole system and not just by the individual silos.

The speaker emphasised the need for an outcome-focused vision with the purpose of ‘allowing people and nature to flourish in future generations’. This vision is built into UK Government policy. It requires that local systems combine effectively to produce global outcomes. Achieving this requires that the use of the built environment, through its operation, maintenance and extension, is done in a manner that ultimately produces the outcomes required in this vision. Projects and interventions undertaken within the built environment produce outputs that can interface with other economic and social systems to produce desired outcomes. Data links all the activities taking place and the outputs produced. So, data is the key to better linkages between the systems involved and the crucial factor needed to transform the resulting outcomes.

Achieving the required transformation poses many challenges for the construction and engineering industry – particularly as the construction sector is currently the least digitised of all industries. Change is needed to improve productivity in the sector, and this will not happen on its own. A strategy for doing this is required, and this needs to be broken down into manageable and achievable components. The strategy has to be outcomes-focused, systems-based, and recognise the needs of people and the natural environment. The Infrastructure Client Group have been investigating the needs and requirements for change and, based on large numbers of its members’ experiences of what works, has suggested three fundamental requirements:
1) a route map that addresses short, medium and long-term horizons,
2) benchmarking to establish best-practice, and
3) sharing of information, knowledge and experience.
These components require capable owners of the infrastructure, good governance and organisation, and systems integration across broad areas. Digital transformation underpins all these aspects.

The speaker concluded his presentation by talking about ‘digital twins’. The physical ‘twin’ comprises the assets, the systems and processes used in conjunction with these to produce specific outputs. The digital ‘twin’ comprises models and data providing a digital representation of the physical. Performance data from the physical twin, sometimes collected via sensors, is transmitted to its digital twin and processed. Based on the analysis, suggested interventions are transmitted back to the physical twin for action. This approach has many applications in the construction and engineering industry. However, if our broader vision is to be achieved, the various digital twins within the built environment must also talk to each other.

In summary, the speaker referred back to the vision required for the built environment and noted that there is a need for an approach to operating and managing this into the future that is outcome-focused, systems-based, and community-enabled. This requires joined-up digital transformation.

At the end of the Lecture, there were several perceptive and searching questions from the floor that the speaker dealt with thoroughly and expertly. Finally, there were votes of thanks to the speaker and those responsible for the organisational arrangements, including Mr Miles Ashley of the Paviors’ Company. The lecture was well-focused, deep-thinking and professionally presented, and the audience much appreciated it.