With asset owners seeing an increase of external pressures – whether regulatory, political, or financial, some organisations are beginning to take a radically different approach to achieving their business outcomes within the built environment. One such example is the introduction of digital advisory experts, who support clients in driving their digital building agenda and smart operations thinking.
Positioned either client-side or supporting the more traditional engineering, architecture, and construction community, digital advisors are increasing the focus on how technology can drive leaner, more economical, compliant, and flexible operational outcomes. After all, it is the operational phase where we typically find over 80 per cent of a building’s total cost of ownership and carbon emission footprint.
Unfortunately, digital maturity for many operations and estates and facilities management (EFM) teams is often low, hence support is needed from digital advisors specialising in digital buildings and smart operations.
For capital programmes, building infrastructure modelling (BIM) processes help, although they alone will not provide the digital transformation needed to unlock the opportunities a smart building can offer. There are a lot of different technology solutions covering needs within the design, build, operate, and maintain phases.
Having independent digital expertise working with operational teams positioned early in capital expenditure (capex) or operating expenditure (opex) projects will ensure that necessary data is created, structured, and shared between systems, and that data usage is maximised throughout the whole asset lifecycle.
Where’s the radically different approach?
Firstly, there must be early engagement of estates, facilities management, and operations teams on capital projects to ensure the “design and build for operations and maintainability” consideration. Secondly, there needs to be early engagement of digital advisors with subject matter expertise in digital buildings and smart operations. Emphasis needs to be on delivery of business outcomes in the operational phase and, therefore, the alignment of the right digital strategy covering cradle-to-grave asset lifecycle rather than just the project lifecycle.
While engineering, architecture and construction organisations have some digital skills, they have a specific role as part of a project lifecycle that does not cover all necessary digital aspects nor the whole asset lifecycle. For example, it’s unlikely that they’ll have a deep or wide enough IT knowledge when it comes to Internet of Things (IoT), big data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, maintenance or asset management solutions, digital twins, blockchain, or horizon scanning of emerging technologies, such as 5G or immersive realities.
Like engineering, architecture and construction organisations, the BIM advisor’s role is very different to the digital advisor’s role. Their knowledge of IT isn’t wide or deep enough, plus their role is typically focused is on the design-and-build phase and very little on the operate-and-maintain phases.
A key part of the digital advisor’s role is to provide owner-operators and EFM teams with the “art of the possible” education on the importance of end-to-end and with-end-in-mind lifecycle thinking to remove silos across data, systems, processes and organisational structures. Also, it’s important to highlight the dangers of falling into closed, proprietary, single-vendor IT architecture that may create its own set of problems.
The need for digital advisors
While the UK government’s mantra is “Build Back Better”, we need to consider altering it slightly: “Build Back Better…and Smarter.” When we say “smarter,” we mean in terms of technology, processes and organisations, and in terms of our approach to delivering desired business outcomes.
Technologies that aim to achieve integrated, whole asset lifecycle management have been available on the market for several decades. Until now, though, they have only been used effectively in industries such as oil and gas, aerospace, defence, and utilities. However, as they become more cost-effective, we see them more frequently adopted in built environment projects. Even if most of us do not fully understand the ins and outs of this technology (IoT, edge and cloud computing, blockchain, big data analytics, digital twins, and smart asset management), we do know they are integral when covering the whole asset lifecycle.
To avoid data and organisational silos, solutions need to be open, interoperable, and integrated to meet client needs, and whether these technologies are used for new-builds or incumbent legacy estate. It is clear that open, interoperable systems – comprising modular best-in-class solutions that produce re-usable (non-siloed) data – will mitigate risk and offer operational efficiency benefits.
No matter what technology is used to support whichever process by any organisation, the data that they create or manipulate is key.
Importance of data
Whatever the desired business outcomes are – such as reducing maintenance backlogs, targeting net-zero carbon emissions, enhancing patient or staff well-being, service quality, personnel productivity or asset reliability – they will need data to inform or confirm the investment business case.
Every decision should be data driven, and everything (asset) can be connected and monitored either at installation or retrospectively. Once the right data has been identified, collected, filtered, structured, analysed, and shared, it can provide decision-makers with accurate and insightful reporting, confidence to eliminate guess work, insights to uncover patterns and events, real-time information, situational awareness of the asset’s performance and reliability, and contextual visibility that brings data to life through harmonising design from 2D process diagrams to complex 3D and 4D models, reality meshes, and digital twins.
Where possible, data-driven decision-making should use client-owned data. Data should not be limited to static information, such as materials used or dimensions, but should also include active information from connected assets and locations, such as room occupancy, footfall, asset tracking, asset performance, and from building management systems (BMS) or Scada (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. The digital infrastructure for a building or project should also be able to accommodate other data sources, including anonymised visitor and/or patient data, socioeconomic data, and procurement and supply chain data. The more varied and precise the data sets, the more valuable the insights and knowledge.
Part of the role of the digital advisor for digital buildings and smart operations is to identify the right data in the right format, for the right person, and at the right time. This goal can only be achieved by aligning systems, technology and processes with the client’s immediate and future desired business outcomes.
Who are the digital advisors?
Certain large organisations may suggest that they can provide “all of the answers”, although there is an obvious risk that they will achieve them using their own closed proprietary single-vendor IT architecture, therefore potentially tying the client into a long-term contract that would be complicated to terminate.
If the client’s digital and data strategy is based on criteria such as open, interoperable, re-usable data, future-proof and “best in class”, then the approach of an ecosystem digital advisor becomes imperative.
Ecosystem partners range from large multinationals to small subject matter experts, each providing specialist subject matter expertise and collaborating to address key issues. Together, they drive transformational change that will enable and deliver significant business benefits for the end client and wider built environment sector.
The focus of the ecosystem partners’ work is ensuring that the necessary data to achieve desired business outcomes is created, structured, and shared between open and interoperable systems from early in the design-and-build phases, and that a “golden thread” of information is maintained across the whole asset lifecycle into the operate phase.
Like the role of data scientists several years ago, the position of a digital advisor to enable digital buildings and smart operations will evolve and be adopted by the industry over time. The role should not be hidden organisationally under an engineering, architecture, and construction organisation’s IT department, nor confused with BIM advisors. The digital advisor role is one that needs to be included in key decision points, advising the client and working with all stakeholders to ensure that guidelines are followed and that forward-thinking principles are adhered to.
Building owners and operators are understanding that data is pivotal in helping them deliver business outcomes. Accordingly, they should endeavour to:
• Break organisational, procedural, and technological silos and ensure that the right people are around the decision-making table from day one, including EFM and digital advisors for digital buildings and smart operations;
• Make technology and the resultant data part of a coherent, joined-up, digital strategy that covers the whole asset and project lifecycle;
• Contractually ensure their entitlement to all data created throughout the asset lifecycle;
• Harvest client-owned data from open and interoperable systems that will enable modular, best-in-class, and future-proofed solutions; and
• Generate and manage data to facilitate enhanced decision-making to assure desired outcomes.
The benefits of applying these simple rules can enable and support the delivery of business outcomes such as achieving net-zero carbon emissions, improving well-being agenda, and reducing maintenance backlogs and operational costs.
The built environment must adopt a new way of working, and it must recognise digital and how it is applied. This environment is just as important as bricks and mortar.
* Mark Coates is International Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, Bentley Systems, and Mark Lenton is Innovation Consultant, SSRO Innovate (SROi), a trademark/service mark of Bentley Systems.