The goal of infrastructure construction projects in the UK is better efficiency balanced against better effectiveness for optimal whole-life value. This nirvana has been in the government’s sights for decades, an effort that has gradually ramped up as digitalisation continues to prove its potential to transform other sectors for the better.
Evidence of this ramping up include the creation of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, the Construction Strategy (the fresh iteration of which we await with bated breath), the Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy, Transforming Infrastructure Performance, the Transforming Construction innovation competitions, and the Construction Innovation Hub, to name a few. It’s a surprisingly well joined up strategy that now looks set to be turbo-boosted by confident future spending plans under the Johnson Government.
The direction of travel is fuelled by an optimistic vision that goes by a number of names: transformation, convergence, systematisation, or even – my own favourite since it is so spectacularly dramatic – the singularity.
I call it the singularity because it brings together all the disparate parts of the construction process – materials, product manufacture, design, supply chains, assembly, construction, training, maintenance, management, finance, sustainability, social value, regulations, planning, standards, decommissioning, and so on – into one big closed-loop eco-system, all tied together by data.
What will it look like? Well, its ultimate (and admittedly fairly unlikely) expression goes like this: the client – probably a representative of the government in partnership with commercial interests – needs a new infrastructure asset – a road, hospital, train station, whatever. She enters some parameters into a digital platform in the cloud, which fires up a well-oiled, super-efficient, ultra-effective system. With very little further input from her, some years (months?) later, the PDfMA-built asset is ready to start operating.
Apart from the digital platform bit, this closely resembles a vision for industrialisation in construction that, frankly, has had more false dawns than an arctic winter. For example, Stuart Green, a Professor at Reading University and notable MMC-sceptic, recently unearthed a film from the 60s extolling the virtues of Sectra, a French modern building system. If you ignore the references to slum clearances, it could have been narrated by Mark Farmer, author of the influential Modernise or Die report and now the Government’s MMC tsar.
Whereas the old vision for industrialisation pretty much stops there, in the singularity, completing the build is merely a prelude to the main event: extracting maximum value during the whole life of the asset, without harming the planet.
Here’s how it could work. The singularity produces assets-as-a-service, optimised for triple-bottom-line whole-life sustainable performance. It delivers terrific value for the client and stakeholders. The assets it creates are equipped with IoT sensors monitoring performance over time. As well as helping to manage and maintain the asset, the data pouring in from these sensors (and other sources) will inform future planning, regulations, standards, design, manufacturing and, probably, countless other services through the National Digital Twin. This will elicit learning that continually improves the singularity, enriching AIs until the humans involved are pretty much consigned to governance, data analysis and system improvement roles. It also produces assets as banks of materials, allowing their physical elements to be reused, refurbished, remanufactured or recycled efficiently through a digital used materials marketplace.
You don’t have to be a genius to spot the magical thinking cloaking this description. The industry is a long way off making it happen. And yet, since the public good benefits (to say nothing of the commercial, competitive benefits) are so compelling, the arguments for accelerating its arrival cannot and, indeed, should not be ignored.
The future is here already, but unevenly distributed. The digital capacity and capability to enable the singularity is already powerful enough and, in many instances, commercially available in many guises.
This tech can be loosely grouped into two categories: standardisation and automation: the themes of my next two blogs. This tech is so exciting and full of potential that it can also detach us from reality, and so my final blog, about enabling conditions, will provide a sobering but still optimistic corrective.
Read Matt’s second blog: The Quest for Standardization
Read Matt’s third blog: Automation for the People
Read Matt’s final blog: Enlightened Leadership, Trust and the Conditions Enabling Innovation
Director of Matt Thompson Communications
Matt provides expert writing and editing services with a specialism in the built environment. Clients include building design consultancies, manufacturers, developers, publishers (including RIBA Journal), and industry organisations. He is currently a member of the RIBA’s Client Liaison Group and the CIC’s Building Quality Initiative Working Group. He was previously in charge of RIBA Publishing and was a Founding Director of the Centre for Understanding the Built Environment. Matt is also founder of Listenback.co.uk, the architect’s client feedback tool.