How can the built environment take advantage of AI?
16 AUG 2019
BIM, Internet of Things, 3D scanning... we've never had so much data on our hands. We convened a panel of proptech experts to find out how built environment professionals can make the most of this golden opportunity.
The accumulation, interpretation and industrialisation of data has become the currency of our age. But while some sectors have been quick to embrace this fourth industrial revolution, the built environment professions have lagged behind. The problem is that data as we understand it today – continually forming in real time, and in gigantic quantities – can only really reach its true potential if it is shared, facilitating collaboration and fluid decision making. And although professionals are very good at collecting data, there hasn’t really been a culture of sharing it. How must we respond to the challenges that this new world presents?
Ulrik Branner: Construction is an industry that creates the second highest amount of data in the world, bested only by financial services, but 95% of it is thrown away. At the core of LetsBuild is a drive to generate comparable data. The client has the responsibility to make this happen, particularly those in the public sector. They are the custodians of taxpayers' money, and some of our biggest builders. They have an obligation to start gathering that information and lead change in the industry. The UK government mandating Level 2 BIM is a good example of what can be done.
Mark Enzer: Ownership of data is an important issue, but perhaps more important still is the curation of the data: looking after it and making sure it's of the right quality and in the right place. It makes sense for the data relating to assets to be curated and owned by the people who own the physical asset. However, the picture gets complicated when data is aggregated from different sources to produce something of greater value. In those instances, you may have different curators or different data sets, and when it is combined there are more questions to answer about who owns it.
Charles Boudet: I don't think data is going to be owned by any one category of player within the real estate industry. It's going to become a commodity for anyone who is interested in developing a digital approach, digital tools or basically a digital way of working.
No one in real estate should feel immune from the need to transform their traditional business into one being driven by technology. If you consider data as the raw material to fuel any digital product, and agree with the statement that everyone has to move towards that, then it becomes an asset that is critical to everyone.
Paul Wilkinson: The gradual adoption of BIM over the last decade has seen us shift from being mainly document-centric to being more data-centric. We now talk about digital twins – realistic representations of assets, processes or systems that are connected to the physical structure. Asset data, therefore, now covers data created during the BIM process, plus historic and real-time information captured from systems and sensors embedded in the physical asset.
If we are to collectively improve the performance of our built assets, we need to continue to collaborate and to share such asset operation data. Not only will this help the industry deliver better-performing assets, it will also help identify – and reward – the suppliers who help deliver better whole life value.
PW: Data is being created at an ever-increasing rate. Think of it as five "Vs": higher volumes, at increasing velocity, with more variety (sources and data types), greater veracity (accuracy and integrity), and higher potential value. The industry professionals of tomorrow will therefore need to be adept at using analytical tools that can collate and interrogate that data, and to extract timely and valuable business insights from it. Data literacy will be important, as will the industry's ability to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify patterns or anomalies in data.
ME: We certainly need people who are adept at collecting data, collating it, managing it and so on – all the basic data-related skills. Then there are a whole load of other roles for people who can make sense of the data, run the big data analytics and collate data from a number of sources. We see lots of people busily recruiting data scientists, and that's good. It's about adding value to data to provide insight. You also need people who work on the visualisation of data – it's no good doing the analysis if the insights can't be communicated effectively. And finally, you've got to recruit people who use the insights to make decisions.
CB: To set up good digital products you need to have a number of competencies to be able to identify, develop and then sell them. In order to do that, at an early stage we try to identify technologies that can improve the way we work with our clients. We have launched a large global venture fund focused on proptech, called Spark. Data plays a very important part in that approach. It's about understanding technologies, mastering the data and creating frictionless experiences for our clients.
We're having to invest in more infrastructure because we now capture more data than ever before. We also use more open-source or external data. For that, we need data scientists and product experts who come from the digital world, not the real estate world. In JLL France, for example, we have a team of more than 12 data scientists.
PW: The idea of greater collaboration across a project team has been repeatedly proposed in report after report. [Most recently], in 2016, construction consultant Mark Farmer [MRICS]'s Modernise or die highlighted the continuing lack of a collaborative industry culture as one of the reasons behind the sector's continued low productivity, low margins and inefficiency in the UK. However, [change] will take a concerted effort. Farmer highlighted how industry fragmentation has prevented change. Traditional design and construction barriers need to be broken down, as do industry data silos.
UB: I think people are ready for change. When I meet clients that are driving behaviour change, I see an immediate reduction in friction between professions. The municipality of Copenhagen actually said that for four years they were going to work with one contractor, one architect and one adviser, and they are going to build a huge volume of projects. They guaranteed their margins and worked with completely open-book accounting. So, all of those organisations moved into a single office with 150 people for four years.
It's got to be client driven. It's like a Mexican standoff. Nobody can lay down their guns for fear of exposing themselves. Someone has to say "guns down", and the only person who can do that is the client.
ME: I don't think we're there yet on collaboration. I do think that we work in quite a collaborative industry – other sectors can be far more dog-eat-dog. Across infrastructure, I think that we have a collaborative culture. However, it's not an industry in which data is shared. I think a culture of data sharing is slightly different to more general collaboration in the industry.
We need to move towards enabling and facilitating effective information sharing where it is appropriate. I'm not saying everyone should share everything with everyone, but there does need to be a bit of a shift in culture to enable secure, resilient information sharing across institutional boundaries where it makes sense.
Technology is calling into question the very nature of our profession, as clients become increasingly comfortable with technological advancements to fulfil their needs.
It's like a Mexican standoff. Someone has to say "Guns down", and the only person who can do that is the client.
ME: I prefer to think about this the other way around, because the implications [for construction] if we get it right could be fantastic. The indications are that it could be worth £7bn a year, or 30% in cost savings. That's backed up by what has already been seen in other industries. This isn't something that is completely new to humanity – it's just new to our industry. So, the opportunity is enormous.
PW: [Calling your report] Modernise or die suggests that the consequences of failure could be extreme. In other industries, many inflexible, low-margin businesses persisting with outdated models have crashed – sometimes being replaced by larger, more agile, international competitors or new market entrants. In an increasingly connected and fast-moving world economy, construction cannot remain parochial or silo-based. Seamless multi-disciplinary thinking facilitated by instant sharing of accurate, timely data is going to be critical to business success.
UB: I'm convinced that the industry will come out of this stronger, but it will be with a completely different guard. I hate to cry wolf all the time, but construction firms are vulnerable to disruption. Unity, which is a gaming platform working in a very high-revenue and high-margin industry, has established an architecture, engineering and contracting arm. It's done it because it's seen a massive opportunity. You see companies such as WeWork moving into the industry. Amazon bought a prefab housing company.
CB: More data is available to more people and in a more transparent way. People who don't embrace that principle, and think they create a competitive advantage by building walls around their data, are bound to disappear in the coming decade. The revolution that is going on really only happens once every 100 years. I am confident in the fact that embracing change will be positive for our business.
Charles Boudet, CEO, France, and EMEA digital agenda lead, JLL, Paris
Ulrik Branner, Board executive, programme management platform LetsBuild, Copenhagen
Mark Enzer, Chief technical officer, Mott MacDonald, London
Paul Wilkinson, consultant on construction technology adoption, London
This article originally appeared in the Precision issue of Modus (Jul-Aug 2019), originally titled "Whose data is it anyway?". The opinions expressed here are those of the author and panelists and do not necessarily represent the views of RICS.