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18 JUN 2019

Digital Built Environment Conference: taking surveying up the value chain

Don't believe the media hype – new generation technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation will transform, not eradicate, surveying roles.

This was the key message from the RICS Digital Built Environment Conference in London on 5 June. "You see lots of headlines in the press about the rise of the robot worker and the leisure economy, in fact, the jobs we are doing will be enhanced by technology," explained Dr Lee Elliott, Partner and Lead of the Commercial Research Team at Knight Frank.

"If technology is about augmenting humans, by taking some of the more menial tasks out of the way - what you actually end up with is a more valuable workforce focused on adding greater value," he continued, before highlighting the challenges for business leaders in employing the right skill-sets to drive transformation, and for the commercial real estate sector in providing workspaces which support new ways of working.

This viewpoint was echoed by James Fiske, Director of Data and Information Product Group at RICS who updated the conference on the BCIS platform and the future of construction benchmarking data. "This is not the end of surveying – this is about evolving, being more productive and pushing surveying up the value chain," said James as he explained how BCIS is evolving to meet changing industry demands.

Jeff Belk, Head of Estate Projects, University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust meanwhile provided a client's perspective of BIM. He offered insights on how the Trust is seeking to improve the design process of projects by creating a more asset-focussed approach. Rather than working strictly to individual project stages with a handover from one stage to another – and the subsequent production and review of numerous documents and risks associated with translation and inefficiency - their aim is to create a more linear approach to ensure project information is always accessible, with all operational, design, building management system and other data generated from a central point.

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2019 RICS Digital Built Environment Conference: Highlights

The afternoon began with a Masterclass on Blockchain, and also a question - is this a fad or the future of real asset transactions? David Willbe, Partner, Lewis Silkin suggested there is enthusiasm for getting land title onto blockchain to allow for greater certainty of transactions, for changes to be easily added, and to create a clear record of everything that has happened around that title.

He identified the need for regulation, as there is currently no way to litigate, and reminded delegates that there is currently no way to undertake an entirely blockchain transaction, as UK legislation doesn't allow for it.

Later, Stefan Webb, Director of Digitising Planning at Future Cities Catapult called for a need for a more standardised UK planning system, in turn enabling greater opportunities for digitalisation. "There are many things planners do which could be carried out by computers – leaving them free to plan." he said.

Professor Jennifer Whyte, Data-Centric Engineering Strategic Leader at The Alan Turing Institute next provided a case study of how digital twins of the national infrastructure system offer the potential to increase both the efficiency and resilience of infrastructure. Again, standardisation was key to the process.

A concluding panel debate focussed on driving the adoption of next generation technology. "When you are dealing with real people and real projects, things are nowhere near as simple," warned chair Ann Bentley, Global Board Director, Rider Levett Bucknall.

On the issue of cost, Barry Gleeson, Technical Director of BIM, Environment and Infrastructure Services at Wood PLC said: "I see a lot of clients across different sectors who want to invest in technology, but are having difficulty in fully measuring the benefits."

As a technology provider, Stuart Tanfield of Autodesk spoke of the need for more engagement across the supply chain. "Collaboration is essential. I think there's a tendency to lose control further down the supply chain. The supply chain can sometimes be an afterthought."

"You don't want to make things arduous for the supply chain," Hannah Griffiths, Senior Consultant – Smart Cities at Arup added. "At Arup, we try to streamline and standardise our approach as much as possible."

Joseph Whitaker of construction management software provider, Procore, also recognised the importance of agile approaches to training professionals in using new technologies.

Delegate poll results:

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Question 1
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Question 2
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Question 3

The panel discussion was shaped by the results of a delegate poll which ran throughout the day. As it turned out, it also underpinned earlier messages - despite talks of obsolescence in the industry, 86% of delegates either agreed or strongly agreed that digitalisation would continue to make built environment professionals more valuable to clients and employers.