If we look outside the sector for inspiration we can find new ways of approaching our data that can bring a singular change in the way we do things


Common questions at the early phase of a project sound something like: Where are we going to put all our data? Who needs access to what? Where should we host it? And they generally end with the selection of a single vendor and centralised information management.

That sounds sensible, right? Centralise the data and have one source of the truth? Wrong. 

We are seeing such a shift in tech capability that instead of centralising information, we can just connect it – streaming data instead of pushing digitised paper around. 

Streaming enables us to deliver relevant data to the right system, at the right time. Unlike the bounded centralised method where we list and have to transmit large chunks of less relevant data. This is what I like to call the “constellation of collaborative technology”. It changes information flow (and relative cost to transact) for a project and the participating stakeholders and enterprises. This is the real platform for innovation in our sector, and we will be cheaper, faster and smarter by using it. 

As a microeconomist, I believe supply chains and business models are based on how information flows through the supply chain and how incentives are structured. 

If we take Spotify, Amazon, Uber and Airbnb as examples of market disruption, under the hood was a reconfiguration of information flow and transaction costs of the supply chain. It’s easy to compete when you’re cheaper. 

The interesting contradiction is that Spotify, Google, Facebook et al are actually centralised systems. They have become monopolies and monopolies are generally disastrous for markets. 

The development of distributed applications and computing is an interesting movement in technology. Distribution enables a credible challenge to those monopolies and provides an interesting window into how information will flow through the built environment in the future. 

Instead of depending on the altruism of project members to supply the right information at the right time (and at the right level of granularity), we unlock the digital twin and open the debate about how it can be monetised. 

I’d like to hear more people questioning why we should hand our cash to CDE (common data environment) providers, when shouldn’t they be paying us to access our data? Or at least see providers offering low-cost subscription models to host and direct data accordingly. 

I bet if you went back to Paul McCartney (or his manager at least) in 1968 and said that in 50 years they’d earn money from every single play of his songs, he would have laughed you out of the room. 

This is what we need to work on now: how do we commoditise our data? What is the impact of generating tangible value from our data and on our incentives to collaborate? Our business models will be unrecognisable when we get there.

In the age of streaming, there is no single digital solution for design and engineering projects. But if we look outside the sector for inspiration we can find new ways of approaching our data that can bring a singular change in the way we do things.

Neil Thompson is director for digital construction at SNC-Lavalin