Digital technology is disrupting the built environment and firms need to be aware of this to keep a competitive edge

Dominic Thasarathar

Construction businesses live in the physical world, tangibly delivering and maintaining real world assets. Compared with other industries that have been disrupted by digital technology, there’s a certain comfort and reassurance that dealing with the physical world brings. But what happens when digital technology changes the physical world?

Digital technology is increasingly becoming deeply embedded in the physical DNA of every aspect of our built environment; from sensors in buildings that monitor occupancy levels and environmental conditions, to smart utility networks that help reduce energy consumption and improve resiliency. The implications for how we operate buildings and infrastructure, and for tomorrow’s built asset value propositions, are something that construction firms will need to take a position on, quickly, if they’re to avoid being disrupted by others.

Smart assets will deliver smart value

As physical components, equipment and systems become increasingly interconnected with smart sensors, built assets should become more responsive to the needs of owners and end-users.

The end-user experience is going to become personalised, for example, optimising workspace environments for temperature, ventilation and lighting. The owner experience will change too. Access to unprecedented levels of data, such as occupancy levels, usage patterns, energy performance, water consumption and commuter times will offer increasing benefits. With access to these insights, owners and their project partners could make better, more informed decisions about a building and its surrounding infrastructure to lower costs, improve existing capacity without compromising end-user experience, or enhance it with new capabilities to maximise value, for example, by supporting 24-hour multi-purposing.

Operations and maintenance of assets will also become smarter. To take an example, BIM-AM (asset management) is being used by more than 2,000 employees at Hong Kong government department, EMSD. It links BIM with the building management system and CCTV, providing an accurate view of existing conditions (services and assets), which is linked to supporting information that can be viewed on desktops remotely, or in the field via tablet devices.

When an incident is reported, users filter to specific equipment to view the necessary operations & maintenance information, alongside both historical and real-time performance data linked to the building management system (BMS). This enables facilities managers to more easily determine possible causes, and potential resolutions. This can be achieved prior to visiting the facility in conjunction with CCTV, to determine any access or safety issues.

From construction services to Assets-as-a-Service

As an increasing proportion of our built environment is ‘lit up’ digitally, the data produced could facilitate better forecasting of future demand patterns at a granular level. It could also enable future assets to be better designed to enhance performance, by feeding back usage data into new projects.

This ‘closing of the loop’ will offer contractors new business opportunities. By blending asset information with other large data-sets, for example, population demographics, economic growth and wealth levels, contractors will be able to achieve a deeper level of insight into future demand patterns for built assets.

Moving beyond the individual asset, such data might support contractors in building new relationships with clients based on outcomes rather than price or even value. As our built environments become more complex, and levels of risk increase, greater emphasis is going to be placed on how to achieve the end outcome without making a project unbankable, or otherwise unpalatable. No asset exists in isolation. Understanding how a proposed asset will connect with other systems, physical or otherwise, will be essential. Being able to ask existential questions like “What should we build?”, “Why should we build?” or even “Should we build?” is something such data should help contractors help their clients answer.

And as technology increasingly closes the gaps of understanding how assets are used, how they perform across their lifecycle, and the total cost associated with that lifecycle, it should open the door for contractors to venture further upstream into areas such as Real-Estate-as-a-Service.

For more information, see Autodesk’s “Constructing with the Power of Digital” manifesto.

Dominic Thasarathar is industry thought leader: construction, energy, natural resources for Autodesk