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Data is becoming a defining asset for the built environment

Thu Oct 31, 2019
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Volker Buscher, Arup’s Chief Data Officer, shares how data is fundamental to understanding and driving improvements in competitiveness, quality and sustainability within the built environment industry.

Volker Buscher, Arup’s Chief Data Officer, shares how data is fundamental to understanding and driving improvements in competitiveness, quality and sustainability within the built environment industry.

Author: Volker Buscher, Chief Data Officer, Arup

As we shape our future, we have new opportunities – through open and shared data. The benefits of a data-driven built environment are far reaching. Disruptive technologies like cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) are already impacting how we experience and engage with our physical surroundings.

Now is the moment to leverage this explosion in real-world evidence (data) to help us build a future that matters, like supporting IceBreaker One as part of our work with the Sustainable Development Goals. We are starting to understand how real-world data – and the insight it creates regarding commercial performance – can also provide climate-change evidence and how this would impact on financing or insuring major infrastructure assets.

Today, the engineering and construction industries are wrestling with how to understand deeper meanings and patterns associated with a data-driven built environment. How the industry is engaging with data is changing. Some in the industry compare data to assets like oil or gold – finite resources which are only valuable when hoarded– but this is a false narrative. We need a shift in the industry’s understanding of data as a vital asset, which is not always most valuable when stored as a proprietary, closed data. The ODI’s Data Spectrum of open–shared–closed data is beginning to take root in the built environment. But we need to accelerate this understanding if we are to capitalise on the potential of open and shared data.

Data is strategic to Arup’s aims, it requires care and skills to realise its potential and must be nurtured and supported appropriately. There are three parts to the industry’s pathway to building a robust data infrastructure.

First, we must acknowledge that the journey to achieve more open data and shared data requires effort and considered action. Making data suitable for cloud computing, machine learning, and other new technologies will not happen without vision, commitment and investment. Once we have acknowledged that effort is required, we must pursue a two-part approach to secure industry commitment to advancing open, shared, and even closed, data infrastructure: using data to reduce cost and using data to solve challenges that matter to people. Current practices in the industry have to change if we want to be creative with data at scale.

We must focus on reducing cost and friction in the value chain of the built environment, from design through to construction and asset operations. There are opportunities to share data along that value chain which will reduce cost to many of the stakeholders.The cost of actually sharing data (the interoperability of data) is constantly reducing as more data is released using common standards. In an industry founded on a highly distributed – and sometimes fragmented – value chain, these new capabilities and practices will require deep-rooted change, or perhaps the t-word: transformation. Identifying who wins from more efficient data sharing is critical, so we can understand which parts of the value chain need to invest in data infrastructure first. But to truly eliminate inefficiencies, this needs to happen across stakeholders in an unprecedented way – we will need a newer ecosystem that brings together government, business and the third sector.

This new data-driven narrative is further fuelled by venture capital entering the digital built environment, and creating targeted investment vehicles for property and infrastructure, including PropTech initiatives. This is another reason to be optimistic – more investment than ever is being put into PropTech, which means we have the opportunity, as an industry, to shape a data-driven built environment, capture and share best practice, successes and lessons learned. As a firm we need to bring together our built environment expertise with that of data engineers and data scientists.

In addition to reducing cost, we must concentrate on creativity. We face this amazing opportunity to create unprecedented value in economic, environmental and social terms by working with data at scale. Real progress is already being made on the ground, and companies are developing integrated transport, economic and environmental models for cities that will change our understanding of major infrastructure investments.

Asset monitoring is increasingly based on real-world data, helping to make assets safer and optimise their performance. The Queensferry Crossing bridge, for example, uses data from over 1,000 sensors to monitor weather and motion in real time and identify performance issues before they become problems. Data-driven design and new construction methods will deliver higher quality assets, giving communities more efficient and safer infrastructure, faster. We are moving towards life-cycle thinking – from planning, to asset management, and re-use of assets. This has the potential to support a more equitable, sustainable future for the built environment.

Arup’s ambition is to help shape a broader industry forum to capitalise on potential we see data having in improving people’s experience of cities and the built environment. We want to capture and share best practice, success stories and lessons learned. We view the ODI as an excellent place to begin these discussions.

Through our partnership with the ODI, we hope to map out both the strategic vision and narrative for a data-driven built environment, address barriers such as lack of adequate leadership, knowledge and skills gaps, and design practices for data management and governance in the industry. We would like to extend the invitation to engage with this discussion to help shape a data-driven built environment and create meaningful commercial and social value.

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Arup is a Gold sponsor of the ODI Summit 2019, the ODI’s flagship event exploring data’s impact – both positive and negative. Book your place here