Going digital, for infrastructure resilience – Greg Bentley

Greg Bentley

Greg Bentley, CEO and chair of Bentley Systems, writes for Infrastructure Global about the momentum behind the industry’s digital transformation.

Having endured a two-year global pandemic, we should prioritise making the most of what we’ve learned in response to the vulnerabilities that we were not prepared to face. Acknowledging my software bias, I think that it can nonetheless objectively be said that “going digital” has turned out to be the saving grace. It enabled large sections of the economy to continue, and even gain new momentum, when no one on earth could go into their office buildings.

Covid created unexpected momentum
By helping improve the general resilience of infrastructure, the momentum in going digital is a much-needed silver lining for the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, as we move forward, the opportunity is to institutionalise going digital not only within our organisations, but also toward ‘future-proofing’ our world’s assets with respect to economic and environmental dependencies.

Because many of us were working from home, going digital enabled ‘virtualising’ infrastructure engineering and the related professions, making it easier for us to connect. Now, any practitioner can work on infrastructure projects from anywhere (else), with anyone. This practice has permanently increased opportunities, enabling a broader reach of organisations and a faster profusion of innovations.

“since pandemic restrictions prevented our users from physically visiting sites, they instead applied drones and associated surveying innovations with reality modelling software”

Most infrastructure engineering organisations, having surmounted challenges not previously imagined, have grown their scope and profits over the course of the pandemic. With the help of going digital, they have proved and improved their own resilience and are consequently more future-proof. Therefore, our priority must be to accelerate going digital so that when it becomes impossible to increase the infrastructure engineering workforce, infrastructure engineers can increase their productivity and thus their workload to meet the growing global demand. We are confident that as we see the newly committed funding around the world, we will also see this demand for infrastructure improvements.

Digital twins and the infrastructure impact
The pandemic has spawned new patterns of work and life, which have substantially disrupted the requirements for infrastructure’s fitness for purpose. More broadly, people working in infrastructure are more determined than ever to actively achieve and sustain the adaptation that is needed for overall economic and environmental resilience. 

The daunting cost of new infrastructure capacity means that it can be effective only at the margins, so it is a priority to extend the useful life of infrastructure assets, as well as ensure that they are meeting any energy transition requirements while helping combat climate threats. Just in time to meet these challenges, further benefits of going digital are here and accelerating, with infrastructure digital twin advancements gaining adoption.

Bentley Systems (BSY)’s Year in Infrastructure 2021 (virtual) conference highlighted this momentum, with the Going Digital Awards reflecting independent juries’ assessments of the nearly 300 infrastructure projects nominated by BSY users globally. 

The 2021 Infrastructure Yearbook presents all the nominations, finalists, winners, and founders’ honourees. It provides an informative, encouraging perspective on advancements toward infrastructure resilience, which are underway due to ongoing, pandemic-spurred inflections. 

For example, infrastructure digital twins require each of the following to be federated together in cloud services: 

  • digital context, for reality (reflecting “OT” via operational technologies),
  • digital components, for veracity (leveraging “ET” from engineering technologies), and
  • digital chronology, for fidelity (by virtue of “IT” comprising information technologies).

While achieving these digital twin thresholds, we have observed significant and auspicious progress during the pandemic.

Digital context and real-world application
For an infrastructure digital twin, it is essential to first capture and then continuously maintain an asset or project’s digital context, which is its 3D-surveyed reality. For example, since pandemic restrictions prevented our users from physically visiting sites, they instead applied drones and associated surveying innovations with reality modelling software to support increasingly autonomous inspections. At BSY, we observed significant related milestones:

  • 36% of the (57) 2021 Going Digital Award finalist projects credit reality modelling;
  • AEC advisors’ inaugural Going Digital survey of AEC firms’ CEOs in October 2021 indicated that more than half have invested in and are offering UAV surveying services;
  • with Collins Engineering and the Minnesota DoT, Microsoft (North America) recognised BSY as the Mixed Reality Partner of the Year, for UAV-based bridge inspection workflows;
  • BSY acquired Seequent, the global leader in subsurface digital twins, to further integrate the geosciences with infrastructure engineering; and
  • BSY inaugurated infrastructure IoT for environmental monitoring, with the acquisitions of sensemetrics and Vista Data Vision.

Digital components, improved modelling, and machine learning
The veracity and value of infrastructure digital twins results from their semantic federation with the asset’s engineering technologies’ intelligence. The pandemic accelerated these needs and responsive innovations, as in these examples:

  • in keeping up with unprecedented demand for bandwidth for going digital, and in anticipation of widespread 5G rollout, communications tower owner-operators have led the way among infrastructure owners. They have not only endorsed, but also demanded infrastructure digital twins, which robustly incorporate digital components. Bridging from reality modelling to digital twins, BSY’s OpenTower iQ cloud service applies machine learning workflows to recognise and classify each tower’s as-operated equipment inventory by referencing carriers’ digital catalogs. The physically and functionally aligned digital components then directly populate extensive structural and schematic simulations to assess the tower’s further capacity and to optimise its maintenance. I believe that this continued steep learning curve, being proven for the case of communications towers digital twins, will ultimately benefit the resilience of all infrastructure assets; 
  • during the pandemic, we began using our infrastructure differently. For example, we have seen new advancements in modelling and simulation within mobility digital twins. BSY’s LEGION pedestrian simulation software has been enhanced to model parameterised social distancing behaviours, and applications of BSY’s CUBE, EMME, and DYNAMEQ traffic simulation software have been extended in anticipation of a future forced shutdown as a result of another global pandemic. With major transportation infrastructure investment programs now growing, pandemic learnings have accelerated the feasibility and preference for further scaling simulations based on the dynamic multi-modal mobility decisions of travellers (among digital components) as independent individual “agents,” rather than relying only on static aggregate assumptions; and
  • as “build back better” initiatives are prioritising climate resilience through renewable energy sourcing, engineering modelling and simulation software is being integrated in new combinations around novel digital components. For example, BSY’s OpenWindPower design application incorporates our PLAXIS geotechnical functionality for fixed offshore wind farms, but also our SACS and MOSES offshore wave modelling for floating offshore wind farms. BSY’s newly acquired Power Line Systems power transmission engineering software will be incorporated for the grid integration, which is otherwise the bottleneck impeding progress toward green energy.

“Digital twins must synchronise changes in both their digital context and digital components. Their usefulness is then multiplied by logging and even extrapolating these changes.”

Digital chronology and 4D visibility
To maintain fidelity over the asset lifecycle, infrastructure digital twins must synchronise changes in both their digital context and digital components. Their usefulness is then multiplied by logging and even extrapolating these changes. The pandemic has contributed to and has coincided with advancements in this “4D” visibility, as in these examples:  

  • restrictions in travel to project sites, and on proximity within project sites has accelerated “constructioneering,” enhancing 3D BIM for construction sequencing and scheduling. The emerging opportunity for “industrialising” construction will necessitate 4D simulation of the interfaces and assembly of modules manufactured offsite. So far, BSY’s SYNCHRO for 4D construction modelling was credited by 28% of Going Digital Award finalists, and led BSY’s new business growth in 2021; and
  • new and broadly accessible 3D visualisation environments (expedited by investments for consumers to experience the “metaverse”) will quickly improve the “last mile” technology for navigating digital twins in an immersive environment. This practice has led to new demands for integration with BSY’s iTwin platform to uniquely enable 4D infrastructure digital twins. Such integration has been illustrated in NVIDIA’s main-stage demonstrations of its Omniverse environment to visualise SYNCHRO 4D construction modelling.

These first-hand examples show what we’ve recently learned—from going digital for pandemic resilience—will serve us well over the longer term, through digital twins, in the imperative for sustaining infrastructure resilience.