Graham Pontin:  Embrace data or lose out to those who do

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Head of economic and strategic policy at international infrastructure body FIDIC, writes for Infrastructure Global about the stark choice industry faces as he launches his new research paper on digital disruption.

The data revolution has barely begun and its role in infrastructure has the potential to drive dramatic improvements in every aspect of delivery and management of assets – from the earliest stages of assessing feasibility or funding, right through to eventual decommissioning.

The challenge is therefore who takes up the challenge of applying ever-expanding data well, and how to go about it. For the industry in its present shape, this is something that needs to be addressed now because it is increasingly clear that the consequences of not doing so would be severe.

Three approaches available to data
The industry has three approaches available in its approach to data. These are:

  • Embrace data and technology within existing firms but also allow innovation from new entrants where innovative ideas and services improve customer/client outcomes. This maximises the potential for success in the new competitive data landscape.
  • Continue with the more traditional approach of proprietary data. Whilst there are learnings to be drawn from that, the sector would not then be taking advantage of the sum of its expertise and data and technology. 
  • Wait for disruptors to enter the market due to insufficient innovation and adaption of technology. This would potentially reduce the role of engineers within the delivery of infrastructure using its data/technology assets.

While some companies will take divergent views on how best to achieve their ambitions, it is unlikely that engineering consultancies, surveyors and other specialists will want to be somewhat replaced by data and technology companies as the key sectors for delivering and managing infrastructure.

What type of organisation will you be?
Each company in the industry will likely fall broadly into one of three categories:

  • Full data structured organisations are companies that integrate data, machine learning and the outcomes from data transformation into their activities. These companies are likely to increasingly resemble a data company as the data provision between sectors, corporate entities etc, expands.   
  • Those still aiming to be a data structured organisation are companies that have gone through the process of understanding what they have and where they need to be. This transition may take time and may involve growing, being acquired or even acquiring the relevant skills, data management techniques or even data access to ensure they can compete going forward.  
  • Extinct structured organisations tare organisations fail to recognise change and the increasing importance of data in day-to-day operations, potentially leading to their cost base being too high and ultimately their business model failing.  

Collective response is important
If we want to ensure industry is equipped to respond to this challenge, it is important to recognise that this is not an entirely company-by-company approach. The successful use of data can be heavily dependent on collective adoption and application of that data in the delivery and management of assets.

As a result, my research identifies some collective actions needed now, to help industry prepare and adapt. These are:

  1. Research should be commissioned on providing a wider and more strategic view of what the sector will look like in five, ten and 20 years’ time. This work should include and consider the technology and data discussions and findings in this report. We propose that the Global Leadership Forum undertake this work.
  2. FIDIC itself should develop a template to aid its member associations (MAs) and engineering firms to put in place structures which help them manage their communications on this issue – providing templates for both internal and external strategies.   
  3. A long-term industry digital Committee should be created to monitor and aid the sector in meeting the challenges of meeting the SDGs and net zero in the light of the technological and data changes that will need to be embraced and progressively and proactively embedded into everyday operations and designs. FIDIC has begun this process recently.
  4. A task group should be formed to deliver a digital version for all FIDIC contracts by working with industry partners and education establishments, to help support the digitisation and data-adoption of the industry.

Graham Pontin has authored “Digital disruption and the evolution of the infrastructure sector”. You can read the full FIDIC State of the World report here.