Professor Guthrie: “Data revolution is existential threat to existing operators”

Peter Guthrie

As new research suggests the biggest data revolutions are yet to come, we speak to Peter Guthrie (PG), vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Professor of Engineering for Sustainable Development at the University of Cambridge, about what that means for infrastructure.

IG: The new State of the World research report from FIDIC suggests the infrastructure industry, and particularly engineering firms, need to embrace an even greater data revolution in the years ahead. So how big a change are we facing?  

PG: “This report has the potential to be one of the most significant for member associations of FIDIC, and for the member firms of those associations. The rise of the role of digital data, and of technology advances in a single generation have the potential to transform the delivery of infrastructure services over the coming twenty years. The report rightly identifies the changes that are happening in the infrastructure sector now and presages the potential for the management of data to dominate the service delivery in future.”

“If infrastructure companies do not move quickly, then organisations whose basis is data management will more readily add engineering expertise in infrastructure” Professor Peter Guthrie

IG: In many ways the extent of data available has already exceed the ability of individuals to analyse it comprehensively. So how will industry adapt as it grows further?

PG: “Change in an industry is always painful, as the experience and expertise that has been successful in the past is challenged by the need for new and different skills and cultures in future. The report uses some elegant examples of this from wider technology sectors and the lessons for infrastructure are clear. If data can, through appropriate handling and assembly, be the dominant feature of changing the way in which infrastructure is provided to society, organisations built up on engineering skills and knowledge will need to reorient their whole positioning to embrace the new order.”

IG: The industry is being asked to solve unprecedented global problems right now – most notably climate change. Can it avoid distraction from that task, while also reorienting towards data capabilities?  

PG: “Whilst previous reports have addressed the critical issues for society around infrastructure, and how engineers can respond, this report looks to the challenges for the industry itself in providing what society needs from infrastructure. This FIDIC report tackles the issues openly and on the basis of the evidence available and it raises in the mind of the reader the whole question of what it is to be an engineer in a world faced with the global challenges of technology transformation, and the overwhelming threat of climate change.”  

IG: What happens if we don’t as an industry, don’t address that question?

PG: “If infrastructure companies do not move quickly, then organisations whose basis is data management will more readily add engineering expertise in infrastructure to their portfolio to dominate the sector. The threat to all current operators in infrastructure is existential.”

You can read the full FIDIC State of the World report here.