by Thomas Hyde, Chief Technical Officer, Beca and Tim Mumford, Director Digital and Innovation Transport and Infrastructure, Beca

‘Safety is everyone’s responsibility’ and ‘everyone goes home safe’ were phrases first promulgated in the 90’s. It was these phrases that got people focused on safety. This safety ethos transgressed the industry: from field, to site, to our offices, and all the way to the board room.

It extended beyond individuals to our friends, peers and colleagues. Now, everyone is empowered to stop the job if they feel it is unsafe, and the CEO and the board are measured on all aspects of safety.

While there is still a way to go, safety outcomes in the industry over the past two decades have never been better. Since the 2000’s, the number of serious injuries resulting in a claim has dropped by more than 31 per cent.*

While there are many factors for this decline, credit should be given to the safety industry’s approach to personal and professional responsibility. Credit should be given to all of us for embracing this in our daily tasks and activities and creating the change we need to see.

This approach – the personification of responsibility – could be applied to other aspects of our industry that urgently need transformation; mental health, culture, sustainability, capability and capacity, net zero, market risk, and the uptake of digital and innovation.

These aspects underpin the productivity and sustainability of our industry, the wellbeing and prosperity of our country, and the infrastructure that serves us and our children. It also supports our own personal futures.

Our current approach to digital

The uptake and consistent use of digital and innovation in the infrastructure sector needs immediate focus. Over the past 30 years, the industry has become 25 per cent less productive compared to other Australian sectors such as mining, manufacturing, retail and transport.

A key catalyst of his declining productivity can be directly correlated to our uptake of digital and innovation. Our sector has one of the slowest adoption rates of technology, innovation and digitally supported ways of  working.

As of 2022, we are the least digitised sector in Australia. Businesses in our industry are one of the least likely to invest in innovation. The reasons for our low maturity and uptake are difficult to pin down, but could be a mix of culture, how we’re structured, and our general approach and attitude.

It is fair to say that our current approach to innovation and digital is reactive. Innovation and digital is often applied as a ‘one off’ – pushed in a single contract and not across the project lifecycle.  If it is adopted, it’s perceived as a ‘nice to have’ – a ‘flair’ to the project, rather than a key component that underpins the project’s very existence.

The adoption and promotion of digital and innovation, even tools and processes that are widely accepted to add value, are often left to ‘digital specialists’ who speak another language reserved for a select few: metadata, parameter sets, level of information, common-data environments, foundation classes, scripts, asset classification systems.

Anyone that doesn’t speak the language or have the remit is focused on delivering the physical project scope as we have done so for the past 50 years with paper-based drawings, one-off plans, lots of concrete, steel, asphalt, and even more person-hours.

While it’s critical to retain and empower our digital and innovation experts, it should not preclude our own personal responsibilities as engineers, architects, designers, commissioners, operators, and site-based professionals, to look for greater efficiencies brought by digital and innovation.

There are simple things we can do in our day-to-day to advance the industry, such as:

♦ Consider what tasks and activities you perform daily – which of these can be automated or optimised?

♦ Understand where you get your information from, and how it could be specified by you and delivered to you in a more efficient manner

♦ Understand what value you add and how you deliver that value. Could you provide efficiencies to individuals downstream of you by changing how you work or what you handover?

♦ Learn a coding language. There are more simple visual scripting interfaces which could be a good first start

♦ Try new technologies or products. While they may be more difficult to use than what you’re used to, it’s probable they will create greater efficiencies or quality

♦ Spend time with your resident digital expert and seek their advice on how to make your life easier.

By moving towards a personal accountability model when it comes to digital and innovation, there are individual and industry-wide benefits, including:

♦ Reducing our more ‘mundane’ and ‘least enjoyable’ tasks therefore increasing our enjoyment and job satisfaction

♦ Creating efficiencies and reducing waste – ultimately resulting in more infrastructure for less

♦ Delivering the same infrastructure both quicker and cheaper by re-using designs, automating tedious tasks, utilising digital to iterate towards the most fit-for- purpose solution, and ensuring information and data is not wasted by transferring from one party to the next without loss

♦ Reducing the likelihood of error or poor decisions that may arise from having a lack of the right information at the right time

♦ Improved assembly of information about our projects, assets, and portfolios leading to higher-quality decisions about the use, application, direction, and scope of infrastructure

♦ Enabling a step-change in productivity brought on by industrialisation, which includes, but is not limited to, modularisation, design for manufactured assembly, offsite construction, and long-term/bulk procurement arrangements.

By embracing digital and innovation we begin to reap benefits at a personal level: less time on menial/repetitive tasks, less stress, and working less unpaid overtime. Working smarter, not harder, means more time with the ones we love.

‘Digital by default’

Governments can accelerate this transition towards ‘digital by default’ through policy, capability and capacity, and better utilising their buying power and contracts. Governments can establish both digital asset and project requirements that prioritise data and information structure, re-use, and openness.

Contracts could be transitioned away from arms-length, hard dollar arrangements that include requirements for paper-based, vector-based, drawings of what is being delivered.

We should move towards three-dimensional models that geometrically mirror the asset. Information generated through the project lifecycle can be maintained in the most native and accessible format and re-issued to parties working on the asset in the future.

A greater emphasis and focus should be placed on generating structured data that can be re-used with confidence in the future. Digital experts have a role to play as well.

We can start with making the language more accessible and reducing the number of bespoke acronyms. A stricter focus should also be maintained on use-cases and value. Learning new skills, parlance, and approaches is personally taxing.

It is made more difficult by idiosyncrasies of our industry: compressed timelines and stressful work environments that do not readily accept failure. Employers and senior decision-makers across industry can increase the uptake by establishing an environment where individuals are allowed to learn and try new things.

This may be as simple as training or more complicated like reviewing workflows and actively seeking opportunities to digitise them. Looking ahead, our industry is coming to a crossroad.

While we generate so much economic and societal value – we are at risk of being left behind. Digital and innovation can help us respond to the elevated pipeline – delivering it as required, on time, on budget, safely. Failure to deliver the pipeline will erode our industry’s credibility and detracts from future investment.

While we’re making some progress in digital and innovation, acceleration is needed. We can, and should, look to other parts of our sector such as safety, and apply learnings that have created a step-change in culture, process, and attitude.

In health and safety, it’s very common to have toolbox meetings to share our observations, near misses and lessons learned. Maybe we could start to build this into our vernacular for digital and innovation.

Perhaps it’s time to start promoting sayings that propagate personal responsibility: ‘Digital is everyone’s responsibility’ and ‘digital by default. Perhaps there’s even a future where a job will be stopped because they issued a 2D drawing in PDF.

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