The Australian construction sector must transform and seize the sustainability and productivity benefits offered by the digital economy, argues Gavin Cotterill.

There has never been a more urgent need to transform the way we inhabit our planet.

Whether we look at it through the lens of climate change, population growth, migration, urbanisation, sustainability or use of natural resources – it is clear that our current trajectory is unsustainable and implications unpalatable.

Australian governments (federal and state) face multiple challenges with the impact of urbanisation, population growth and the need to boost global competitiveness. Australia faces problems from poor productivity, housing affordability, access to local jobs and the protection of our natural environment, while increasing urban congestion threatens to place spiralling strain on our healthcare and education services.

Creating a world class construction and social services capability to meet these challenges is critical to our future success. Investing in the right infrastructure to underpin this capability remains at the heart of solutions.

The time has come for the Australian construction sector to reform by seizing the opportunities offered by the digital economy. Our cities and assets are becoming ever more complex, the demands on finite resources more challenging and the need to look overseas for growth and opportunity has never been more pressing.

Rethinking the way Australia’s built environment is planned, built and managed is critical to our future. We must create a new joined up approach that aligns our digital initiatives through smart cities, Internet of Things (IoT) and building information modelling (BIM) to seamlessly manage investment across the whole life of our infrastructure.

But to meet this aspiration, Australia’s traditional construction sector must change. We need to rethink the way our built environment is planned, constructed and managed. The emergence of a digitally enhanced, knowledge-based economy places new demands on our cities and built environment. We need a new approach if we are to take full advantage of tomorrow’s economic opportunities.

The question now is how to achieve this new approach. How do we gain maximum value from this planned investment and ensure that this new wave of assets truly delivers on their promise to kick start and support the economy? How do we ensure that what we design and construct today doesn’t unnecessarily add to the long-term management and maintenance burden tomorrow?

The solution lies, in part, with reform of both national and state policies to set out a new plan to transform traditional practices, help increase productivity in government construction, provide smarter procurement, deliver fairer payment, improve digital skills, reduce carbon emissions and increase client capability.

Such policy reform would see the sector embrace the fledgling but rapidly accelerating world of digital data as a way to fundamentally transform the long-term value seen from public investment. At a stroke this could start to provide better social outcomes for citizens.

The UK government’s Digital Built Britain program, brings together BIM, IoT and smart cities as a single strategy to help deliver reductions in whole-life costs and carbon emissions, while improving productivity and capacity.

The experience gained so far through combining the use of intelligent building information models, sensing technology, secure data and information infrastructure can provide important lessons to support the Australian government as it embarks on a similar journey.

While the Australian construction sector has also made a very strong start down this path with the widespread adoption of BIM, 3D design and digitised manufacturing and fabrication techniques, we still see BIM as a geometry discussion, not a data discussion. For many good reasons our efforts have been to use technology to improve existing ways of working rather than creating new ones.

This has to change. With the recent publication of the Australian “SMART Cities” plan setting out a vision for developing the nation’s cities around three pillars of smart investment, smart policy and smart technology, we need to align our digital initiatives.

Now is surely the moment to take what we’ve learnt and put it into practice by adding BIM to one of the three ongoing government backed Smart Cities pilot projects to measure, test and demonstrate the value of integrating BIM.

There is a window of opportunity to create a Digital Built Australia program as a centre of excellence that can carve out a national leadership role aligning smart cities service provision, IoT and BIM. It is an opportunity we must grasp.

With this leadership, we can redefine the traditional construction industry with a joined-up approach to BIM, IoT and smart cities through policy and procurement. It will be an industry that helps meet the social and economic challenges faced by the Australian government and its cities, and that works with asset owners and operators to boost performance across the planning, construction and operation of assets.

Gavin Cotterill is consulting director – Asia Pacific at digital built environment and bidding services company PCSG.

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  1. Agree. The CRC for Low Carbon Living is developing a PIM (Precinct Information Model) capable of upscaling to urban scale. It takes the BIM idea much further.