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Last edited 22 Oct 2020
The impact of digital on civil engineering
If digital is going to transform the civil engineering industry then just how is it going to look in 5,10 or 20 years? ICE’s Ben McAlinden discusses our Digital Transformation campaign, previews ICE’s Shaping A Digital World conference and lists the key digital developments so far.
- What behaviours are needed to facilitate digital transformation and from whom?
- Is the technology moving too fast, leaving engineers’ skillsets behind?
- What new skills are needed to work with automated decision-making?
- How should we drive innovation through to get full impact?
- How can technology itself offer new solutions, for example avoiding hitting pipes when digging up roads?
 Defining new digital technologies
Two stand-out areas where digital is changing the way we work are collaboration and information management. Emergent new technologies are redefining engineering practice and in turn the behaviours and skills that make up the engineer’s profile.
BIM Level 2 has reached early adopters but not yet filtered down the entire supply chain. BIM unlocks the true value of the data asset but attitudes and experiences vary. An innovative, collaborative, information-focused mindset is important for realising full benefits.
For more information, see BIM articles.
Augmented reality offers a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment where elements are augmented (or supplemented) by virtual computer-generated sensory input (sound, video, graphics or GPS data). Users can visualise site limitations, detect clashes, and overlay time (from 4D-BIM platforms) and cost information (from 5D-BIM platforms) to experience a real time dry run of a project before real construction begins.
A mix of reality and virtual reality. For example, using AR and video chat to teleconference live with someone in another country to both explore and discuss a hard-to-access place (e.g. a sub-sea tunnel), with information overlaid on your view.
 Mobile technology
AI is becoming increasingly relevant to engineering, especially machine learning i.e. algorithms that, through a set of training data, allow computer programs to learn something they were not explicitly programmed for. AI is often based on artificial neural networks (ANNs), which are modelled on the neurons in the human brain and consist of a network of nodes (analogous to neurons) connected with varying degrees of correlation (analogous to synapses).
As this mass emergence of new technology takes place we shouldn’t lose sight of the role of people –the engineers and professionals who work in our core world and increasingly, beyond it. Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between the benefits of automated decision-making, standardised design and human expertise.
As our engineering environment evolves it’s crucial that humans adapt too. As Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
In an engineering context this means that our behaviours and skills need to evolve to continue to find new and ingenious solutions to engineering challenges. There’s been much debate about future skills while behaviours are perhaps less considered. So what are the skills and behaviours that can facilitate the transformation to digital? Here are some:
Strong, aligned leadership is crucial for enacting organisational change to facilitate uptake of digital. This may include linking business objectives to the right digital solutions, developing culture change within the organisation and forward planning to secure new skills.
Digital allows us to work together in a host of new ways throughout planning, design, construction and operation. It can also enable better integration with supply chains and more efficient procurement processes. An open approach to sharing is important for realising full benefits and developing a collaborative culture within organisations and communities.
‘Big data’ is upon us but the next trick is turning this into ‘useful data’ – interpreting and using data to make decisions that maximise asset performance. Data analysis is becoming a core civil engineering discipline but also a skillset we may need to supplement from outside of our traditional spheres.
True innovation often comes from deep within the supply chain or organisation. Practitioners should be empowered to commit time and resource to exploring new approaches and leaders have a role to play to help us move away from a risk averse culture.
Digitally enabled infrastructure can deliver many benefits but also creates new security vulnerabilities. Security-minded behaviour should be mainstreamed within industry with the onus on every individual as well as the board.
ICE's 2017 State of the Nation: Digital Transformation report set out key actions for industry on the topic of behaviours and skills for digital (as well as on how digital can boost productivity and how to operate securely in a digital world).
ICE's follow up knowledge campaign delves deeper into those recommendations to support practitioners and help drive change through industry. The event and content programme will feature the latest expert views from both inside and outside of our industry.
"Civil engineers will need to understand digital tools – whether that’s surveying tools, BIM tools, planning tools, virtual reality, or the associated control systems that support the civil engineering. Understanding how they all come together as a system to solve a problem is the most important thing."
Susan Bowen, Vice President and General Manager EMEA, Cogeco Peer 1:
"Organisations have to be thinking about the breadth and scale of the talent that they draw upon and nurture to fill different roles. The diverse challenges that businesses are faced with require insight, perspectives and qualities that don’t all come from the same traditional background.”
Mat Kellett, Mobile Mapping, UAV & OEM Sales Manager, Topcon:
"Civil engineers should always be ready to reinvent themselves as there’s always people out there that will do it faster and quicker. Make sure you keep up to date.”
This article was originally published here on 31 July 2017 by ICE. It was written by Ben McAlinden.
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