The influence of digital technologies on conservation
The regional diversity of the built heritage across the UK is considerable, with a multiplicity of materials, building techniques and styles. This complexity is further compounded by the fact that many pre-1919 buildings have been frequently adjusted and altered to accommodate different needs and requirements. The wide variation in architectural form and detail adds to the challenge of understanding the structures to make appropriate decisions about their future. There is diversity both externally and internally, whether it be in the masonry, internal plasterwork or the application of internal decoration. Thereby lies the challenge in the adoption of BIM (building information modelling) and associated digital developments.
The UK’s decision to move BIM Level 2 to an international standard goes back to the 2011 ‘Report for the Government Construction Client Group: BIM strategy paper’. While the report encouraged a greater adoption of BIM, it recognised that it would become disruptive and ‘game changing’ in the traditional ways of working. With the BIM process also crossing borders, a UK consensus emerged that such a globalisation would inevitably trigger the need for international norms and standards. This led to the creation of BS EN ISO 19650, with Parts 1 and 2 published in January 2019 .
BS EN ISO 19650 Part 1 outlines the concepts and principles and provides recommendations on how to manage building information. BS EN ISO 19650 Part 2 supplies information management requirements in the delivery phase of assets. It is for those involved in the procurement, design, construction and/or commissioning of both assets, and those involved in delivering asset management activities, including operations and maintenance.
With maintenance being identified in this way, there is a clear implication that ISO 19650 Part 2 should be appropriate for use in caring for the existing built heritage. It may be relevant to consider this within the context of ‘BS 7913:2013 Guide to the conservation of historic buildings’ when setting conservation policy, management strategy and procedures. But that link is still missing.
The UK construction industry contributes nearly £90 billion to the national economy (accounting for 6.7 per cent). It hires as many as 2.9 million workers, roughly 10 per cent of the workforce. Yet despite its clear importance to the UK (and indeed to the global economy, where it contributes $8.5 trillion a year), the industry has still to undergo any significant digitisation . The recent digitisation index from the McKinsey Global Institute nearly ranks the industry as the least digitised of all, sitting just above agriculture and hunting. Although it also recognises (June 2019) that the UK is one of Europe’s leaders in artificial intelligence, McKinsey argues that it needs to build upon its strengths and tackle its weaknesses .
The Interreg Europe report ‘Digital Solutions in the Field of Cultural Heritage: a policy brief from the policy landing platform on environment and resource efficiency’ (August 2018) suggests that the development and implementation of digitisation strategies for cultural heritage are a significant challenge. The report warns that a limited knowledge and understanding of digitisation benefits has led to a low level of uptake.
In a move to address this, the report states: ‘The objective of this policy brief is to describe the different opportunities created through digital technologies for the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage… and [to] present inspiring good practices stemming from the Interreg Europe projects... [where] the focus… is on cultural heritage.’
But the report also acknowledges that ‘At the same time, continuous disappearance of traditional skills and crafts which are part of the intangible cultural heritage is a key problem in the heritage sector.’
While recognising the loss of traditional skills and crafts, the report does not focus on how these emerging technologies can be beneficially integrated with the actual vocational craft training and educational requirements of the building conservation workplace. Instead, the perceived needs of the intangible, art, tourism and creative industries, civic regeneration, and the management, maintenance and preservation of digital cultural content predominate in the study.
Embracing digital technologies
An increasing variety of new devices and technologies emerging on the marketplace have the potential of bringing economic and productivity benefits. At the same time they are creating challenges for practitioners to keep pace with the changes, to future-proof emerging results and to keep adequate records.
The essence of time – the fourth dimension – is determining rapid change, while creating significant additional pressures to keep up to date. A bewildering new language of tasks and descriptions that individuals might embark on is emerging. Promoted job titles include algorithm engineer, machine learning expert, data scientist, analytical insight consultant and IT project manager. The question is how these new disciplines and their evolving knowledge might be integrated with the heritage sector’s needs, and its professions, technologists and vocational skills.
While the ‘Future Technologies Review’  offers insight into the evolving issues from the UK perspective, a broader appreciation of pending changes might be had from Gartner. The Gartner consultancy, which specialists in information and communication technologies (ICT), has predicted the arrival of some of the most eagerly-awaited innovations of the last decade. Detailing its ‘Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020’, it suggests that:
- The hyper-automation branch of robotics will automate business processes to make them more precise, more efficient and up to 10 times faster by combining technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence and machine learning.
- Multi-experience anticipates a future that offers virtual, augmented and mixed reality (VR, AR, MR) applications to transform ways of perceiving the digital world and interacting with it.
- The use of technology will be democratised, with people accessing technical and business experience without expensive requirements.
- Human perfection could be developed through technological trends involving the use of innovation to improve physical and cognitive abilities, from subcutaneous implants for greater access to information.
- With consumers demanding greater control over their personal data, transparency and traceability will be fundamental to meeting regulatory requirements, maintaining ethics in the use of technology and halting the increasing mistrust of companies.
- The edge-computing branch of IT will have a big impact on the internet of things by making it possible for data generated by devices to be processed locally, without the need to be uploaded to the cloud or sent to an external data centre.
- Hybrid clouds will involve the decentralisation of most cloud services, although the provider of the source public cloud will retain responsibility for the operation, control, updating and evolution of the services.
- Autonomy of things will develop as their acceptance grows, and as regulations and technological progress allows. There will be more autonomous vehicles, drones and robots on the streets.
- Blockchain will create the ability to undertake secure internet transactions without intermediaries, including smart contracts that can be used in urban management.
- The popularisation of artificial intelligence and machine learning will bring new challenges to information security through increased system vulnerability. This will make it essential to develop new technologies to strengthen cyber security.
- Will such an approach need to be guided by innovative conservation charters, conventions and legislation that might need to be recrafted with a greater digital emphasis?
- How will data scientists, technologists, innovators and others be professionally integrated alongside those with an understanding and analysis of heritage construction decay mechanisms and effects?
- How will conservation and digital processes that require access to traditional knowledge, skills and materials be integrated?
- What additional support training and supply needs will have to be developed to make the new approach work?
- How will GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), artificial intelligence, intellectual property rights and copyright matters be resolved alongside future-proofing heritage archival needs?
More detailed consideration is called for on how the new digital influences might be developed and impact on the conservation sector (and vice versa). It will be necessary to progress this in a spirit of mutual collaboration and understanding if the sector is not to be left in the dark.
This article originally appeared as ‘The new digital kids on the block’ in Context 166, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2020. It was written by Ingval Maxwell, a consultant at Conservation Architecture.