It’s time to change . . . by shaping digital

Wind farm

In the third of a series of blogs, Malcolm Taylor, Crossrail International’s Expert Adviser, Digital, discusses the role that digital transformation can play in doing things differently in infrastructure design as we adapt to the challenges of achieving Net Zero carbon by 2050 …


The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) recently launched a specially commissioned film – Shaping Zero. Featuring ICE President Rachel Skinner and a cast of famous faces arguing passionately for the urgent need to act on climate change, it makes for compelling viewing.

With 70% of global carbon emissions related to infrastructure, we need to work together to halve emission over the next decade. It’s time to embrace new ways of doing things. So, how do we make the best decisions when we want our project to be an exemplar in Net Zero and Sustainability?

To answer this question properly, we need to spend a moment setting the scene to understand the project life cycle in a digital world. In planning our buildings for commercial office, public, retail and residential use, we use digital tools to ensure we make the best decisions about space. In designing our buildings, we use similar tools to change the geometrical logic and aesthetic shape to create the desired visual impact. We use three-dimensional (3D) models and analytics to optimise natural ventilation, natural lighting and shading, solar radiation, wastewater and use of green materials. Multi-dimensional digital models (including BIM) really do provide an opportunity for efficient, multi-disciplinary project coordination in accordance with the best principles of green design.

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However, as we proceed along the buildings and infrastructure project life cycle into operations, maintenance and facilities management (FM), we find that things are not so well joined up. Sustainability and corporate social responsibility are significant factors in determining business goals and performance. The triple bottom line of social, environmental and economic benefits requires more things to be considered and analysed to make sure FM organisations meet their goals. In terms of decision-making to meet regulatory and sustainable targets, there is a large diversity of data types and sources that need to be brought together so that the right conclusions are made.

To make the best decisions we need to manage, organise and use our data and information in the most effective way possible, ensuring it is appropriately accurate, consistent, timely and unique. Stand-alone organisations usually do this well by customising their approach to data management to suit their specific business practices and goals. But projects that have groups of organisations – and, in particular, programmes of projects – traditionally don’t do this well. They end up with each company creating and managing data in their bespoke way and then distributing it to others without any commonality of shape or format. The recipients then need to use more resource to make it useable in their system. This is all very inefficient, prone to mistakes, and often goes on in the background because doing things differently is seen as somebody else’s problem!

Over the last 10 years, the concept of a digital Common Data Environment (CDE) for storing and managing project data has been successfully expounded by BIM enthusiasts for design and construction. CDEs can take many forms and naturally each software vendor believes theirs to be the best. Basically, CDEs are simply relational databases within a wrapping of workflows. The workflows are really important as they are the project processes and activities that create and manage the data that gets stored in the database. (BIM models are still wrongly regarded by many as only 3D spatial models!)

The beauty of storing all data in a centralised database is that it can all be linked together to form relationships based on simple breakdown structures. Data can be stored in a breakdown structure that matches an asset hierarchy – for example, a ‘Facility/System/Asset’ could be ‘Bond St Station/ventilation/fan’. The relational database then allows documents, drawings, photos, spreadsheets, etc. to be stored at whatever level is needed against the facility, the system or the asset itself.

With this established, it is easy to interrogate the database – for example, finding assets by function, location or classification. We can also link asset information directly to functional requirements or to planning consents, to give a powerful assurance audit trail to easily verify that what has been built meets requirements. The information needed for decision making is then comprehensive, easy to access and from a single source of truth, i.e. the CDE.

Well-structured project data not only helps to make better informed decisions about Net Zero design and sustainability, but also helps towards reduced operational costs and transparency for regulatory confidence. Treating project data as a valuable asset to be cared for and managed well – like people and equipment – also gives potential investors confidence for the long haul.

To do this effectively, projects need to establish digital direction and data DNA requirements early. And for this to be successful, you will need a Digital Strategy … or you will miss the chance to make your project an exemplar. The longer you put it off, the more it will cost.

So, “what are you going to do?”

Malcolm Taylor

Malcolm Taylor

Expert Adviser, Digital

For more information, contact Malcolm Taylor at

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