Engaging our conscience to explore the future

Dr Anne Kemp OBE, chair of UK BIM Alliance.

Mapping out a digital future requires construction professionals to exploring the decision-making processes says Dr Anne Kemp.

Data is key to securing smarter infrastructure capable of delivering better services to the people using it. A considered, safe, efficient, sustainable and inclusive built environment does more than deliver economic gains – it brings improved health benefits and greater societal wellbeing. 

Our current abundance of data offers a timely opportunity to digitally transform construction and infrastructure from a lagging sector to a world leading data-enabled dynamic industry. Such ambition is compelling, but should there be pause for thought and a call to our collective conscience as we conceive a digital future shaped by data-derived decisions? 

We have more data than we know what to do with, which is having a major impact on how we behave – individually, as organisations and as society. We are at a tipping point. Should we not challenge at a policy level and across disciplines what it is that we are creating for the next century and beyond? Two of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (2015) are to: “Build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation” and “Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.  

Critical thinking about smart cities needs a multidisciplinary and multi-faceted approach; engineers must come together with technologists, social scientists and economists to better understand the intricate socio-political context, challenge assumptions and capture diversity. We need communities of experts working together and taking account of each other’s perspectives, and we need to explore the context of our decision-making. 

We should think about where behaviours need to be changed and reflect on how technology could transform the way we live to enhance social equality, not simply reproduce existing discrimination. Is our future potential still limited by current prejudices, inbuilt assumptions, unconscious bias and flawed opinions (as seen in the slow response of the establishment to the 1854 cholera outbreak in London)?  Is leadership brave enough to think in an adaptive way?

Can we learn from the past to better shape the future? If there was one thing that should have woken us up it was Grenfell. The Hackitt Review provided a call to arms to secure a golden thread of information, a “digital record… to ensure that accurate building information is securely created, updated and accessible at points throughout the building life cycle,” sadly absent yet important to help avoid future tragedies.

How do we improve our thinking and test consensus of opinion so that we make better decisions, and avoid groupthink?

I am curious as to how we could deliver information which stimulates critical thinking, nudges our consciences and allows us to make better decisions. I am also concerned about the decisions which we should actively choose to remain within the domain of us as human beings as distinct to artificial intelligence (AI). I believe this is a real challenge – and one which must be faced if we are to avoid the unintended consequences of accepting data-ism and AI as the masters.

Dr Anne Kemp OBE is chair of UK BIM Alliance.