Fast-tracking the industry’s digital transformation journey

There has never been a better chance to build confidence in digital technology’s ability to transform ways of working, says Arup’s Rob Greig.

Joining Arup and the built environment sector three years ago feels like a lifetime ago after the last three months. Like many, I was attracted to Arup by its values and commitment to improving our world. As an organisation we have a strong history of digital innovation, going back to our first mainframe computer in the 1960s. However, when I joined, we faced all-too-familiar challenges. 

The built environment sector has been one of the last to transform because it has needed to rely on design and engineering tools derived from the technologies of the 1990s and early 2000s. The challenges posed by legacy systems and subsequent technical debt are many and varying. 

They can be more significant in this sector because part of managing risk on large infrastructure projects involves following tried and tested methods or known algorithms and solvers. This has made the introduction of new technology at scale challenging. Though, that is not to say we weren’t already doing some brilliant digital projects, for example the IOT work on the Queensferry Crossing and using AI and machine learning to rapidly produce an urban drainage masterplan to help with flooding in Shanghai. Nevertheless, there have still been significant barriers to overcome before we realise the full potential of digital transformation.  

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The opportunity has been two-fold. Firstly, to accelerate agile working capabilities to enable remote working across the company and, secondly, a chance to transition crucial legacy engineering software to the cloud. Little did anyone know that the catalyst for accelerating progress would be a global pandemic.   

Agile Working 

Covid-19 has put huge pressure on IT departments globally due to the major shift towards more agile working. Previously we needed access to our offices because we relied on a core set of engineering tools that lend themselves to on-premises, desktop-type work. The migration of this software to the cloud offers seemingly unlimited computing power for our engineers using virtual desktop technologies, regardless of what device they are using. 

Cloud technology is nothing new, and many in the AEC sector have a cloud presence; Bentley’s Project Wise or Autodesk’s BIM360 spring to mind. However, until recently we had not seen it used at scale in our industry. The pandemic took our thinking around this from opportunity to necessity, accelerating our deployment of transition plans – in Arup’s case by as much as a year.

"I won't pretend that speeding up our rollouts hasn't carried risks that our teams have had to manage, but the opportunities that have been presented have far outweighed them, delivering collaborative working on an unprecedented scale."

I won’t pretend that speeding up our rollouts hasn’t carried risks that our teams have had to manage, but the opportunities that have been presented have far outweighed them. Our ability to meet and stay connected with our clients remains with meetings now happening over Microsoft Teams. Concern over storing and sharing documents in the cloud has given way to collaborative working on an unprecedented scale.  

Importantly, the pandemic and its subsequent impact happened to the whole sector at the same time. With the industry having no choice but to take a technological leap forward together, we should all be hopeful of reduced collaborative friction across the sector as a result of our newfound agility. 

New appetite for digital solutions  

Coronavirus and the resulting lockdown has meant that our sector has been forced to adopt new, innovative ways of working. I believe it has opened our eyes to the endless possibilities of digital.  

One such example is remote asset inspection which involves the use of drones and dedicated software to provide a safe alternative for maintaining critical assets and infrastructure. Another is the excellent work by the team behind MassMotion, our pedestrian simulation tool, to release new features that will help clients to understand and test physical distancing scenarios in the post-Covid-19 world. This has developed in ways we could never have imagined before this crisis. We know that we cannot return to the old ways of working; these changes, successfully managed, will give us and our clients confidence in our ability to thrive in an uncertain future.  

The opportunity  

Covid-19 has demonstrated our ability to transform at a faster rate than we ever imagined. The pandemic has disrupted our lives but in a way that made this change possible. Huge opportunities are being presented for every part of the tech sector to support the built environment.  

For CIOs there has never been a better chance to build confidence in digital technology’s ability to transform ways of working, both for our client’s organisations and the firms within the sector delivering services to them. It is down to CIOs and other digital leaders to be advocates for digital by default, to make the case for change to stakeholders and leadership teams, to help transform and to promote a new, faster pace of delivery.  

Rob Greig is the chief information officer at Arup.