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Data science is often focused on social, financial or manufacturing processes — but what about construction?
As social media and e-commerce giants capture the headlines, a less publicised but possibly more impactful digital evolution has been shaping the construction industry. After two decades of change, the sector is now entering its next phase, and the impact might reach beyond roads and bridges. Digital construction technologies could well shape and preserve the mother of all ecosystems: Earth itself.
Phase 1: Connecting people to the construction ecosystem (2000-2010)
By 2000, civil and structural engineers were already using computer-aided design (CAD) models. The launch of AutoCAD 2000i in July 2000, however, represented a turning point. Leveraging internet-enabled features, the global community began collaborating at a growing scale and speed. You could now develop digital representations of actual or future infrastructures in the cloud and share them. However, updates to the models still required human intervention.
Phase 2: Connecting objects to the construction ecosystem (2010-2020)
In 2010, the Chinese government made the Internet of Things (IoT) a strategic priority in their five-year plan, and by 2011, Gartner, a leading technological research and consulting firm, added IoT to the infamous hype cycle. Objects such as excavators, trucks and conveyor belts were being fitted with affordable sensors that automatically updated their digital representations with temperature, pressure and humidity — thus adding more-frequent and more-diverse data points. Sophisticated algorithms emerged that “listened” to these connected objects, analysing billions of data points to predict failure or enable automation. Today, many pieces of construction equipment have become fully connected “talking machines” that deliver remote diagnosis. And yet, the dirt they move continues to be silent. The same applies to oceans, mountains and forests — none of which you can connect to sensors. So, the next frontier is making nature itself machine-readable.
Phase 3: Connecting the planet to the construction ecosystem (2020+)
Technologies that use methods as old as maritime triangulation have found their way into lasers, LiDARs and radars. These devices can literally “see” their environment, giving geospatial awareness not only of their own position but of everything in their sight. They can efficiently digitise and monitor not just streets and tunnels but entire landscapes. Their condition can be mapped against the past or intended future. Initially, this will allow excavators to dig straighter, faster holes.
In the long term, these connected digitised ecosystems will allow us to analyse large-scale, slow changes in our physical environment. Algorithms will identify underlying patterns of system interaction.
No free lunch
One can now imagine interconnected ecosystems that optimise the complex interplay of people, products and precious resources. Such a system could, for example, help guide decisions on whether to refurbish a bridge, build a new one or substitute it for a tunnel. It could create a decision landscape with different optima that vary depending on social, financial or environmental preferences. It could quantify a project’s financial costs so it becomes more sustainable or calculate the infrastructure savings related to a healthier rainforest. But even the most sophisticated framework will require tremendous judgment. Political stakeholders will still claim to have the best ideas, but trade-offs will become more transparent and subject to scrutiny. And this transparency might just be enough for a better future, because given the long-term, multigenerational effects of infrastructure development, even small trade-offs can have a big impact.