Interview: Keith Bentley - Life beyond BIM in the new age of innovation

For the last 30 years Bentley Systems founder and chief technology officer Keith Bentley has masterminded the infrastructure software firm's technical development as it navigates the accelerating digital revolution. 

Keith Bentley

Founder and chief technical officer Keith Bentley gives a rare interview with Antony Oliver

When Keith Bentley founded Bentley Systems 30 years ago his mission, he says, was simply to automate the creation of construction drawings. Even if they had thought bigger, he adds, the computing power available at the time wouldn’t have permitted anything much beyond this aim.

Since then, the ambition has certainly accelerated, with the firm now a driving force behind the Building Information Modelling (BIM) revolution. And with its latest Bentley Connect Edition release, it is pressing forward with new technology and ideas to put digital data at the heart of long term global infrastructure asset management.

As a founder of Bentley Systems and principal architect of the firm’ technology direction he remains a driving force in guiding the firm’s future strategy, taking BIM "from a software architecture to a business process".

Last week Bentley gave a rare keynote address at the firm’s annual Year in Infrastructure conference in London, looking back over 30 years but crucially also setting out his vision for the future as the infrastructure business moves rapidly through BIM towards integrated and whole life asset management. 

And central this this future, he says, is the Connect Edition which makes all of the firm’s software available on any device or operating system, offering the most appropriate solutions to professionals wherever they work and whatever they do.

In the new “age of innovation”, he says, the challenge will be bridging the gap between the real world and the digital models as we manage global infrastructure not just throughout the design and construction process but across the whole of asset management.

You founded Bentley Systems 30 years ago. How has the landscape of construction computing changed since then?

I remember back in the early days to trying to convince people to think broader than just automating the production of drawings. I thought I had a great idea but people said “Keith you don’t get it – we can’t change the process – we are just a little guy – go tell the owners”. And the owners would say “yeah, well it’s been like this for the last 100 years and there are just too many people involved in the process to change”. But today I feel positive when I hear people accept that the only thing that can make any real difference [to efficiency in construction] is changing the process. 

While technology drives your business, BIM is ultimately about people, process and culture. Did you imagine that in 1984?

No, I thought it was impossible. I was discouraged beyond words when I proposed solutions that involved slight modifications to people’s workflows and we were told in no uncertain term that “sorry we are not looking to do that because we can’t”. People then were resigned to living within their current workflows [because of government regulations, custom and practice etc]. So [it's great] to imagine 30 years later more of less all those obstacles have been more of less overcome. 

There is a feeling that the UK is leading the way? Is that how you see it?

One of the things that is most impressive is that in the UK it is the government pushing the private industry – I don’t know how that happened! There must have been some pretty forward thinking people who got together and said we need to work on this. When I said it in 1989 I was roundly shouted down when [I put forward] the idea that you would use technology to solve a problem in a different way.

So convincing people of the process of change is more important than the technology?

You could have the smartest technology with the coolest demo of the newest solution but if people say ‘that’s not the way I work and I’m not prepared to change the way I work” then you are wasting your time. If you look at the BIM world – and I’m not really sure what that is – I’m not entirely sure at which point BIM changed from a software architecture to a business process but I am all in favour of it.

So do you ever see a day when the role of the paper drawing will be obsolete in infrastructure?

There is no getting around the fact that we still live in a world of drawings. But I think it isn’t true that the only way to present a design or a construction process is to commit it to paper. There is a better solution. Drawings have a useful role but only as an augmentation to the model. They reflect information. So it is not that I don’t like drawings – I just don’t like paper drawings.

Given the exponential growth in the power of computing, how do you prepare for the future?

The future happens to us rather than by us. There is no masterplan for the road map for the next 30 years. Every five years we look back and ask what is different today. The decisions we made five years ago were all based on the technology available and the problems that we wanted to address. Sometimes the right decisions of the time turn into the wrong ones for all sorts of reasons and so you have to keep revising the plan.

Since 2006 Bentley has invested over $1bn in research, development and acquisitions. How can an independent business maintain the investment level required to stay ahead?

We have to make ourselves relevant to tour users so that they continue to invest in us. Obviously if we are unable to provide the solutions that they need they will look elsewhere. I believe that this is a fluid moving market and that there is a plenty of room for innovation. If we were to stand still from where we are today, in five years we would be irrelevant. So we have to continually reinvent ourselves and innovate and I believe that we are at a scale now where we are in a pretty comfortable niche in the market. 

What would you say have been the big game changers?

One of the biggest game changer in our thirty year history has just been announced – Bentley Connect Edition - and I have been telling all of our developers and programmers that you must think differently in the post Connect world. I am very much looking forward to the connected world where all of our software works with all the rest of our software. 

But surely advances in hardware and mobile communications must have also prompted massive change?

Yes, there have been points over the last years where you think “wow that was an important change”. Take point clouds – now you don’t have to model everything and it will really change our philosophy. And I think if you measure it in terms of value to the user then of course mobile device are very important. But I am taking about optimising the whole rather than optimising the steps. It think that Bentley Connect will influence many more decisions going forward than practically any other advance. There have been other advances that we have taken advantage of in the past but here is one that will optimise the whole not the parts.

What will the big changes be in the future?

For one, the idea that you buy a software licence for a machine, install it and operate it. Instead software deployment in future will be more freeform. The tools you need on a project may change from operator to operator and from day to day so the licencing model for software is a very liberating concept. 

What else? 

I also think we need to focus more on the business problem that needs solving than the independent pieces of geometry or graphics. Our software is pretty graphics centric and the model is premised on the fact that we understand the physical location of things and that works for designing roads bridges and buildings. But the bigger concern is what does this model mean, what problem is it trying to solve. There is going to be an inverting. Today it is geometry first but in future I think we will defines things in term of “I want a building that has these qualifications and inside has these systems to help do this”. I don’t mean to imply that we won’t have all of the same tools for creating geometry and there are reasons why you must know the physical properties of things so that you can design better. But it is business first then physical.

Your software is so heavily geared around process and culture change are you heading towards expanding your services towards more management or business consultancy?

Well I think there is some role for that – I am not sure that it would be out primary mission but if you are not willing to look at the whole business process – to optimise to whole rather than the parts – then our technology isn’t going to get used correctly. Micro optimisations aren’t going to give anyone any real value so I think it does fall to us to say “hey look how successful this was maybe you management should consider this”. Whether that makes us management consultants? But certainly we have an operational role that is more than just a software supplier.

That said, cool technical advances are at the core of your DNA. What is the next big thing?

A BIM workflow can affect both the construction and operation market. When you think about tying together a business database of the asset, which includes the geometrical and business properties with real time information from many sensors, I think that there is so much more value to add. These kind of problems are very exciting because there are a lot more [infrastructure assets] that exist in the world than are being built. So if you only focus on what is designed and constructed it is probably only 10% of the problem.

Bentley has had a consistently platform strategy to help to bring together all of its software for clients. How has this developed? 

One way that you solve software problems is to create layers and some might say that using a platform to utilise all those layers might be a disadvantage but platforms are very important.  It has been Bentley’s continuous feature. Interoperability and upward and downward compatibility is a distinguishing feature of Bentley but is it not like the platform we use today is the same as the one we used 30 years ago!

How hard is it to stay ahead in a market that includes firms like Google?

You could look at Google and say yes they have an infinite war chest to work on any problem they like. But they are likely to focus on the problems that have the broadest appeal. So when you talk about the tough problems [faced by the construction industry], Google would probably think they are thankless. So I don’t really worry so much about Google – whatever they do, we will interface to it. The market is likely to consolidate further and I worry about a lot of things but Google isn’t one of them.

Do you think a firm like Google would ever buy Bentley? 

I wouldn’t want to be absorbed into Google – no thanks – we kind of like it the way it is. If there was a company that we would consider selling Bentley Systems to I doubt it would be a Google because I don’t think they would value us in the way we do. Besides, we are pretty happy with the way we are.


See "Bentley Connect Edition creates “common environment” to boost BIM in the field" - click here

See "BIM – the tech may be cool but the fundamentals are still based on culture" - click here

If you would like to contact Antony Oliver about this, or any other story, please email