Let’s use BIM to boost UK productivity

Increasing digitisation in the built environment and the use of BIM technologies are being seen as enablers of economic growth writes Paul Wilkinson, reporting from Bentley Systems’ recent Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore.

UK BIM Task Group chair Mark Bew says that the rationale for BIM was part of a deeper drive to digitise the built environment, connecting data feedback to delivery of infrastructure-based services and so improving UK productivity.

Bew has been a key figure in driving the adoption of BIM across government since 2011 through to the 'Level 2' BIM deadline in April 2016. At the Bentley event in Singapore, this programme continued to attract interest, not least because Bew sees BIM and digitisation as enablers of economic growth - attractive to developing economies as well as those which are more mature.  

Speaking in Singapore, Bew cited the UK government’s ‘Construction 2025’ targets (33% lower costs, 50% faster delivery, 50% lower greenhouse gas emissions, and a 50% improvement in exports). Published in 2013, these provide a tough macro-economic challenge to the industry, he said: “There is no way you can squash the old business model and get those results. You need to do something fundamentally different,” said Bew.

Bew highlighted how the UK construction industry’s productivity lags behind its closest competitors (France, Germany and the US), and, adding to the challenges: “Brexit means we now have to be even more effective.”

Four key numbers

He “unpacked” four key numbers. “In the UK, on CapEx, we spend about £90bn on our assets every year, about half of it public,” he said. “OpEx is a bigger number, about £122bn, so we must also find some economies there. But the bigger numbers relate, first, to service provision using those assets. 

“We spend around £600bn on the wages of the people working in service delivery - from doctors and teachers in our hospitals and schools, to taxi drivers on our roads. If we can deliver better infrastructure, we can get more for our money or reduce that figure, getting more productivity for that spend. Finally, we have GDP: £1,869bn. We estimate that 43% of that, or £808bn, is related to the built environment, so you can start to see the size of the task we’ve got,” said Bew.

Building the right assets

Bew says this analysis poses two major challenges: “First, how do we build better assets for our money? And second - and far more important - how do we build the right assets in the first place? This is where BIM, digitalisation and utilisation of asset data starts to come in,” he said.

After outlining the Level 2 ‘BIM package’ (and highlighting that it continues to evolve, incorporating security considerations, for example), Bew talked about the Smart Cities initiative within the UK government. “It’s interesting how cities consume data – they need to use that data to see how assets work, but currently most city service providers don’t understand how their systems (transport, health, education) work,” he said.

To help change, this, the Smart Cities team has created a Level 2 ‘City package’ of guidance. “What we will be doing over the next year,” said Bew, “is gluing our BIM and City standards together. The alignment of end-to-end data is not perfect by a long way, but we’ve taken the first step in standardising data services for the entire life cycle of assets, including service provision,” Bew said.

The Digital Built Britain strategy in 2015 was a step down this road, he said, followed by £15m funding awarded in March 2016. More recently, in June 2017, Ernst & Young helped produce a ‘strategic outline business case’ for the substantial investment needed to help the UK move from Level 2 to Level 3.

Feedback, feedforward

“We are looking to deliver better performance across all the four key numbers, and understanding the economic impacts of poorly performing infrastructure is vital,” said Bew. As an example, he highlighted traffic congestion: “It costs the UK economy £31bn - in other words, the equivalent of a third of our CapEx cost is wasted by poorly performing assets,” he said.

To help improve, Bew says we need proper evidence, from current assets, not just historical data. “Creating forward and reverse feedback loops will help us understand how assets are really consumed by the public, or what happens when assets don’t work properly,” he said. This will help create better briefs for new infrastructure, particularly if good quality feedback data is systematically collected and it’s understood how asset systems work, he said.

Paul Wilkinson runs Ltd, a specialist PR, marketing and construction technology consultancy.