Q: What changes are you seeing with respect to data in the engineering and infrastructure arena?
Technology and big data are no doubt improving our ability to design, develop and interact with our infrastructure. But one of the most significant shifts that has occurred in the industry today is much simpler: It is a change in the way we talk about data.
As Ben Ritchey, a principal transportation planner, explains, the conversations that exist around infrastructure optimisation typically tackle the next big trend, like Elon Musk’s Hyperloop or driverless cars. “Data isn’t a shiny object—it’s certainly not the most exciting thing happening in our industry today. But to make a shiny object work, you first have to understand and interpret the data that stands behind it." Today, clients and community leaders are much more open to these discussions than ever before.
Q: How is this change in how we talk about data impacting project development?
Yesterday's data was a simple reflection of business performance but today, it is considered the driver of operations.
It’s a shift that CDM Smith’s senior water resources engineer Matt Gamache, water resources engineer and analytics software developer, has seen first-hand. “The major change we are experiencing today is not so much the availability of the data, but the ability to bring it all together into one system where people can understand and interact with it on a daily basis,” he says. And since a platform to encourage these data conversations didn’t exist, Gamache and his team decided to create one themselves. They launched a research and development effort to develop CDM Smith Water Analytics, an all-in-one online platform that integrates multiple collection system data sources and hydraulic model results and serves it up on any web-enabled device via a secure login. The platform reveals everything that’s going on in a client’s water infrastructure at a glance (like Google Traffic for pipes, pumps and manholes). Embedded technology eliminates the barrier of entry, putting the power in the client’s hands and ultimately breaking down communication barriers to give everyone a seat at the virtual table.
“With this new technology, clients are beginning to see their data systems as living tools—things that can help them make decisions in a dynamic way. So instead of getting a call from a client asking, ‘What happened during yesterday's rainstorm?’ I'm instead hearing, ‘Yesterday's rainstorm produced more flooding than expected downtown. Let's talk about how best to prioritise our operations and maintenance this month to investigate the potential causes.’ This collaborate approach is helping us usher in a new era of problem solving,” says Gamache.
Q: What advice do you have for clients who might be reluctant to begin data-driven projects?
Comprehensive changes to data utilisation can no doubt be daunting, especially since they take years to develop and often challenge multiple groups to work together all at once. Luckily, there are several small-scale improvements that can be made today to help you embrace the changes of the future. Our experts highlight the basics:
- Recognise the cost of resistance. Change is always going to be difficult, “but companies today realise that if they are not adapting to keep up with these new trends and technologies, they’re going to be left behind,” says Industrial Services Group Kevin Riley, PE, LSP, BCEE. Creating an innovative culture within your organisation will ensure that you are positioned to respond proactively to the changes ahead.
- Embrace technology. While it is important to stay open-minded about the growth of your industry, it is equally important to explore the pieces of technology that can help get you there. Virtual design and construction solutions, like BIM and Microsoft HoloLens technology, can help manage change, accelerate project schedule, and transform the way we collaborate and interact with our infrastructure. Today’s mixed reality frontrunners undoubtedly hold the keys to the future of their industry.
- Learn to engage a multi-generational workforce. In recent years, a heightened focus on generational differences has dominated the conversation. But one of the easiest ways to prepare for the future is to use these generational differences to your advantage.
Q: What does the infrastructure future look like if we take full advantage of the data revolution?
The future of infrastructure is more integrated. Instead of looking at individual pieces of a facility or community, we will evaluate how it is operating as a whole and then make macro adjustments to drive improvements. Transportation infrastructure planning, for example, might involve tapping into today’s ride-sharing revolution. Encouraging city residents to take the bus might reduce air pollution and road congestion, but buses focus primarily on where people congregate. So how do we move people there and solve the first mile/last mile problem (i.e., moving people from home to a transit hub and vice versa)? Ritchey says that by complementing transit services with privately-run companies like Uber and Lyft, cities will be able to utilise fixed-route public transit to supplement their transportation systems.
Moving people out of their cars and into a seamless transit system requires data—lots of data. “The ability to use smartphone technology to collect data and move information is doing wonders to help us better understand our customers and allow us to quickly respond to their needs,” says Ritchey.
This real-time data collection not only helps with operational efficiency, but can also improve safety within an organisation. Riley says that this new connectivity between production systems has given industrial clients a deeper understanding of possible compliance risks, as well as safety trends and anomalies. “With access to this up-to-the-minute information, we’re able to gain valuable insights that will ultimately improve everything from process flow to water use,” he says.
Q: If you could give clients one piece of advice for the future of their smart infrastructure, what would it be?
Industries today are seeing a big shift in infrastructure monitoring—using real-time information to evaluate performance and seamlessly integrate key data points. And bringing in new ways to track and pinpoint issues within an organisation has proven revolutionary. Riley reminds clients to embrace these upgrades to the fullest. “Ultimately, the future is about optimising product delivery and improving distribution to build efficiencies within our systems. Clients who embrace this shift—and take steps to integrate new technology into their existing systems—will be leading the future and delivering significant value to their shareholders."
Ritchey believes matching our solutions to real-world problems is the bottom line. He says that clients today need to first understand the needs of their communities, “and then envision technology that will help make those proposed solutions more impactful.” Getting support from tangible evidence, like truck platooning demonstrations, will help show the impact these changes can have on the future.
And while there is no doubt that data is changing the way we do business, Gamache believes that the future is ultimately about utilising people in a smarter way. “Breaking down barriers—within systems and organisations—will change people’s daily habits, helping them to work more efficiently and make better use of their resources,” he says. “It’s all about using these new tools as catalysts for the transfer of knowledge.”