PCSG’s Gavin Cotterill explains why Australia has much to gain from adopting a digital approach to its built environment.

It is a clear September day and gathering at King’s Cross Station is a unique group of tourists.

The pack – which includes industry leaders, financiers and Government representatives – have travelled from Australia on a fact-finding mission about the delivery of world-class infrastructure.

The three-day Australian British Infrastructure Investment Catalyst (ABIIC) event aimed to facilitate the exchange of ideas and experience in the delivery of major projects.

As well as escaping the conference centre to site visits such as the impressively renovated King’s Cross and the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the delegates were addressed by many of the biggest names in the UK architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sectors. These included Lord Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission and Sir Terry Morgan, the Crossrail chairman.

In Australia – the world’s sixth largest country – as in the UK, the future of the built environment sector forms a central plank of the economic and political debate.

But whilst the UK is forging ahead with its Digital Built Britain programme to digitise the entire life-cycle of its built assets, improve productivity and reduce waste through the wide-spread utilisation of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the Australian commonwealth government currently lags behind.

Though there has been a growing movement behind BIM adoption, there is no joined-up digital built environment narrative.

Yet the need for a forward-thinking approach towards the design and delivery of the built environment is clear: It is key to helping Australia meet some of the many challenges it faces including demographic pressure, energy demand, transport inefficiency, housing needs and climate change.

Australia’s population growth has been amongst the fastest in the developed world with both Sydney and Melbourne projected to be home to almost eight million people by 2050.

The continent’s overall population is expected to grow to 30.5 million in 2031 – up from 22.3 million in 2011.*1

By 2031, demand for many of the country’s key urban road and rail corridors is projected to significantly exceed current capacity.*2

The country is also seeing its competitiveness lag in relation to other developed economies – since 2005, it has lost ground on productivity relative to all G8 nations.*3

The UK – which shares many similar challenges to Australia – recognised that a strategy to modernise its approach towards the planning and delivery of its infrastructure would help it meet the challenges it faces now and in the future. Australia also needs to fundamentally re-think its approach.

A structured, centrally-led digitalised built environment programme will enable it to secure its position on the world stage and its status as an attractive investment proposition.

The challenges

One stumbling block which has hampered the acceleration to a digital built environment in the continent has been a fragmented national approach.

This was highlighted in a paper last year, from Australia’s Digital Built Environment Task Group*4: “Each jurisdiction in Australia has typically taken a different approach to each aspect of creating more digital built environments,” it explained.

It added that “…the limitations of existing, un co-ordinated approaches are becoming increasingly apparent and are limiting the ability of …efficiencies and innovation to deliver on potential economic, social and environmental benefits.”

A similarly uncoordinated approach is evident with the private AEC industry itself. The paper noted “a lack of consistency of approach… increasing disagreement and conflicting expectations observed relative to the level of technical detail being discussed.”

The risks posed by this lack of a centrally driven programme from either the commonwealth or state government was succinctly highlighted by buildingSMART, which said that “without government leadership, different states, government departments and industry players could adopt different standards… leading to missed opportunities and a loss of productivity.”*5

Another hurdle has been Australia’s relatively backward approach to technology, not just in the AEC sectors but across the board.

In 2014 Australia ranked 7th globally for internet penetration but the affordability of digital access was ranked 49th and its internet speeds were ranked well behind leading nations such as Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.*6

A recent authoritative study from McKinsey*7 explained that “despite notable green shoots… most of Australia’s companies remain some distance away from the… true digital ‘technical limit’ – that is, the full exploitation of existing technologies.”

Digital maturity, it said, looked to be an increasingly important indicator of economic performance, while concluding that the potential benefits of seizing the opportunities of technologies such as the Internet of Things had the potential to contribute between A$140 billion and A$250 billion to Australia’s GDP by 2025.

The key enablers

The opportunity for Australia is huge and there is an increasing awareness of this. In September, for example, the Government unveiled a new paper, The Digital Economy, Opening up the Conversation.

The paper conceded that “rapid developments in technology and science are changing the way we live, work and do businesses. These changes come with challenges… they also present opportunities to increase wellbeing and secure Australian jobs and prosperity.”

Last month, the Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation, the Hon. Angus Taylor MP, announced the outcomes of Round 1 of a Smart Cities and Suburbs Program, to support the delivery of ‘innovative, smart city projects that improve the liveability, productivity and sustainability of cities and towns across Australia.”

The investment equated to almost $40 million with successful projects co-funded by partners including local governments, industry, research organisations and the private sector. A second funding round is expected to open for applications in the first half of 2018.

State governments are taking proactive steps towards the adoption of BIM. In March 2016 for example, the Queensland Government released a State Infrastructure Plan outlining its roadmap for the enabling the implementation of BIM into all major state infrastructure projects by 2023.

On a grassroots level, organisations such as the Australian British Chamber of Commerce are doing excellent work in sharing expertise and ideas from the UK experience with speakers from BSI and others at a wide variety of events.

My own experience, based in Melbourne with PCSG, has seen us supporting public and private clients in becoming more productive and reducing waste across their portfolios through developing and delivering digital strategies.

Opportunities and next steps

It is clear from digital government programmes in place in the UK and Singapore that Australia has much to gain from its own Digital Built Australia programme.

Such a programme should provide leadership on the modernisation of our planning and delivery of the built environment. It should also align areas including BIM, the provision of Smart Cities and relevant technological advances such as the Internet of Things.

This too is clear – that to deliver the built environment Australia needs for the 21st century, Australian governments (Commonwealth and State) and the private sector, will need to work together.

PCSG is committed to helping both public and private sector clients in meeting this goal.

Gavin Cotterill is Consulting Director for PCSG’s Asia Pacific business based in Melbourne.

To find out more about how PCSG can help your business to develop its digital strategy contact gavin.cotterill@pcsg-australia.com.au. To learn more about our digital services in the UK, please contact adrian.burgess@pcsg.co.uk

 Sources:

* 1: Australia Infrastructure Audit Report (May 2015)

*2: As above

*3: McKinsey – Digital Australia: Seizing Opportunities from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (May 2017)

*4: Digital Built Environment Task Group, Preliminary Discussion Paper (October 2016)

*5: Report on the inquiry into the role of smart ICT in the design and planning of infrastructure, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities (March 2016)

*6: Ernst & Young, Digital Australia sector report (2015)

*7: McKinsey – Digital Australia: Seizing Opportunities from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (May 2017)

*8: The Digital Economy: Opening-up the Conversation (September, 2017)