University of Aberdeen - New Library. Credit: Adam Mørk

+ Data could become a valuable commodity for those working in the built environment.

Are you an engineer or a designer? Would you be comfortable with the idea of receiving data instead of traditional fees?

I think this is something the industry should get used to because the quality of the work that we can produce is highly dependent on the quality and quantity of data we have access to. That makes data extremely valuable.

Data has always been a valuable resource – just look at the use of actuarial tables to set insurance premiums or the use of economic data to set financial policy. However, the new reality is that data collection and data management are no longer limited to large organisations such as financial institutions and governments.

Every day, individuals, organisations large and small, buildings, and entire infrastructure systems are generating huge amounts of data through their sensors and systems. Advertising companies such as Google and Facebook have seized this data exhaust from our daily lives to build a better mousetrap for consumers – to sell us more stuff.

But this is hardly the most constructive use of such a valuable resource. What if the world’s data could be put to use shaping a better world through healthier buildings and more efficient infrastructure?

It is easy to imagine the user data from transit smart cards, cellular device signatures, and services such as Google maps being combined with data mining techniques to inform transportation policy and station design. These same techniques could be used to develop better strategies for the layout and operation of hospitals or schools, based on data from a portfolio of similar buildings and continuous feedback once a new building is operational.

This is the opportunity before us, but first we need access to the data. And I see two clear paths to accessing data. The first path is to become the entity that captures data directly from sensors and management systems. The second path is to trade for data that which others already possess or that they can capture on your behalf.

Unfortunately, the first path will not usually be available to those in our industry, as we don’t own the physical assets and systems that we design and build. However, our position as designers and builders means that we have both the know-how to effectively design the data-capture mechanisms and the leverage to bargain for on-going access.

So we will need to follow the second path of trading for data, but to do so we must become experts on the value of that data. We must become highly skilled at both trading for data and using it to fashion refined knowledge products for our clients.

In the short term we may need to invest in data by trading our professional services for data directly. In the medium term this will pay off as our pool of data grows and supports our services. In the long term our data will itself become something of value to other parties and we could trade on it directly as the market for data matures.

So, for example, today an engineering firm could design a building in return for ownership of the metrics the building produces. As the firm does this for more and more projects, it would use the data to design more efficient buildings. And in the future, its pool of building data and analytical algorithms would be valuable as a product to those who wish to increase operational efficiency of their assets on an ongoing basis.

I think this is tremendously exciting. It offers a glimpse of how engineers and designers can continue to make positive contributions to an increasingly digital society while doing interesting work and enjoying commercial success.