Digital sign

+ Digitalisation goes beyond simply digitising processes to increase efficiency.

What’s the secret to the success of companies like Uber and Airbnb? Both have taken an existing infrastructure based service provision (taxi / private hire vehicles, hotels) and digitalised the industries by providing platforms to connect those with supply and those with demand as opposed to owning and operating infrastructure and services. 

Airnb uses digital technology to match those travellers with places to stay, not necessarily a hotel room, which has shaken up the entire travel industry. Uber has done the same for taxicabs, using technology to run their businesses as a platform facilitating the connection between suppliers and market demand whilst owning no infrastructure related to delivering the service.

Digitalisation, the rethinking of the fundamental benefits technology can bring to users of a process or service, should be considered very different to digitisation, which is applying technology to existing processes, practices or system – like filling in the same form online instead of by post, for example. 

Digitisation can make your organisation more efficient. But if you stop there, someone else could and probably will find a way to digitalise your industry, leaving you behind.

Uber and AirBnB have revolutionized traditional industries through the use of technology to digitalise their relevant industries. 

How does this apply in the built environment? The evolution of the design process has gone through hand drawing to Computer Aided Design (CAD) in 2D, then the addition of the 3rd (vertical) and 4th (time) dimensions and onto fully attributed intelligent models in building information models (BIM) and geographical information systems (GIS).

Tools like GIS and BIM streamline the design process and allow us to optimise our designs. Yet this is mostly just digitising the design and engineering process. I believe we’ve got to look beyond that and rethink the role of technology in everything that we do across the built environment based on the fundamental requirements of a project and its end users.

The process of deciding what new road infrastructure to build is a good example; the modelling is usually based entirely on assumptions about demand and traffic volumes. 

In South Wales in the UK, Arup is helping build traffic models using origin destination matrices derived from mobile phone data to get a better evidence base and produce a more accurate picture of people’s travel needs. The models should result in planning and building infrastructure that better matches actual user travel demand patterns.

Taking this further, what if you made all the relevant data and models open source to allow more people to create better traffic models? What if government organisations used and shared open data more, and saw their role as providing a platform for others to innovate? 

I think that would hugely disrupt current practices and take the industry into the digital age. Because it’s only by using all the available data that we can peel back our assumptions and understand users’ needs. This also makes the evidence base for decision making standardized and transparent. 

For example, if you’re designing the layout of a train station, then basing the design principles on the fundamental needs of the user layered with data about how the current spaces and infrastructure are used can hugely benefit the final design. 

This can better inform wayfinding or advertising strategies or even better to simplify the user experience altogether

At Arup, when we design a building, we work from a client’s brief, with assumptions about how the building will be used. What if, as my colleague Erin Morrow suggested, instead of charging for the design we accepted as payment the data from the operational building? We would then have a tremendous bank of information about in-use performance that we could feed back into the design process or provide this data as a service to others. 

You can’t just keep applying technology to what you already do, and trying to make things ever more efficient. You need to step back and examine what it is you’re trying to do, and the needs of users. Only then will you be able to see how you can use technology to meet those needs.

Do you agree? How could your work across the built environment be digitalised, and would it improve outcomes for your clients?