Digital transformation in the AEC industries

Digital transformation - changing the toolbox for architects, engineers, and the construction trade.
9 February 2023

Emerging from the pandemic ready to shake up the world…

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One of the big benefits of using digital twins and digital transformation is that they take a lot of the ultra-expensive guesswork out of larger infrastructure projects. We sat down with Claire Rutkowski, SVP and CIO Champion at Bentley Systems (one of the leading providers of digital twin and digital transformation technology) to get a sense of how that was making itself felt in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries.

Playing catch-up.

The AEC industries have traditionally been slower than some other industries, like consumer electronics and retail, to adapt to whole new paradigms and adopt their advantages. Is that the case with digital transformation?


It’s true that the AEC industries have traditionally been that way, but then, they’re industries with major, major consequences when they move.

It’s tricky to beta test a building when it’s 20,000 tons of concrete in?

Right! And the industries are actually catching up when it comes to digital transformation. Again, there’s a logic to that. Resource shortages, people shortages, accelerating climate change, population growth, aging infrastructure, and rapid urbanization are just some of the global macro trends that are actively driving the industries to change right now.

Is that a particularly post-pandemic change? Because presumably Covid slammed an unfortunate brick wall in the way of any developing digital transformation projects in the industries, no?


The pandemic and the post-pandemic era threw up a lot of challenges in the industry, definitely. One of the biggest challenges was that post-pandemic, it was just hard to find people. Firms had to turn down work because they didn’t have enough people.

But on the upside, the reason firms didn’t have enough people was because the pandemic allowed people to start looking at their relationship with work, which has probably been healthy in the long run. And again, post-pandemic, clients brought increasing demands to the table. So whether it be for digital deliverables, whether it be for faster schedules, or whatever, different organizations were put under different pressures to meet those demands. Clients were wanting results both faster and cheaper, at the same time as people were reconsidering their relationship to work.

Opportunities out of difficulties.

But that combination of circumstances also brought opportunities for engineering firms to look at new business models. How do you square the circle of fewer people and higher, tighter demands? Maybe investigate a new business model, maybe become a digital integrator. And if you’re going to do that, you need to leverage data and adopt a data-centric approach. That’s actually helped to speed up the post-Covid adoption of digital transformations in the industries, because once you go data-centric, you begin to realize everything you can do with that sort of approach.

And there’s also been a shift in focus towards climate change and sustainability.


Yes… a burning planet will do that for you.


Quite. But people are getting more and more aware of their climate footprint, and again, that feeds in to client demands – we want it faster, and cheaper, and much more sustainable than it ever used to be.

All of those things help stimulate interest and movement in digital transformations in the AEC industries.

The sustainability factor.


Because it’s easier and cheaper and staggeringly more sustainable to model things in a digital twin than it is to simply go out there and build the thing?


Well, it is, but of course, no-one was just going out and building the thing before Covid either. But yes, to some extent, going for digital transformation of the processes used means you can be much more precise, much more cost-conscious, and much more sustainable from the very beginning of these big projects than you ever could before.

Owner-operators are asking design firms to sign up to work on an outcome-based model and to buy into delivering a certain amount in savings or carbon neutrality within X number of years. So that’s just more pressure for people. It really means reimagining what you do from the ground up, what the challenges are, and what technologies exist that can actively help you to achieve all these client goals in the most efficient way.

You have to take a step back and understand what these challenges are. And then you have to look at what your practical options are. I mean, engineering firms have had to do more with less for years. But today, they need new ways of doing much more, with much less, because the old ways can only get you so far. There are still things that can be done, but re-use is really the way forward. Re-use allows organizations to be more efficient, as well as more effective. To deliver better quality designs.

Restocking the toolbox.

And then you start looking at how to enable these new business models, how to let them transform themselves. That means the two main tools in the toolbox that you need to come through the post-pandemic conditions in the industries are re-use and digital design – the use of digital tools for design. And that re-use is coming from looking at a portfolio view and being able to look across your entire book of work and determine what aspects of your design practices you want to be able to re-use, and then having a framework for being able to re-use them.

Weirdly enough, the time has never been better to do that. To make all of this change, because the tools are there now to enable all this, which they weren’t – or weren’t so much – before Covid.

So I’d say that while it completely transformed the industries, the pandemic proved we could adapt and change when a big challenge is thrust upon us.


That makes sense. So what does digital transformation actually mean in the AEC industries in 2023?

There’s a gradation in how people and companies use the term. For some organizations, going digital means converting paper files to electronic PDFs. Technically, this is simply digitization, not digital transformation, because the data is still locked in file formats, which has limited value. For that company, that might be a leap in the dark and a leap into a bold new technological enhancement of their processes, and that’s fine. Even doing that will take them significantly into the late 20th or early 21st centuries, and if they see the benefit of that, then great. But going digital can – and usually does – mean so much more than that.

True digital transformation involves reimagining how you do business and taking a customer-driven approach to applying digital processes and creating digital outputs.


And… what does that mean?


It means that everything is streamlined. Means applying technology wherever possible to make things easier and more efficient. For the AEC industries, that can mean anything from using photogrammetry and drones for surveying, inspecting, and reality capture, to artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced analytics, recommendation engines, and generative and component-based design, to name just a few.


In Part 2 of this article, we’ll take a deeper look into the way going digital in 2023 is transforming how the AEC industries are approaching and doing business, and the tools that are helping them to change.