The three steps of digital transformation in the AEC industries

How do you get from where you are to where you need to be? Here's how...
9 February 2023

One step at a time is the only way to approach digital transformation.

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In Part 1 of this article, we spoke to 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 digital transformation was making itself felt in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industries.

While we had Claire in the chair, we took the opportunity to ask her about the process of going digital and what it looks like in these industries in 2023.


It’s fine to understand how the pandemic and other global macro factors have hastened the AEC industries into adopting the idea of digital transformation – but how do individual companies know where they are on their journey? What’s the methodology used to stick a big pin in the digital transformation timeline and saying “You are here”?

The three-tier model.


There are a whole range of maturity models available, and you can pick any one you like to measure your company’s progress against. There are, for instance, models available from McKinsey, Gartner, and other analyst firms. But those models can get very complicated very quickly. For simplicity’s sake, I can give you a three-tiered model to help you easily evaluate your organization.


Yes please – we love a three-tiered model of anything.


Ok, well:

Tier one.

The least digitally mature organizations are currently working in either 2D only or a hybrid 2D/3D environment to deliver projects, with ambitions to move to 3D across all workflows to improve efficiency, enhance skills sets, and increase ROI. These organizations just haven’t done it yet, or only apply 3D when a client requires it.

Tier two.

The mid-range maturity organizations are already using 3D models and regularly delivering digital twins and integrated IoT sensor plans with actual assets for their customers. These organizations are focused on going digital to improve their effectiveness, the quality of their deliverables, and the outcomes for their clients. And they are gathering reusable data to improve competitiveness at the same time.

Tier three.

The most digitally mature organizations not only create but also maintain digital twins, so they are up-to-date virtual representations of specific assets or systems of assets. They focus on improving the quality of their deliverables while reducing time, cost, risk, and meeting sustainability goals. These digitally mature organizations are also tapping into the enormous amounts of data produced by the digital twin, remote monitoring and inspection tools, and other sensing devices to highlight areas for improvement or repair to reduce risk and increase safety.


We were going to say something facetious, but that’s actually incredibly helpful. There’s no doubt that companies reading that will know exactly where they are right now in the maturity timeline. What about knowing where you need to be? Is it just a matter of swimming upstream just because it’s the 21st century, or are there pause-points in the model?

How to make progress.

It really depends on your organization’s current starting point, appetite for and ability to absorb change, and resource availability. As with any maturity model, you can’t go from the lowest level of digital maturity to the highest without moving through the mid-range; there is no easy button on this journey.


No “Advance to Go, collect $200” mode?


Afraid not. It’d be like going from second gear to fifth while going up a steep hill. But, going digital is a process that can be planned and implemented with careful consideration. Here are a few ideas to get any business started on their journey.

From tier 1 to tier 2.

First, if you are currently at a lower level of digital maturity, you can begin to go digital by doing simple things like moving from 2D to 3D design all the time. You can use tools to design with real-time engineering work in progress. You can manage your supply chain collaboration electronically, with tools that facilitate easy, safe sharing of information – rather than sending things back and forth over email.

You can also begin to curate component libraries, which will democratize institutional knowledge and help enforce best practices across your portfolio. The goal should be to improve efficiency across the work you do by reducing document versions, leveraging component-based design, applying automation, and creating consistency for processes.


Document versions should die. Got it.

Tier 2 to tier 3.


Here’s another idea. Once the foundational elements we’ve discussed are in place, you’re ready to move into the mid-range level of digital maturity. So if you’re looking for the point at which to make that gear-shift, that’d be it.

At this level, you should already be realizing the gains in efficiency you’ve made by moving from 2D to 3D. Now you’ll be able to focus on increasing your effectiveness and generating more reusable data to improve your competitiveness. You can even think about extracting insights from across your portfolio.

For instance, if you’re consistently using components in your designs, now is a good time to look at how effectively each of those components performs as physical assets. You may also be able to create recommendations and actions based on remote inspections and remote monitoring.

If you can regularly do all that, you’re ready for the highest stage.

Tier 3 characteristics.


It feels like we’re about to become Jedi Masters of digital transformation.


Once they have their efficiency and effectiveness well in hand, the most mature organizations will have the funding they need to make truly transformational changes. They will be able to offer new business models with IoT-ready digital deliverables.

Some firms are already acting as digital integrators, using their experience to bring together multiple vendors and suppliers into single platforms that generate full life cycle digital twins for their clients. They are also able to create new immersive metaverse experiences and sustainability reporting.

In some cases, mature firms are also hosting and maintaining digital twins for their clients and providing dynamic common operating pictures with dashboards and sensor monitoring capabilities that can determine when action needs to be taken or suggest ways to increase energy efficiency and improve sustainability.


Yep – definitely Jedi Master level change.


Digitally transform, you will.



A communal journey.


The point is that going digital is a necessary journey that we’re experiencing both collectively and individually. And for AEC firms and the industries, it won’t be particularly any easier, because the challenges we all face are so pervasive.

Regardless of how digitally mature your organization is in 2023, keep putting one foot in front of the other, keep your destination in your sights, and keep pushing forward.