Proposed actions for Finnish built environment stakeholders

Digital transformation of industries and societies has gained such speed and pervasiveness that it has earned the epithet of 4th industrial revolution – or Industry 4.0 in short. In the construction sector, the benefits of Building Information Modelling (BIM) are becoming generally acknowledged in both building and infrastructure projects – also expected to be seen in many asset management operations as well – with strong emphasis on information sharing enabled by open standards. At the same time, we hear new fabulous developments in many fields of digital technologies: Artificial Intelligence and automation, Internet of Things and 5G, Blockchains and quantum computing – and what not. So, one might wonder who needs BIM and standards anymore, if we are soon going to have digital twins in clouds, anyway?

Mind-boggling visions, to be enabled by plethora of new technologies, are being presented by visionary thinkers. They paint a picture of the future – utopia or dystopia, depending on who you ask – that seems to come closer in each new prophesy. Nevertheless, the fact is that we are witnessing a transformation of industries and society that is way beyond what was brought about by the earlier digital innovations, from computers to internet. Whether to call the ongoing developments the 4th industrial revolution or the 2nd phase of digital revolution – or something else – there is a parallel to what took place in late 19th and early 20th century regarding the industrialization in the physical space. Initially, the 1st industrial revolution already changed the world with steam powered mechanized production, but it was the 2nd industrial revolution that took everything to a whole different level of mass production using electric power. In a similar manner, the digital revolution is really gearing up as the true potential of the new technologies is revealing itself, when applied in ways that could not be imagined before.

The speed of technological development tends to create confusion about the actual direction where it all might be going in the construction industry, and how soon in practise. One thing seems obvious, though: information will be the fuel, and a major asset as well, in Construction 4.0. Construction industry actors (designers, contractors and suppliers) as well as the clients and asset managers, or regulators and eventually the users of built assets – they will all want to have meaningful information served fit for their individual purposes at their request, at any stage of the asset life-cycle. These kinds of scenarios rather soon lead to think about the popular concept of digital twin and what it might mean in built environment. It is easier to conceive a perfect real-time virtual copy of a device in IoT context, or a single machine in a factory, but for something as complex as a building or an infrastructure network – or an entire smart city?

The topic may be easier to approach, if we accept that digital twin may refer to any kind of a virtual counterpart or digital replica of a physical asset (or processes, people, etc.) for one or more purposes. In that sense, a BIM can already be used as a digital twin, and even more so when it is developed with more capability to interact with its physical counterpart and with other sources of information and knowledge. It may be in not so distant future that your car’s twin is telling the twin of the road if driving conditions are not as expected, or have your own digital twin letting the twin of a building know if the room temperatures feel a bit too low. In both cases, recording those feedbacks correctly, let alone coming up with a feasible action, requires each of the digital twins to interact with multiple systems, externally and internally. In manufacturing industry, modularity of digital twins is already recognised as a proper strategy for managing complexity of products – in built environment assets this is even more important, especially considering that many systems, products or even components are provided by different suppliers and their information managed by different actors. This leads to the conclusion, that digital twin of any decent size built asset (or even a BIM) cannot be one information monolith, but it must be a logically coherent combination of information from various sources – which implies a strong need for standards to enable machine readable semantic information to be shared. The same requirement for standards to support information sharing and modularity extends from information level to system architectures and technology solutions, in platforms and clouds.

Equally important benefit of standardization for organizations – and perhaps even more important for the society – is making use of their information, either as open data or controlled asset. Whether a public body offering information to foster new innovations or a company using theirs as commodity, both will want to have it in an easily exchangeable format. In the digital economy standards are needed in the same way as they were crucial in the industrial revolution in the 19th century, only this time the standardized interchangeable parts will be information and knowledge, and for the innovations to spread efficiently and beyond vendor specific ecosystems the standards must be open. The big challenge for standardization will be to keep up with the speed of change driven by the technology front-runners, especially considering the ever increasing cross-domain harmonisation needs.

RASTI-project has carried out an analysis of the current Finnish and international standardization landscape in the field of built environment information management and the challenges in the immediate future (until 2030); consequently, an action plan has been proposed for the Finnish stakeholders – public and private – to rise to the challenge. The main problem in the current organization of standardization work lies in its fragmentation. Built environment information is mainly managed in Building Information Modelling (BIM) space, or in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), separately – with obvious needs to link to other systems, such as Building Automation and Control Systems (BACS), Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and Asset Management (AM). Each of these have their own standardization committees in ISO and CEN on the international level, backed by strong industry organisations like buildingSMART International (bSI) for BIM and Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) for GIS. On the national level, various Finnish industry organisations participate in the work of the international committees, mandated by SFS in case of ISO and CEN, but in practise there is little or no coordination between the different branches of standardization. The main recommendation from RASTI for the Finnish stakeholders is to start a collaboration and coordination forum to bring together all parties involved on the national level, in order to better manage the multi-domain needs and potential overlaps. Expediting the standardization processes is a difficult challenge, but at least securing adequate resources for the work is clearly a prerequisite for success, and something for the public stakeholders to consider. Even though developing open standards with necessary consensus building processes still take their time, the implementation of standards could be faster. This may be achieved by having strong commitment from all major industry actors (designers, contractors, suppliers, clients and asset managers) to employ open standards, and by investing in the development of the necessary skills for implementation.

Article by Juha Hyvärinen and Johanna Kuusisto

For more information, contact:

Ms. Johanna Kuusisto, DSc (Econ), MSc (Tech)
Team leader, Interactive buildings
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
Office +358 20 722 6421
Mobile +358 400 771 415
Vuorimiehentie 3, Espoo
P.O.Box 1000, FI-02044 VTT, Finland

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