Can Digital Construction Save the Planet?
Data science is often focused on social, financial, or manufacturing processes—but what about construction?
First appeared on Harvard Data Science Review
Author: Holger Pietzsch
As social media and e-commerce giants capture the headlines, a less publicized but possibly more impactful digital evolution has been shaping the construction industry. After two decades of change, the sector is now entering its next phase, and the impact might reach beyond roads and bridges. Digital construction technologies could well shape and preserve the mother of all ecosystems: Earth herself.
Phase 1: Connecting People to the Construction Ecosystem (2000–2010)
By 2000, civil and structural engineers were already designing with computer-aided design (CAD) models. The launch of AutoCAD 2000i, however, represented a turning point. Leveraging internet-enabled features, the global community began collaborating at a growing scale and speed. Digital representations of actual or future infrastructures could now be developed in the cloud and shared. However, updates to the model still required human intervention.
Phase 2: Connecting Objects to the Construction Ecosystem (2010–2020)
In 2010, the Chinese government made the Internet of Things (IoT) a strategic priority in their Five-Year-Plan, and by 2011, Gartner, a leading technological research and consulting firm, added IoT to the infamous hype cycle. Objects such as excavators, trucks, and conveyor belts were being fitted with affordable sensors that automatically updated their digital representations with temperature, pressure, humidity, and such, adding more frequent and more diverse data points. Sophisticated algorithms emerged that ‘listened’ to these connected objects, analyzing billions of data points to predict failure or enable automation. Today, many pieces of construction equipment have become fully connected and remotely diagnosed ‘talking machines.’ And yet, the dirt they move continues to be silent. The same applies to oceans, mountains, and forests—none of which can be wired up with sensors. The next frontier relies on making nature herself machine-readable.
Phase 3: Connecting the Planet to the Construction Ecosystem (2020+)
Technologies that use methods as old as maritime triangulation have found their way into lasers, lidars, and radars. These devices can literally ‘see’ their environment, giving geospatial awareness not only of their own position but of everything in their sight. As such, not just streets and tunnels but entire landscapes can be efficiently digitized and monitored. Their condition can be mapped against the past or intended future. Initially, this will allow excavators to dig straighter, faster holes.
More importantly and longer term, these connected digitized ecosystems will allow us to analyze large-scale, low-speed changes in our physical environment. Algorithms will identify underlying patterns of system interaction.
No Free Lunch
One can imagine a framework to optimize the complex combination of people, products, and precious resources. This could be used, for example, to guide decisions on refurbishing a bridge versus building a new one or substituting it for a tunnel. The framework could create a decision landscape with different optima that vary depending on social, financial, or environmental preferences. It could quantify the financial cost for a project to be more sustainable or calculate the infrastructure savings related to a healthier rainforest. But even the most sophisticated framework will require tremendous judgment. Politicians will still claim to have the best ideas, but trade-offs will become more transparent and subject to scrutiny. Just this transparency might be enough for a better future, because given the long-term, multigenerational impact of infrastructure development, even small trade-offs can have big impacts.