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Digital Transformation

What if…the global construction industry adopted a common data standard?

A common data standard could go a long way to improving the productivity, efficiency and profitability of the construction industry. The case for such a standard is commercial, environmental, ethical and, perhaps most importantly, in the public interest.

Steph Fairbairn, Journal and Content Editor, RICS
14 October 2020

For the past 20 years, productivity growth in the construction industry has been around a third of the total economy average. Profitability remains low, at around 5%, and the industry lags behind others in adopting new digital technologies.

In the quest for improvement, many industry bodies – including governments and firms – are looking to data standards. According to guidance from the World Bank, a set of agreed-upon data standards “ensures that the data entered into a system can be reliably read, sorted, indexed, retrieved, and communicated between systems.”

For Alan Muse, Global Director of Built Environment at RICS, a common data standard is key to driving collaboration and interdisciplinary working. He says: “The industry has design classifications that are different to cost classifications that are, in turn, different to work breakdown structures that are different to asset management frameworks. We’re not making it easy.”

“At RICS we believe we should embrace and collaborate with technologists. One win-win here is standards. If developed in the right consensual, collaborative manner, standards bring benefits to professionals in comparable and consistent practice and to technologists in demystifying and codifying the processes.”

What if…the global construction industry adopted a common data standard?

Projections suggest that the global construction industry will be worth US$12,031.1 billion to the global economy by 2024. In spite of an apparent slowness to digitalise, the sector is increasingly data rich. Is the establishment of a global data standard and achievable ambition? What would be the effect of such a standard on projects cost, delivery, waste and sustainability? And how close are we to having a global language for construction data?

Benefits of a data standard

Comparable and consistent practice are important commercial benefits of a data standard. Storing and analysing data in a uniform way increases insight into performance and benchmarking. It allows for improved efficiency, productivity and decision making among construction professionals, collaboration more broadly with business partners, and optimisation of supply chains.

Ultimately, all of this improves performance which provides a better experience and result for the client. Julie Christie Dela Cruz, Director at Arcadis, says: “Adopting a common data standard is really crucial to improve the reputation of the construction industry. It has considerable potential to increase public trust.”

Adopting a common data standard is really crucial to improve the reputation of the construction industry. It has considerable potential to increase public trust.

Julie Christie Dela Cruz
Director, Arcadis

The interest of the public, as the end users of the construction industry’s products, should be at the core of the way the industry advances. Sean Lockie, Director at EIT Climate-KIC, identifies a series of pressing global challenges caused or exacerbated by urbanisation; among them, deteriorating air quality, congestion, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Against this backdrop, he says, the fragility of the existing system has become apparent. The nature of globally interdependent supply chains, and the relationships between the state, the markets, households and civil society must be refigured.

He said: “The public doesn’t really engage at a level of understanding standards. The public gets things like air quality. It understands its own heating and energy costs. We need to try to instil the benefits of adopting a common approach at that community level.”

Leigh Dodds, Director of Delivery at the Open Data Institute, echoes the belief that the drivers for a data standard, and other common standards, are more than just commercial. He said: “I think it’s too easy to think about the standards development process as building a specification, or a taxonomy of shared data formats, and overlook all of the work that has to follow from that point … The goal is not to create more standards and specifications. It’s to solve these wider problems: the economic problems and social problems.”

The creation and adoption of a global construction data standard is a realistic ambition

The goal is not to create more standards and specifications; it’s to solve wider problems – economic and social problems.

Leigh Dodds
Director of Delivery, Open Data Institute

Ethical problems including transparency, accountability and fair payment practices could also be addressed by a common data standard.

Overcoming barriers

There are, though, barriers to the adoption and implementation of such a standard.  A survey conducted by the Open Data Institute suggests that only 27% of businesses in the UK share data. According to Dodds, the survey found a consistent set of barriers to sharing data, including:

  • concerns over the risks of data sharing, including quality and reputational or commercial risks
  • a lack of clarity about the best way to increase access to data
  • concerns about data rights and licensing
  • different attitudes to risk and innovation around data.

Despite the barriers, progress has been made, with the International Construction Measurement Standards (ICMS), for example, uniting professionals and companies across the industry.

There remains, however, a long way to go until a common data standard is achieved and successfully adopted. For Alan Muse, such a standard is vital for the future of the industry: “True efficiencies can only come from a fusion of technology and more interdisciplinary thinking and skills. More effective integration requires many broad changes …This can only be successfully enacted through common standards which allow consistency, comparability and, ultimately, better decision making.”