Consulting engineers are responding to the growth in the amount of data generated by infrastructure by offering a growing range of digital services.
At the end of a long working day in Auckland, New Zealand, thousands of people head to its beaches to cool off or enjoy water sports.
And when choosing which beach to kick back on, residents are relying on information provided by consultant Mott MacDonald.
Although advice on how and where to spend your free time is not the normal domain of an engineering firm, it demonstrates how consultants are evolving as the sector digitally transforms.
The safeswim.org.nz website is an example of how traditional engineering consultants are expanding their remit. These businesses are traditionally designers and project managers of physical assets, although their skill set has evolved into asset management. Now, the data collected and analysed as part of asset management is being used to provide information to clients and their customers to make decisions about how infrastructure is maintained, transformed and used.
Safeswim provides users with water quality forecasts and real-time public health and safety risk alerts at 84 beaches and eight freshwater locations around Auckland.
The data is gathered by combining Mott MacDonald’s knowledge of the water infrastructure in the area with weather and tidal data, analysing the impact each has on the other, and then predicting water quality on Auckland’s beaches.
Screen shot 2018 06 21 at 12.37.02
If, for example, heavy rain is predicted, the consultant will know which areas have poorly performing septic tanks which can cause chronic seepage, and warn of the risk of sewage overflow.
“It is generating a much closer connection between social demand and infrastructure investment,” says Mott MacDonald global digital business development director Richard Shennan.
“If people say ‘what do we need to do to make my beach green?’, we can use the predictive modelling built on this platform to look at what interventions – build another plant, make the pipe longer – would enable those beaches to be green more of the time.
“Auckland is specifically building the public case for some major sewer works, which are costly, and because it is a publicly owned system, ultimately the money is going to come from the ratepayers,” says Shennan.
What digital means is not just automation and data analysis, it is really focusing on what this means for our clients
“By owning all the news, including the bad news, people are saying: ‘I’m going to support this investment in this new infrastructure because it will have this impact on my life’. You can start to get a connection between the social perception and value from the outcome – the point of the infrastructure – and the investment intervention.”
The interaction between civil engineering and asset management knowledge, data collection and analysis, and thinking beyond the client to understand what the client needs to deliver to its customers is a developing model which Mott MacDonald sees as a viable future.
It is not the only consultancy developing its client offering in the wake of the impact of new technologies.
Arcadis has created Deep Orange, a programme which brings together digital experts from global firms, the public sector and start-ups to try and find new ways of solving customers’ problems.
It is a shift away from building a new piece of infrastructure to solve a problem and is part of the firm’s plan to digitise its business. Part of the plan includes the acquisition of data analytics firm Seams earlier this year.
It has worked on a prototype system for tackling traffic congestion in Amsterdam. The system brings together data from employer incentives and data from the local authority and has created an app which incentivises commuters to plan and choose routes which use multiple transport modes. It was prototyped and tested in four days.
“From our perspective, what digital means is not just automation and data analysis, it is really focusing on what this means for our clients and their customers. When you start thinking that way, it changes what we do in the design process,” says Arcadis head of digital David Glennon.
“If the design conversation is driven by data, automation and virtual reality, you are not really changing the business model, all we are doing is changing certain practices.
Different way to deliver
“We’re trying to find a different way to deliver [traditional services] with a relentless focus on customer experience. We do that through using data, testing hypotheses, getting feedback, testing prototypes, and working to create platforms for people to use.”
And this is where engineering consultants feel they have the competitive edge against tech start-ups which crunch the data.
Mott MacDonald cites its accumulated understanding of how infrastructure gets built, developed, commissioned, owned operated and decommissioned as providing the essential domain expertise from which to view the data gathered through the asset management process.
“You’ve got the whole new world of availability of data and all these new data sources, which can potentially tell you quite a lot about the optimisation of performance of your infrastructure. But it doesn’t actually do it unless you can make sense of all that information in the context of the domain, the actual infrastructure that you’re talking about,” says Shennon.
This, he says, must be combined with customer-outcome based thinking, going all the way to the client’s customer and the benefits to the end user.
Amey Consulting managing director Alex Gilbert sees “exponential growth” in the ability to collect and process data, as the cost of managing big data falls.
“This will accelerate the expansion of smart infrastructure and the ‘internet of things’ permeating every aspect of asset development, operation and management.
“This, in turn, will make smart, sustainable and efficient infrastructure more accessible for investors and public authorities, with particular implications for more liveable and attractive cities,” he says.
This new direction for consulting engineers fits in with the ICE’s Project 13 initiative, which aims to transform project delivery. The ultimate question is how all this will change the skill sets sought by traditional civil engineering consultancies as they evolve. That remains unanswered for now, but the ICE, for one, is looking hard at it, with vice president Ed McCann’s skills review. It is due to be published in the autumn.
l New Civil Engineer has teamed up with Bentley Systems to explore the extent to which designers’ skill sets are becoming more digitally-focused. The research will be based in part on reader survey. To take part visit newcivilengineer.com/tech-survey