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Creativity and digital technology will drive future success

Antony Oliver

Since Christmas I have spent an extraordinary amount of spare time trying to get to grips with my son’s new Lego Mindstorms kit.

For the uninitiated, I’m referring to computer controlled, programmable Lego model-building with motors, gears, switches and even a light sensor capable of distinguishing between shades of grey.

Of course, thanks to the current climate of austerity, Santa didn’t necessarily go for the most up to date version of Mindstorms. In fact, NCE reviewed it in 1998! As a result the soft and hardware requirements of the kit necessitated the recommissioning of a fairly ancient laptop found in the loft.

“2012 will be when construction really starts to place digital modelling at the heart of the ­infrastructure lifecycle”

Hence the many hours spent so far. With John from IT’s guidance and encouragement, it all now works. And with the system up and running, father and son have battled through the programming tutorials, moved on to freestyle building and have happily advanced to programming vehicles to move, turn, follow lines, etc, via the software.

And I must say that it is a highly absorbing process. In fact, I even found myself recently involved in a pub conversation about “computer programming languages we once learned at university”. Which is, perhaps, slightly worrying.

Nevertheless, back in the real world, this whole Mindstorms experience has, strangely, been fantastic preparation for 2012, the year of Building Information Modelling (BIM). The year when construction really starts to place digital modelling at the heart of the ­infrastructure lifecycle.

To mark this shift in industry thinking, this week sees the launch of NCE’s quarterly BIM focus. And it is clear, if the government is to succeed in its aim of mandating 3D modelling and collaborative data management on all public projects by 2016, work must start now.

The technology partnership just signed between the Crossrail project and Bentley Systems is an important step towards achieving that goal and helping construction realise the potential of these powerful tools beyond design and construction, deep into the operation and maintenance lifecycle.

That potential is incredible - and arguably a world away from the capabilities of the Olivers’ Lego Mindstorms. Nevertheless, I reckon that there are huge similarities when it comes to the thinking required by designers.

Fundamentally that thinking revolves around the need to embrace the technology but to also ensure that it stays in the background.

Whether you are talking about the Crossrail project or a Lego tracked robot, the challenge must remain focused on getting the design and construction right.

Computing and software are important, perhaps vital tools along the way and will certainly revolutionise the industry. But never forget that project success will always come down to the creativity of the humans involved in and finding the right solutions to the right problems.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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