Digital transformation: where are we?

Words:
David Bain

How fast are practices taking on digital transformation? A new survey set out to investigate

The National Automotive Innovation Centre – architect and interior design: Cullinan Studio
The National Automotive Innovation Centre – architect and interior design: Cullinan Studio

The way design practices operate is changing, and a major reason for this is digital technology. But exactly how are architects and other designers responding to the opportunities and challenges new technologies bring? And what do they believe it means for architecture? In a survey commissioned by Microsoft and the RIBA, NBS found that 87% agreed that digital technologies are transforming the way they work now. What is this transformation?

Better collaboration through immersive tech

Clearly, Building Information Modelling (BIM) is changing how many practices operate, with 74% of practices now using it, according to the latest National BIM survey also from NBS. The embedding of BIM and the adoption of immersive technologies is improving client experience.

The way of presenting designs to clients was being changed by 66% of survey participants, some by harnessing virtual, augmented or mixed reality; 35% were using at least one of these technologies now, with a further 29% expecting to do so in the next five years.

These technologies can bring a design to life, enabling the client to really experience the building before it is built. All members of the construction team: clients, consultants and contractors, work as virtual teams, together exploring, assessing and agreeing on design choices, putting the client at the heart of design. This will save time and money – minimising on-site changes and post-construction remedial work.

As well as improving communication and outcomes for clients, immersive tech can also improve collaboration with other members of the project team. This collaborative approach, integral to BIM, continues to mark a move away from adversarial ways of working.

Visualisations and BIM are in my opinion the greatest software advances we have experienced – survey respondent

Using HoloLens from Microsoft.
Using HoloLens from Microsoft.

Improved efficiencies

Proponents of BIM and digital tech say they reduce cost and time. This view is supported by 79% in the study. Again, immersive tech plays a role here. Ackroyd Lowrie uses virtual reality to carry out what it calls ‘pre-occupancy evaluation’, to test how the space will work – how the light comes in, for instance – before construction starts. ‘From a purely commercial point of view, we find it more profitable to use VR on projects than to not use it, as we no longer end up making emergency changes when the project is on-site and the client realises exactly what they are getting, says the firm’s Oliver Lowrie.

Cloud computing (taken up by 59% of potential users now) supports the use of BIM and immersive technology, freeing practices from the maintenance of their own servers, and allowing reliable anytime, anyplace access to project files. Most practices also use social media (82%), digital collaboration tools (66%) and mobile/apps (56%). 

So digital technology is improving the way projects are delivered, but 63% also say that it makes their practices more efficient internally. This is partly due to adopting BIM principles but it also relates to the use of practice management software to better plan project delivery and resourcing, and to assess profitability.

So practices are adopting new technologies. That’s nothing new. Why this talk of transformation?

Digital transformation is a different way of working, a new process model and more agile, where data is produced once, and is used many times for more tasks – survey respondent

What is digital transformation?

Throughout the history of British architecture, technology has repeatedly transformed what – and how – architects can create. But since the digital revolution, the profession has experienced rapid change – starting with the adoption of 2D, then 3D computer-aided design, moving to BIM and, in the near future, the Internet of Things (27% already use it).

Digital transformation describes how digital technology allows us to create what could not be created before, to design new kinds of buildings, to transform towns and cities to meet the challenges of urbanisation and sustainability.  It will help create better buildings and places, and improve client outcomes; 56% of our survey respondents recognise this as one of its benefits. It is more than the adoption of a set of technologies. Rather, it is a fundamental shift in culture, supported and facilitated by technology.

The term digital transformation isn’t familiar to architects and built environment professionals, but the architectural and design community is embracing digital transformation and the opportunities it brings. Most respondents believe that their organisation has embarked on some kind of digital transformation journey. The survey showed 39% were near the beginning of the journey, and 37% have been on it for some time. No one believes they have reached their destination. This makes sense: digital transformation is a rolling process of change and renewal, rather than a road to a set destination.

Refurbishment of the JP Morgan Media Centre using digital technologies, Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, by David Miller Architects
Refurbishment of the JP Morgan Media Centre using digital technologies, Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, by David Miller Architects Credit: David Miller Architects

Challenges

Digital transformation isn’t easy: it takes significant effort and investment to become, and remain, digital-first. So it is not surprising that cost is the primary challenge cited by 69% of architects – the initial outlay for new software as well as the time and investment needed to get staff up to speed, with almost half highlighting lack of company-wide digital skills as a challenge. And just over half (52%) find it difficult to know which digital trends or opportunities to respond to.

Below the surface, we see cultural barriers: slow decision-making, a lack of radical thinking and an unwillingness or inability to change the culture. This underscores the importance of a digitally literate leadership, ready and able to create a professional culture of digital transformation. 

On a positive note, 43% explicitly agreed they were changing organisational culture. Almost half (49%) had assigned senior staff with formal responsibility for digital technologies, while 38% were creating a team to experiment with digital technologies and 34% were appointing dedicated digital specialists. Over half (53%) said that employees are bringing new technologies/ways of working into their organisation – perhaps indicative of a culture that encourages innovation from the bottom as well as the top.

 

Looking ahead

The study confirms that architecture is changing, and for good: there is no going back. Over 80% say that, by 2030, the way architectural practices operate will be different to now. 

There is uncertainty among practices about the scale of change and where it is coming from, with 42% of survey respondents believing the construction industry will be moderately or massively disrupted over the next two years. But equally, 43% thinks the disruption will not be significant. Most of those expecting disruption think it will come from within the industry – from other members of the project team (66%) or from software vendors (40%). Fewer (33%) think it will be initiated from outside the industry or from architects (31%). However, 22% see themselves as disruptors.

It is impossible to predict what this disruption will look like, although two areas likely to be significant are further development of BIM Level 3 and Digital Built Britain, plus advanced manufacturing and modern methods of construction.

While the future possibilities are exciting, it is important that the benefits of digital transformation reach all parts of the industry and benefit society. Three areas where digital technology and the benefits of BIM have yet to be fully felt are: handover of new buildings to facilities managers, on-site construction by subcontractors and work to existing buildings. And while 43% believe that digital transformation will mainly be a force for good, 60% believe that digital transformation will raise more concerns about privacy and security. Some also think it will make society less equal. Younger professionals are more likely to see the benefits in digital transformation, which bodes well for the future; nevertheless, these are concerns which need to be discussed and debated.

Architecture and design practices need to prepare for the future now, to discuss the trends, opportunities and challenges that digital transformation may bring so they are ready to adapt when the time comes. We hope that this report will help provide a catalyst to that thinking and preparation for the future.

David Bain is from NBS Research

Read the report here. Architects and other designers were surveyed online with additional in depth interviews

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