The digitalization of the AEC industry – the impact of regulations

The digitalization of the AEC industry – the impact of regulations

Two weeks ago, I’ve run across an interesting LinkedIn post that linked to this article:  Lagstiftning kring BIM i Sverige – är det fortsatt relevant? (Eng: Legislation on BIM in Sweden – is it still relevant? by Nina Borgström. One of the highlights from that post is the question if BIM regulation/legislation is still relevant and how will it impact the various other upcoming technologies in design and AEC sector in general. Is it still relevant to use the term BIM when the future appears to be more about digitalization? Most of the comments under the LinkedIn post were also leaning in support of the thoughts expressed there.

I am involved a bit with the BIM LT project here in Lithuania (more info on the website, note: it is only in Lithuanian though), an initiative that aims to implement BIM into our local regulations and mandate its usage, adopt a national construction information classification system. Hence, I felt like sharing my opinion on the matter and talk a bit about my view on regulations of digital technologies. The article is broken down into sections as the content is somewhat fragmented. Moreover, there are no answers in this post, just an opinion with even more questions.

Now, a disclaimer, I am not attempting to represent the entire BIM LT project and its members. As with any such projects, initiatives, there are numerous stakeholders, and the results are always a product of compromise and some form of consensus. The thoughts here, are just one opinion and does not represent any official position.

Shortcuts to sections:

Regulating technology is a very difficult and lengthy process
Outcome regulation should be preferred over process regulation in AEC
There is too much focus on BIM or why digitalization does not end with BIM
Opening new pathways for improved workflows without closing old ones
Does regulating digital workflows, BIM and other technologies make sense?
Last thoughts

Regulating technology is a very difficult and lengthy process

I’ll start off with the regulation of technology in general. This is particularly important to address as it directly relates to the digitalization of AEC and BIM. Any rapidly changing and evolving technology is not really well suited for the stubborn and slow process of legislation. By the time all stakeholders are satisfied, some sort of consensus is found, and all the definitions properly established in legalese, the object of legislation will have advanced forward, evolved in potentially great ways. The regulation risks becoming irrelevant it goes live or will need to be updated and, thus, the process starts anew. Drafting any regulations and associated legal documents is a very lengthy process, it takes years and still often ends up with serious flaws that take more time to fix.

This is why I would say that there aren’t that many legislation aimed at regulating the various aspects of the IT sector. The existing ones are relatively vague and abstract as that’s all they can be. There are various attempts at standardizing some areas, but overall, the sector seems to be doing quite well self-regulating (apart from some abuse of our privacy by the largest players out there). The Information Technology industry is constantly expanding, that is fuelled by the continuous innovations and new technology, which requires new skills, equipment, people specializations and other resources. It’s a never-ending rabbit hole. Which only highlights the issue here, that digital technology related sectors are hard to properly regulate.

What does this have to do with architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry? It is almost 2021 and it should be clear to most, that the entire world is becoming more and more digital. AEC is no exception with the increasing digitalization efforts and adoption of BIM workflows. Yet, the sector appears to be suffering from an identity crisis of sorts and has trouble accepting this. This is apparent through the increased regulation attempts. Some are so used to the fact that everything within our line of work is regulated so extensively, that having a part of this sector, the upcoming digitalization related workflows, kept unregulated or minimally regulated seems like blasphemy to them. But the digital workflows gaining traction in the AEC sector are not susceptible to the old ways of thinking which plague most of the legislating bodies, regulating entities.

I would argue that the rapid increase in digital technologies worldwide was only possible because it was not boxed in by unnecessary regulations. If we want to benefit from the potential growth digital technologies and digital workflows can have on the rigid construction industry, we must give space by leaving certain aspects unregulated and most certainly avoiding overregulation.

Outcome regulation should be preferred over process regulation in AEC

Whatever the regulation may be, it has the potential to either be restricting or enabling (empowering) progress. While all regulations attempt to present themselves as the enabler of better things to come. That is frequently not the case. Any regulation will most certainly place the subject in a boundary, a box. Depending on the regulation, the box can be very tight with very little space for innovations, or so large that it makes one doubt about its necessity.

There is also another aspect to regulation that must be mentioned, and I believe is the approach to take when dealing with digitalization and BIM in the AEC sector. Namely, outcome-based regulation as opposed to process-based regulation. We already have long-established rules for how a building, infrastructure and other object design and construction must be approached and delivered. Hence current regulations in AEC affect both the process and the result and that is understandable due to the risks involved. However, I would argue that digitalization efforts should be regulated more based on the outcome. It already attempts to flow in between the various process regulations in place, just like water filling up the space between pebbles. The nature of the risk associated with it is also quite different.

The image below is to help illustrate my point. A visual exercise, imagine that we need to get to our objective from our starting point A. We don’t really know what’s in between but we know there is some sort of a boundary so we are relatively “safe” by knowing that we won’t wander off and that we will ultimately get to the objective. Eventually, everyone will create their own narrow paths and stop exploring as there isn’t much to see. Now imagine that we also have a pre-established path that goes towards our objective in the same environment. Everyone will keep taking the same route as why bother making new paths if we know the boundaries are quite narrow. Lastly, what if we don’t really have any boundaries or they are very large, but we do have a pre-established path towards the objective? While using the path is encouraged, there is plenty of room to explore and find interesting things along the way that otherwise would not be possible. Maybe there is a more scenic route? In our instance, this would be new technological, digital solutions to our problems, innovations that we didn’t knew about.

Outcome based regulation of AEC digitalization

Regulations affecting digital technology should aim to highlight the goal, the target that we are aiming to achieve and help establish a faster path with less uncertainty towards this goal. The boundary will not disappear, but we can make it very large and flexible. This path is not the only one available to the architects, engineers, contractors but, by following it one should be assured that the outcome will be as required. Hence, it leaves the market room to experiment and take detours or alternate routes to deliver projects. There might be better ways out there, the truth is, we just don’t know. In other words, I think workflows should not be regulated, only supported and/or encouraged at best through recommendations, guidelines, non-mandatory standards, etc. However, we should be clear as to what our goals are and this is what legislation should focus on.

I’ll expand on that further in the article.

There is too much focus on BIM; Or why digitalization does not end with BIM

I feel that parts of the industry are clinging too much to the term BIM when talking about ways of improving cost overruns, mistakes, and inaccuracies in projects, enhancing productivity and efficiency, etc. Yes, BIM has an important part to play in this but there are plenty of other technologies that don’t necessarily belong to the current notion of BIM and can help achieve these goals. Seems the mantra around BIM hasn’t changed much in the last decade. Mostly, this comes from agencies, government bodies, institutions, etc. from people who do not work with current digital workflows and BIM directly on a day-to-day basis. This topic deserves its own post, of why after so many promises of how BIM will change everything for the better, yet we’re still facing most of the same problems in our industry as before.

Thus, this adds to the issue of why everything digital-related in AEC seems to be associated with BIM lately. You’ve all seen those pretty circular diagrams of BIM, what it involves, how it goes through the entire building lifecycle, etc. The further we go, the more intricate new diagrams keep popping up. I am afraid that if we continue to include more things under the BIM umbrella, we really are just approaching a point where if it is related with AEC and it involves a computer – then it is BIM! We strongly risk oversimplifying the digitalization of the industry with the way we allow the term to be abused.

I must agree with the notion established in the mentioned post by Nina Borgström – we should start talking more about digitalization and less about BIM. Sure, BIM will not just disappear, it can easily be called the catalyst of the digitalization of construction and design. Innovation does not end with, on the contrary, new digital workflows, use cases begin accelerating from this point.

We already have quite interesting developments with the AR, VR, MR, AI/ML, Generative Design tech for the AEC market. Some are partly related to BIM, as the initial 3D models and data originate as BIM models, others are completely stand-alone solutions to problems that are critical in our industry. One example is the tracking of safety equipment on a construction site, like worker helmet, vest usage, etc., through the use of machine learning. Another case is the mixed reality tech, Microsoft HoloLens for example. There are already cases where it was tested on a construction site and is used in certain areas, for fabrication as well.

The issue with too much focus on BIM when considering legislation is that such technologies might not receive their due attention. I am quite positive that by 2030 we’ll see some legislation popping up somewhere mandating the usage of devices similar to the HoloLens in critical industrial environments such as manufacturing, fabrication and maybe even on assembly lines or construction sites. If not for productivity reasons then just for safety reasons alone is sufficient. But before that happens, we still have a way to go exploring the various possible use cases for the technology. These and many other technologies will have an impact on how construction and design is carried out and how we achieve our goals both as an industry and as a society in the future.

Drawingless project cases coming out of Norway, Sweden are clearly signalling us that the issues preventing full digital workflows is not the technology itself but are rather manmade. The existing regulation and overregulation of the AEC industry. Maybe, instead of working on new legislation dealing with the AEC industry, we should first focus on doing a careful audit of the presently existing legislation, impeding technological progress and attempt to open up some space for the industry to breathe. I have noticed that quite a few of the start-ups propping up within our sector are started by people who come from other fields, such as computer science, or people who have relatively little experience in AEC. They are not fully aware of the extent of regulations present in this industry. Obviously, there are exceptions, with a very strong talent behind some initiatives and it isn’t a coincidence those start-ups are actually doing better, and some are already selling services based on their innovative solutions.

The point I am trying to make is that we should think about liberating the AEC sector somewhat to enable easier immigration of talent (and technology) from other industries. This might bring us the fresh air we need for new initiatives. The longer you stay in this industry the more your own mindset gets boxed it by all the construction laws, regulations, standards, recommendations and whatnot. The challenges our industry is facing such as sustainability, impact on climate change, amounts of waste produced, are far too important to be bogged down by irrational regulations.

When dealing with new legislation, we should first ask the questions, of what are we actually trying to achieve with it and can it be done in other ways, will the new regulations have a negative impact on some other technologies, the industry, the society, will it restrict something, will it enable new use cases of the technology? Etc., Etc., Etc.

Opening new pathways for improved workflows without closing old ones

With all the standards and regulations in place worldwide, we still have somewhat different understandings of what BIM is and is not. It feels like these definitions weren’t exactly in the best interest of the AEC industry, otherwise, we would be seeing less diverse viewpoints on the matter than we presently have. I don’t want to add fuel to this fire by trying to define BIM, but will just say, that often those who are not working directly with delivering AEC projects in digital ways, just lump BIM and digitalization together out of lack of understanding. However, sometimes that is done on purpose. We are guilty of this ourselves, even our own initiative is called BIM LT. Although, aspects of it don’t deal with BIM per se but promote general digital ways of working to enable more integrated and more reliable data streams for the entire lifecycle of a structure.

Regarding our own efforts on regulating BIM, I think we have a rather good balance between BIM aspects and digitalization related aspects. We have parts that address the normative document side of things (EIR, PIP, BEP), which deals with the mandatory usage of BIM for largish projects, public procurement, value monitoring, integration of various information systems that the government is using. Another part deals with the classification of construction information through our national construction information classification system (Lit. NSIK). It is not something new, as other countries have had various systems for a while, like OmniClass, Uniclass, CCS/CCI, CoClass. Each has its own strong points and weaknesses. The classification concept by itself is aimed at integrating the diverse AEC industry through common definitions of the built environment.

I will use it as an example to continue the discussion from the image shown earlier in this article and to speculate on how I would imagine ideal legislation on the topic of AEC digitalization. One of the core issues with the industry is ensuring the uninterrupted flow of data streams from the planning stages through the entire lifecycle of a bridge, building, etc. Having a classification system which ensures that there is a uniform and consistent definition of objects and its information through the entire design, means that we essentially both clarify our objective and form a path from our starting position (as shown in the figure earlier) towards our goal. As long as we focus on how that information is structured and what parts of it have to be delivered as opposed to the way it has to be created and transferred, we are also avoiding the creation of unnecessary boundaries. Hence, we leave room for the market to explore ways to get this information created and delivered.

The danger points that I see in our situation and in general with such regulation efforts is related to how expansive it will be and how will it affect the productivity and delivery efficiency of projects. A good classification system can work through all lifecycle stages of an object. However, the majority of work applying it will be done in the design stage. I’d argue that most of the information for any new construction is created in this stage. If the classification system ends up requiring excessive amounts of resources like time, people and equipment to apply, there is a great risk that we are indirectly creating the box, the boundary I have mentioned earlier. We live in a world of deadlines and increasing the workload will only restrict most companies in trying out new workflows or technologies. We are still businesses and need to maintain a positive cash flow.

Regarding the classification system and its associated workflow, we have to make sure its workflow is not conflicting with the AEC market interests. The best-case scenario for something like a classification system of construction information is to keep it relatively lightweight, potentially modular, delivering only information as needed and when needed. Lightweight means it is likely easy and quick to apply and will not conflict with existing workflows of the AEC market players. Companies that have adopted BIM earlier and focus on digital ways of working, usually have already well-established workflows for data exchange between themselves and their partners in the industry. I firmly believe that these workflows will always be superior to any officially mandated one. A custom data exchange workflow tailored to specific use cases and that is respectful of the specific company environment it is operating in will always be better than a generalized workflow meant for everyone but perfect for no one.

Is our local (Lithuanian) initiative going to address these aspects, I am not sure, but so far, we seem to be on the right path. But what I hope for, is to see similar attitudes becoming more frequent. More flexibility, fewer constraints, more focus on providing recommendations.

Does regulating digital workflows, BIM and other technologies make sense?

My view should appear clear by now but the short answer to this question is that actually I do not know, and I would doubt anyone who claims to have the answer. The reality is, as I’ve highlighted in the above sections, that we have countless of new digital solutions, technologies that are appearing every year and are aimed at tackling various issues in the AEC industry. It is very difficult to establish, what impact any regulations will have on these technologies. Maybe that is why we still keep seeing BIM thrown about left and right in our industry and why most regulations are using the same old promises of how it will improve construction costs, efficiency, reduce mistakes, etc. BIM has an already well-established presence. Not necessarily everyone is using it for every project, but most have at least explored it. It is far easier to talk about a well-established concept and to attempt to adopt it into legislation than attempt to define and regulate other concepts, related to the digital workflows in the AEC sector. Nevertheless, it still raises the question, what is the point of legislating BIM, if it has been in use and the market has made it work?  In a large enough market, the ideal scenario is to have the market self-regulate and only interfere if there are some serious hiccups or the market mechanism stops working as intended. Legislation should be the last resort, after guidelines, recommendations, official training, etc. have failed to deliver the expected outcome.

In Lithuania, we have a small number of larger market players in the AEC market. This naturally causes issues with lack of competition and drive for innovation and adoption of some technologies or digital workflows. As the government is the owner of all public infrastructure, many other assets, it is, of course, interested, as a client, to get the most out of future design and construction. While technically, the Lithuanian Road Administration, for example, could establish certain requirements for BIM usage and push for other digital technologies to be used, it is not as easy as for a private client. Public procurement cannot favour any side. While our official BIM usage mandates will launch from 1st of January 2021, it was completely unregulated before. I have seen the weirdest EIR documents out in the wild. So, in some sense, our situation of a small country and market provides some validity for legislation that deals with BIM usage, but for a more mature market to focus more on BIM than on digital workflows in general is… let’s just say that ship has sailed a while ago.

Last thoughts

I think I have touched on some key aspects of regulation and the digital future of AEC but, of course, there’s a lot more that has been left unsaid, the topic is both deep and wide. Hence, I hope this won’t be read too much between the lines and misinterpreted.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed the point made in the article mentioned at the start of this post. At this stage, we should really be talking more about the digitalization of AEC rather than BIM. I hope that we, the industry as a whole, will be more mindful of how our attempts to standardise and regulate can hinder the technological progress that is only just at its infancy. Things work differently in the construction industry, things take significantly more time to get done and technology adoption is no exception. If we overregulate the process, we risk scaring away key talent and technology improvements that could one day make significant contributions to not only solving our sector’s problems but also the greater issues our society is struggling with.

Considering BIM specifically, it is important to understand that as with any other technology and concepts, it will evolve and must evolve. We might not be able to recognize it in 10 years if we judge it by today’s standards. We need to take a flexible approach if/when regulating the digital workflows of AEC or risk using the same old standards to judge something we might not understand in the future. Let’s open up new pathways for improvement without closing existing ones.