The digital revolution: Unleashing the potential in the built environment

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  • The digital revolution: Unleashing the potential in the built environment
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Michelle Zompi


Michelle Zompi


Perspective 2023 vol 2
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Back in 2020, my colleague Matt Sharp, Chief Digital Officer for RLB UK, wrote an article for this very same publication talking about how digital was transforming the construction industry.

Little did we know then that we were on the cusp of a digital transformation accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, advances in technology, the climate crisis and in the UK, changes in building safety legislation and governance.

As I write this in 2023, the fact that my position exists as Head of Digital, and we have a growing RLB Digital team in the UK reflects the changing pace of digital within our industry. It also reflects how behaviour both at work and at home has been facilitated by technology. Digital is now interwoven into our daily practices.  This could be through the auto generated suggestions of other things we might like to buy on Amazon or helping us share best practice with our global colleagues through platforms like Teams. There are three key themes where we have seen digital, and the data produced by digital technologies, beginning to change the built environment as we know it.

Digital and Building Safety

Every built environment project generates huge quantities of data – from initial concept through build to handover, every stage of the construction lifecycle is a flow of critical information, known as the ‘golden thread’.

In the UK, following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in 2017 when a 24-storey residential tower burned for over 60 hours, the UK government began to make law the need for a golden thread of data to ensure responsibility and ownership at all stages of a built asset’s lifecycle. This governance, which we are seeing being replicated in other countries outside of the UK, is driving the need to capture, store, manage, transfer and report data, facilitated by the digitalisation of the processes. With teams like RLB Digital in the UK, the insights from this data is now helping clients plan clear health and safety strategies and change the face of building safety for the industry.

Digital and Sustainability

We all know that we have a climate crisis on our hands and according to estimates the built environment accounts for 36% of worldwide energy usage, and 40% of CO2 emissions. The advancement of technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) to support both the measurement and monitoring of carbon used in the built environment is instrumental for those managing estates in helping them strategically plan how they can reduce their carbon footprint, both in terms of carbon within new builds and retrofitting, and also their operational embodied carbon. Digital technologies enabling modern methods of construction as well as data to create insights to allow builds to be more efficient in helping to reduce waste, and as a result, work towards net zero and sustainability targets.

We are already using technology as business as usual now within our day-to-day operations, but advanced visualisation methods and the use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are allowing estate managers and stakeholders to look at how they can prevent future risks and mitigate today for tomorrow. Looking at the impact climate change might have on their built assets including the risk of floods, overheating and fire, we are already seeing digital technology included in advancements like solar control glass that radiates and reflects sun away leaving indoor spaces cooler, being introduced into new buildings and regions where temperatures are soaring. Data analysis is also enabling refurbishment planning adjustments to be made from informed decisions considering whole estate, performance, safety and risk information holistically.

Digital and skills – new skill sets and upskilling

Of course, these changes to the way we work, and implementation of digital practices require upskilling our existing workforces as well as a need to bring in new skill sets. The challenge for many now is attracting talent with digital qualifications, skills and knowledge that can complement and understand traditional core disciplines. We must encourage collaboration between digital innovators and technical experts across disciplines to bring inventive ideas and to reverse mentor our colleagues – ensuring we are continuously aware of the ‘art of the possible’ and delivering the best possible service.

Digital driving efficiency

Digitisation is happening to every industry, in every region. Within the built environment, the digitalisation of our processes is embedding efficiencies, bringing us insights that support solution driven outcomes and acting as the catalyst for us to challenge the way we think and act in our industry.