Using digital technology to transform the built environment
19th October 2023
Authors: Researchers Xichen Chen, PhD Candidate, and Dr Alice Yan Chang-Richards, Senior Lecturer, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Digital technologies present new ways to make our built environment more sustainable. Researchers Xichen Chen, PhD Candidate, and Dr Alice Yan Chang-Richards, Senior Lecturer, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, offer their insights into this fast moving area of research.
Rapid urbanisation, population growth, climate change adaptation, and aging workforces present evolving challenges that underscore the need for a more intelligent, sustainable, and resilient built environment. In addressing these challenges, digitalisation emerges as a promising solution, transforming how we design, build, manage, and interact with our physical surroundings.
Digital technology for a sustainable built environment
Digital technology presents a plethora of opportunities to advance sustainability in the built environment through innovative solutions that enhance energy efficiency, mitigate environmental impacts, and enhance adaptability and resilience against climate change. They play a pivotal role throughout the entire lifecycle of buildings, from inception to ongoing operations. For instance, digital mapping and data analytical tools such as geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing technologies, and cloud-based data analytics are integral in sustainable urban planning by providing insights, optimising resource use, and aiding in informed decision-making. Artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics can be used on construction sites to streamline waste sorting, reduction, and recycling processes. Smart grids, intelligent lighting, and automated temperature control systems optimise energy consumption in buildings and infrastructure.
Digital technology presents a plethora of opportunities to advance sustainability in the built environment through innovative solutions that enhance energy efficiency, mitigate environmental impacts, and enhance adaptability and resilience against climate change.
Integrated with AI and machine learning, these technologies could proactively predict and manage energy needs with high precision. Additionally, integrating advanced sensors into an Internet of Things (IoT)-based building management system (BMS) enables data-driven decision-making, offering insights derived from real-time data that lead to optimised utilisation of energy.
Incorporating digital elements into the built environment also encounters a myriad of challenges. A primary challenge lies in the interoperability between technologies and platforms, which often entails substantial technical and financial investment. Further, as digital solutions grow increasingly sophisticated to address intricate environmental and sustainability challenges, they inadvertently give rise to a ‘digital divide’. This division manifests in two distinct ways, namely, a ‘digital competence divide’, stemming from the need for skilled personnel to operate and manage these complex systems, and a ‘digital availability divide’, limiting digital access and benefits only to those with ample financial resources.
Moreover, the evolution towards a more digitalised built environment underscores another challenge – data privacy, ownership, and security. The exponential growth in data availability and the shift towards more centralised digital platforms amplify these concerns. Last, another significant challenge lies in developing regulatory and governance frameworks that are as agile and adaptable for the technologies they aim to regulate. These frameworks must evolve in step with technological advancements to ensure that they remain effective and relevant in a rapidly changing digital landscape.
Digital technology-enabled transformation in the built environment
The impact of COVID-19 has highlighted the need for digital transformation as organisations face growing pressure to adapt to evolving market conditions, client expectations, and technological disruptions. Digital technologies, particularly those within the scope of Industry 4.0, have emerged as crucial enablers for achieving digital transformation in the built environment.
Our research project focuses on digital technology-enabled transformation within the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) sector. We began with a systematic review to obtain insights into the global landscape of technology implementation across the AEC sector. This initial broad review paved the way for our investigation into digital technology and organisational digital competency.
Our study covers two core areas: 'digital technology adoption' and 'digital technology implementation'. These two areas, while distinct, are closely interconnected. For the former one, we examined various determinants influencing decisions related to technology adoption. Our investigation covered the digital readiness of AEC firms, the digital competence of industry practitioners, and the interaction between organisational digital readiness and a firm's digital competence. We also investigated factors (both barriers and motivators) affecting digital technology adoption decisions and thoroughly examined the decision-making units, processes, and dynamics that came into play. With regard to the latter, we focused on developing a transformative roadmap to facilitate digital technology-enabled transformation in the AEC sector. This stage of research involved an in-depth exploration of practical use cases, deployment patterns, and emerging trends in digital technology-enabled AEC project management. Further, we explored the enabling measures that facilitate effective digital technology implementation in real-life scenarios and embarked upon the prototyping, generalisation, and validation of a digital technology-enabled transformation roadmap.
This research project offers a comprehensive view of how digital technologies are adopted and implemented in the AEC sector, bridging gaps between theoretical insights and practical strategies. Specifically, our findings enable potential early adopters to navigate the complex landscape of digital solutions. Our findings clarify the potential integrations of digital technologies, their application domains, and their impacts on project outcomes, making the adoption process less risky and more accessible. Further, we conducted an in-depth examination of multi-faceted elements that influence the adoption of digital technologies, assisting firms with informed decisions. Going beyond identifying influential determinants, we provided a transformation roadmap, a tangible and practical guide that supports firms on their digital transformation journey. It is not only about choosing different technologies but also ensuring that the transformation is technically adept, strategically sound, and outcome-driven.
Emerging research frontiers for sustainable digital integration
One segment of our research project examined the deployment patterns and emerging trends of digital technologies across five engineering and construction firms through comparative case studies. We identified several key areas for further investigation. These included the advancement of all-in-one digital solutions, renewable energy technologies for smarter and sustainable energy management, and advanced integration of multiple digital technologies to bolster sustainability and resilience in the built environment.
The firms in our study not only demonstrate a profound grasp of AI's capabilities but also adeptly incorporate them into their projects, indicating a more pervasive and effective application of AI than previously documented. This evolving landscape underscores the need for ongoing research to explore the intricate ways in which AI and other digital technologies are contributing to a sustainable and resilient built environment.
Sustainable structures and infrastructures
We are passionate about supporting researchers, policymakers, and practitioners in their efforts to minimise the environmental impact of structures and infrastructures.