Digitalisation of the infrastructure sector – from data silos to seamless benefits

Recently, there have been articles on how the infrastructure sector, which is deemed to be conservative, has also become excited over digitalisation. It is a great thing to talk about the opportunities opened up by new technology in the sector, but occasionally it might be forgotten that the digitalisation of infrastructure actually began decades ago.

Computer-controlled jumbo drilling rigs—robots that are programmed and operate in the same space—were deployed in tunnel construction already in the 1980s, for example. The software was different back then, but the basic principle has not changed much.

Over the last 10 years, new technologies have provided the sector with a lot of new opportunities. One example of this is YIT’s drone concept, providing nearly real-time data on the continually changing situation at a site.

The news tends to omit how much work is required in the background for new technologies to become more common and the opportunities provided by digitalisation to materialise. Those who drive change occasionally feel progress is quite slow.

Like milk, data goes sour

Data silos are an essential factor that has slowed down digital development in the infrastructure sector and other sectors. Data has been collected before, too, but it has remained hidden behind walls and unable to communicate with information existing outside the silo. The overarching ambition of digitalisation, on the other hand, is to create data repositories and architecture in which data, once generated, can be used and refined for other future purposes as well. It is necessary to get data to flow freely wherever it is needed.

Many organisations in the infrastructure sector have already set off to unravel the issue of silos via cloud services and machine learning, among other means. The aim is to share data between different parties at the site.

However, data is often not shared until certain work phases have been completed. In this case, it is forgotten that data is somewhat similar to milk—they both have a best before date. Drone footage from a year ago, for example, is spoiled milk from the point of view of project management as it tells us nothing about the current situation. It is crucial how fast the data is available for use.

Ease of use provides the biggest benefits

Another obstacle, and perhaps an even bigger one, to the progress of digitalisation is people. We might not be willing to change our mindsets or customs at the same pace as digital tools, which evolve at an increasing rate.

Continuous learning is a wise work strategy for all of us, and it will only grow in importance. On the other hand, companies can also meet their employees halfway in their choices of technology. Many companies in the infrastructure sector have not even aimed to pursue the very best and most advanced technology, but a sufficiently good option that employees and partners can quickly adopt. Usually, the best-working solutions are ones that are easy to learn and adopt. Such solutions are also used.

End-users’ need for information is the guiding star that provides the business benefits of data in the infrastructure sector as well, and good user experiences promote the achievement of these benefits.

Jari Pelkonen
BIM Specialist, infrastructure projects

Martti Keskinen
Development Director, YIT


The text was originally published in Tekniikka&Talous on 15 April 2020.