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What impact is the onward march of data and analytics going to have on the civil engineering profession?
As an ICE Fellow whose career has taken him into the world of data, analytics and financial services, it seems that we are rapidly reaching a point – if we are not there already –where data and analytics in their many guises are now pervasive across all industries including civil engineering.
Analysts Gartner predict that by 2020 almost half of all industries will be using a form of predictive analytics. That is to say, using data and analytics to anticipate volumes, demands, weather conditions and presumably (in an engineering context) loading and predictive maintenance.
By 2030 we will be well on the way to the use of cognitive analytics, aka ‘artificial intelligence’, to assist us in both our professional and private lives. Those sceptics who think this is just hype need only look to the current use of AI in diagnosing cancer or assisting in wealth management.
At a more simplistic level sat-nav in cars is now commonplace and we are frequently prompted by ‘the system’ to choose our next music purchase, TV programme or book.
Like almost all other industries civil engineering will go through inevitable transformation in this new era of data. Technology will become not only the great enabler of change but will reinvent the industry. In doing so, engineering will become increasingly attractive to the younger, more tech-savvy generation.
What will be the civil engineering equivalent to ‘fintech’ and London’s Silicon Roundabout? Maybe it will in part reside at the Geovation Hub in Shoreditch which combines data, technology and location - surely a place ideally suited to innovative BIM?
Of course there will always need to be someone to do the physical construction but insurers are already looking to reduce accidents (and employer liability claims) through the use of personal devices which ensure that construction workers do not undertake hazardous activities.
To meet the needs of the future not only will ICE itself need to change but as individuals we need to go through a cultural shift of thinking. Even our industry leaders will need to change. After all, what experience do they have of this new era of information? Perhaps leadership will move from being a person to being a process?
Alongside all this is the inevitable ethical question. Who ultimately will own all this data about us and how will it be used and safeguarded? The regulators will play a part but isn’t it for the industry itself and for professional institutions to provide some form of compass?
Because of these issues it’s essential that engineers have a 360 degree view of what is happening. The engineering profession cannot afford to exist in isolation. As engineers, we need to understand the entire landscape so that we can contribute effectively .
As a young engineer, I was told that civil engineering is about “harnessing the great powers of nature”. Maybe our future is now , in part, about harnessing the great powers of data?
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