Commentary: The drive for a 'Digitally Built' Australia

Council Associate Partner PSCG has been at the forefront of much of the Digital Built Britain policy shaping and framework development work in the UK. In this article, Asia Pacific Consulting Director Gavin Cotterill speaks out about the opportunity lost if Australia doesn’t embrace a rigorous targets-driven approach to digitally transforming Australia’s built environment — Adam Beck


It is a clear September day and gathering at King’s Cross Station is a unique group of tourists.

The pack – which includes industry leaders, financiers and Government representatives – have travelled from Australia on a fact-finding mission about the delivery of world-class infrastructure.

The three-day Australian British Infrastructure Investment Catalyst (ABIIC) event aimed to facilitate the exchange of ideas and experience in the delivery of major projects.

As well as escaping the conference centre to site visits such as the impressively renovated King’s Cross and the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the delegates were addressed by many of the biggest names in the UK architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sectors. These included Lord Adonis, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission and Sir Terry Morgan, the Crossrail chairman.

In Australia – the world’s sixth largest country – as in the UK, the future of the built environment sector forms a central plank of the economic and political debate.

But whilst the UK is forging ahead with its Digital Built Britain programme to digitise the entire life-cycle of its built assets, improve productivity and reduce waste through the wide-spread utilisation of Building Information Modelling (BIM), the Australian commonwealth government currently lags behind.

Though there has been a growing movement behind BIM adoption, there is no joined-up digital built environment narrative.

Yet the need for a forward-thinking approach towards the design and delivery of the built environment is clear: It is key to helping Australia meet some of the many challenges it faces including demographic pressure, energy demand, transport inefficiency, housing needs and climate change.

Australia’s population growth has been amongst the fastest in the developed world with both Sydney and Melbourne projected to be home to almost eight million people by 2050.

The continent’s overall population is expected to grow to 30.5 million in 2031 – up from 22.3 million in 2011.

By 2031, demand for many of the country’s key urban road and rail corridors is projected to significantly exceed current capacity. The country is also seeing its competitiveness lag in relation to other developed economies – since 2005, it has lost ground on productivity relative to all G8 nations.

The UK – which shares many similar challenges to Australia – recognised that a strategy to modernise its approach towards the planning and delivery of its infrastructure would help it meet the challenges it faces now and in the future. Australia also needs to fundamentally re-think its approach.

A structured, centrally-led digitalised built environment programme will enable it to secure its position on the world stage and its status as an attractive investment proposition.

The challenges
One stumbling block which has hampered the acceleration to a digital built environment in the continent has been a fragmented national approach.

This was highlighted in a paper last year, from Australia’s Digital Built Environment Task Group 4: “Each jurisdiction in Australia has typically taken a different approach to each aspect of creating more digital built environments,” it explained.

It added that “…the limitations of existing, un co-ordinated approaches are becoming increasingly apparent and are limiting the ability of …efficiencies and innovation to deliver on potential economic, social and environmental benefits.”

A similarly uncoordinated approach is evident with the private AEC industry itself. The paper noted “a lack of consistency of approach… increasing disagreement and conflicting expectations observed relative to the level of technical detail being discussed.”

The risks posed by this lack of a centrally driven programme from either the commonwealth or state government was succinctly highlighted by buildingSMART, which said that “without government leadership, different states, government departments and industry players could adopt different standards… leading to missed opportunities and a loss of productivity.”

Another hurdle has been Australia’s relatively backward approach to technology, not just in the AEC sectors but across the board.

In 2014 Australia ranked 7th globally for internet penetration but the affordability of digital access was ranked 49th and its internet speeds were ranked well behind leading nations such as Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

A recent authoritative study from McKinseyexplained that “despite notable green shoots… most of Australia’s companies remain some distance away from the… true digital ‘technical limit’ – that is, the full exploitation of existing technologies.”

Digital maturity, it said, looked to be an increasingly important indicator of economic performance, while concluding that the potential benefits of seizing the opportunities of technologies such as the Internet of Things had the potential to contribute between A$140 billion and A$250 billion to Australia’s GDP by 2025.