Flowing Towards a Sustainable and Resilient Infrastructural Future

Returning from London in October 2018 as the sole winner of the United Nations’ (UN) World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO) Young Engineers competition, I found it to be somewhat a déjà vu experience.

Back in 2015, I went to California, proudly flying the Singapore flag, to receive my American Water Works Association’s PhD prize – the first ever award for a doctoral dissertation outside of North America since 1966. I was reminded of how Singapore, a nation scarce in natural resources and densely populated, could be so successful in rolling out its sustainability and environmental policies. In fact, the sustainability movement has evolved globally with most governments and private entities being acutely aware of environmental issues, and many viewing the environment as a strategic asset and a source of economic opportunity.

This is evident at the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) where conversations are around limiting global warming. Many on ground observations have already outpaced what the modelling and simulations have been warning us about, and it is timely to consider climate change adaptation more seriously than mitigation.

The philanthropic project which I led for the Hlaing Thar Yar township in Myanmar when I was the Deputy Director for Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute Community Development (NEWRIComm) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) illustrated the intricate complexity of our environment, and the importance of social and economic consideration, in providing safe water to an under-served community. Striking a balance is key to the success of the project with coordinated planning and execution.

Case Study: Woes of the HIaing Thar Yar Community

Hlaing Thar Yar is a large industrial city in the Yangon region. A severe Cyclonic Storm Nargis hit the city in early May 2008, which caused the worst natural disaster ever recorded in the history of Myanmar.

Following the disaster, the community was forced to live in slum-like conditions. The city was ill-equipped with proper waste and water management systems. The community did not have access to clean water due to the polluted brackish underground water in the area. As a result, it had to purchase portable water for their daily needs. The Don Bosco School in HIaing Thar Yar which serves 350 children and parishioners through school programmes and religious activities was in dire need of access to clean water.

Water Management: Making Every Drop Count

The only water source within reasonable proximity from the school’s compound is its polluted saline ground water. To provide a proper water management system, we proposed a Reverse Osmosis (RO) treatment system (please refer to Illustration 1) designed to produce 5-10 cubic metres of drinking water daily[1]. To ensure that the system is protected from natural elements like soil conditions, supporting civil and structural components were designed in-house for quality assurance and cost effectiveness.

It is known in the industry that the utilisation of an RO system is energy intensive and expensive, and may not be suitable for community development projects. This is compounded by the extensive pre-treatment required which results in higher operational costs.

[1] System is designed at 1m3/h average production with double capacity at maximum. 1500 pax @ 10m3/day = 6.8L/pax/day for only essential drinking and cooking according to WHO guidelines that requires minimum 5.5L/pax/day.


Illustration 1: Reverse Osmosis (RO) Treatment System (Photo credit: Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute)

Hence, a sustainable model was formulated to ensure that the resources required for water production is sufficient for the community to operate and maintain. Affordability in the production of water remained key for this project.

The engagement with local authorities, village head, the school and community resulted in a positive and meaningful outcome. The school was subsequently appointed as the overall-in-charge to manage the operations and maintenance of the RO treatment system.

Well-oiled Machine & Community

Designed with the community in mind, the project which was funded by the Lien Foundation, utilises proven technology to achieve the most economical and sustainable solution for water management & treatment. Critical instrumentation like pressure transmitter, conductivity meter and oxidation-reduction potential are placed at various process stages for continuous monitoring. These stages are conscientiously selected for the project for their simplicity, ease of maintenance and ability to support the concept of affordability at its core.

To do this, we had to understand intrinsically the process and importance of control and automation. The most common cost of failure in an RO system is the ineffective pre-treatment process. This often results in poor reliability of the system, degrading life span of membrane and high operating cost. Overdosing of coagulants and overfeeding of chlorination will also cause common failures which affect the RO system. To prevent such problems, process instrumentations are used to monitor critical parameters such as differential pressure, conductivity, oxidation, and early warning signs of pre-treatment failure.

Another main concern in today’s conventional water treatment control system is that they lack the ability to communicate all processes monitoring from a centralised location, especially at remote location(s). Also, this complex control system requires skilled operators to monitor and control the process operation. In the case of Don Bosco School, the locals are not trained in this field. And to resolve these issues, an IoT (Internet of Things) protocol was introduced to allow remote monitoring of the process.

Going by Gold Standards

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) Performance Standards is widely accepted as a global standard to ensure projects are developed in a sustainable fashion – conserving natural resources, protecting people’s livelihoods and promoting project benefits. The Performance Standards provide guidance on how we can identify and manage risks and impacts, as well as outlining requirements for stakeholders’ engagement and disclosure obligations. In addition, projects must also conform to in-country regulations and international obligations.

Through funding from the Lien Foundation, NEWRIComm has embraced the IFC concept which exhibited the essence of sustainability in evaluating the project, ie assessment with the community in mind. This is essentially what global international financing and aid funding organisations, including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, AusAid, US Millennium Challenge encompass. It is important that social and environmental sustainability hold equal weightage in delivering a sustainable and resilient infrastructure to alleviate poverty.


The Hlaing Thar Yar township project, administered by NEWRIComm and funded by Lien Foundation, provides for the improved development of the community. I quote from Chairman of Surbana Jurong and Changi Airport Group, Mr Liew Mun Leong’s book, entitled: Sunday Emails from a Chairman (Volume 5, 20th Anniversary Edition, Page 91), “Economic studies have proven that a development strategy based on sustained, large-scale investments in strategic infrastructure projects can contribute significantly to a country’s economic growth”. I resonate strongly with Chairman’s sharing. We need to be conscientious that for infrastructure to be sustainable, it needs to gain wide acceptance by the community-at-large, which paves way in exhibiting its full value to support inclusive human development. Failure to do so will only result in a building or structure with no purpose or a state of derelict, i.e. the common notion of a white elephant.

While emphasis on the project’s technical soundness and economic viability should not be over stressed, it needs to be guided by a few attributes during its conception stage to achieve its eventual value. I am inspired by the five virtues of Confucius:

Ren (仁); Kindness & Empathy (Meeting Needs)

  • This infrastructure is meant to serve the people. Any infrastructure will need to be designed with end-users in mind, so it will be taken care of like its own.

Yi (义); Fairness (Win-Win)

  • The financier, consultants, developers, and owners have profits to make, which sometimes result in the community being forgotten and forsaken. Without the inclusion of community, it is only a short-term gain without an equitable long-term framework for a sustainable and continuous development.

Zhi (智); Wisdom (Innovation)

  • Take more calculated risks. We need to innovate continuously, and not rely on others to do the work for us.

Xin (信); Trust (Collaboration)

  • Tap on one another’s network and expertise, to provide quality proposals and deliver projects on time and on budget.

Li (礼); Respect (Joint Ventures)

  • While we may be superior in terms of techniques and knowledge, we need to remember that we must never take this as an entitlement. Every country has its own rules and culture, local knowledge is more important than what the best technology can bring.

About Nanyang Environment & Water Research Institute (NEWRI)

NEWRI is part of the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and is globally ranked amongst the top research organisations in the environment & water domain. NEWRIComm has been conferred multiple accolades, including the NTU Humanitarian Award 2018, and both ASEAN Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award and IES Prestigious Engineering Award in 2017 – for its novel and innovative solution in a community development project in Sri Lanka.

[1] System is designed at 1m3/h average production with double capacity at maximum. 1500 pax @ 10m3/day = 6.8L/pax/day for only essential drinking and cooking according to WHO guidelines that requires minimum 5.5L/pax/day.

Powering the Water Sector Using Smart Technology

Flowing and Taking Form, Digitally

Universally, the Water Sector has embarked on a journey towards digital transformation, in tandem with the technology shifts happening in other infrastructure industries. Smart technology has crept into our lives, in ways we do our work as designers, and how various infrastructure owners operate and maintain their assets.

It is an exciting time for our industry, and it is interesting figuring out which side of the fence we are sitting on. We need to ask ourselves; do we want to miss the opportunities presented by new technologies, or do we want to be an early adopter?

The key to success is being aware, adaptable and be ready to take on change.

Not only must we be open to the digital innovation wave that is presented to us, we must also be ready to select the technologies we want to champion and apply early. In doing so, our clients can capitalise on these advances.

A large part of SMEC’s business derive from setting foot in the early adopters’ camp. We take on proven technologies and processes as they become available to us, and partner with companies to drive new opportunities. Some of the real value is making technologies available, and tailoring them to our clients’ specific needs.

Novel Ways to Capture and Interpret Data

Remote data capture is already embedded within the engineering community across the board and particularly within the hydropower, dams and water sector.

We move across various spectrums of technology – from aerial photography, to drones, LIDAR, 3D scanning and multiple forms of remote capture that acquire a broad data scope. The team focuses on cross-examining the data, and importantly, aims to capitalise the depth and richness of the data in different ways. A great example of this is how we manage both the collection and interpretation of data from drones.

While we are accustomed to using drones for project images and videos, our requirements have also advanced at a rapid pace.  Often, there is significant cost and time involved, and limitations on how much data a person can collect within a certain amount of time. Now we are starting to use drones in confined spaces, inside a reservoir, pipeline, manholes, pits and places which potentially pose danger to people.

The role of the engineer has also shifted in how he uses technology in a much more interactive and effective way, to increase the quality of data captured – including real time capabilities.

Back in the office, we use smart automation to connect multiple data sources and analyse the results. The data interpretation is complex and operators still require a solid technical background to understand how to analyse the data.

Driving Innovation Through BIG Data Analytics

It is possible to capture large data sets from clients over several years of asset monitoring. We utilise unguided analytics – find patterns in the data without any technical preconceptions – to extract valuable insights, and then leverage on our technical experience to understand and apply those patterns.

This is a process which has been applied recently with Queensland Urban Utilities (QUU), one of the largest water distributor-retailers in Australia – supplying drinking water, recycled water and sewerage services to a population of more than 1.4 million in South East Queensland. The SMEC team did some unguided analytics on the work order history of sewage pump station assets (such as requests for repairs, replacement and other works) as part of the “Enhanced Condition Assessment Programme”. The analytic plots revealed patterns and trends in the dataset which allowed QUU to make informed decisions on how to prioritise their maintenance efforts, future budgets and reduce the operational risk of assets (i.e. assets which are causing the most outages/disruptions, and then targeting them for future maintenance strategies). We were able to pull trends from the data results and confidently engage QUU with data driven recommendations to improve maintenance operations across their asset portfolio.

Championing VR/AR

The SMEC team also recently completed a 3D scanning project in the galleries of a wastewater treatment plant for South Australia Water. This project involved areas which were difficult to access by conventional means. The team produced a 3D model of the galleries which was used as an important resource for the design of key remediation works.

In addition to producing the 3D design, SMEC has championed virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) in the built environment. Other civil engineering and water infrastructure projects include the iconic Snowy 2.0 project, a proposed pumped-hydro expansion of the Snowy Mountains (New South Wales) Scheme which will supercharge its existing hydro-electric generation and large-scale storage capabilities. Here, we utilised VR construction visualisation. Additionally, we have transformed the design into an animated construction sequence where we can see how the project will actually be constructed.

Technology’s Role in Water Security

A recent online article in Create magazine (https://www.createdigital.org.au/magazines/australias-water-security-issues-engineering/) written by my SMEC colleague, Jonathan Kent, outlines how Australia is increasingly adopting dams and engineered water storage. He described how other more high-tech and expensive technologies such as desalination have been installed to provide increased water security to major urban areas. I agree that providing water security to the driest and most in-need areas is the most challenging issue to overcome, especially when urbanisation of major coastal centres continues.

The SMEC team is providing expertise to address the issue, and we are working with Water New South Wales (NSW) on the implementation of the Wentworth to Broken Hill Water Supply Project, which will provide greater water security to regional NSW.

Leading Innovation Across Other Areas of Specialties

To keep up with challenging external environments, our clients and partners are increasingly placing high values on innovation. SMEC has entrenched this culture of innovation with an Innovation Grants Programme, which provides employees an opportunity to pitch and refine their ideas for innovation, and a chance to secure funding to develop their ideas.

Our commitment to smart technologies within the water sector aligns with our broader interest in renewables and sustainability. Our designs positively impact the built environment and help to shape a better future for all.

SMEC was also the Design Lead on the Sydney Metro Northwest surface and viaduct civil works (SMNW-SVC) project, which has been consistently recognised for innovation and sustainability. In 2015, the project won a Leading Design IS rating from the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia for the most environment-friendly project design. In 2017, the project was recognised as a “Leading” As-Built IS rating – the highest possible score for sustainability. And in 2018, the project clinched “Project of the Year” and “Global Best Rail Project” from Engineering News-Record (ENR), which described its design as ‘elegant, innovative and sustainable’.

This article was first published in Infocus, SMEC’s digital platform (http://www.smec.com/infocus/expertise/powering-the-water-sector-using-smart-technology/)

Drones at Work – Eyes in the Sky!


Drones are now one of several technologies that are transforming every stage of the engineering and construction process. Its use does not only constitute to productivity boost, but every advancement in drone technology provides for better airspace awareness, transformative designs and more intelligent piloting modes.

Surbana Jurong (SJ) is no stranger to drones which have many uses, from conducting inspections and surveillance, to security-led activities by AETOS (Member of the Surbana Jurong Group), and the Infrastructure team has been using drone inspection for land reclamation, and high precision data collection.

SJ has introduced drones in projects across the entire building lifecycle, from planning & design to construction & operations, to improve overall operational productivity and effectiveness.

As drone technologies (both hardware and software) become more developed, there is no doubt that drones help save time and hence, reduce overall costs substantially. Comparing with data collection from the ground; aerial techniques can provide more accurate site surveys, aerial data, photos, videos, thermal signatures, and other useful information in a fraction of the time.

Remote Sensing Made Easy

Traditional remote sensing studies require the academician to engage chartered manned aerial vehicle to capture dataset or make use of satellite imagery, followed by long man-hours to geo-tag, and lastly stitching of individual images to form an orthomosaic image.

Modern drones can now be equipped with payload [ie, the weight a drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can carry] such as high-resolution cameras, geo-location sensors, infrared sensors, LiDAR, and can also be highly customisable depending on requirement of datasets. Together with refined photogrammetry software, millions of key points can be generated within a short span of hours with minimum human intervention.

So, How Do We Make Data Useful?

First, we make use of the contextual information which can now be imported into a survey software to create 3D models of existing conditions. These models will help in determining feasibility, understanding constructability, and help owners visualise what the project will look like upon completion. It can also be used to identify areas of risk.

Most work plans start with an accurate current topography map, with elevated contour lines and detailed 2D & 3D models for the Land Survey department, coupled with fill & earthwork hauling specifications for our Infrastructure department for rapid calculation. In this case, drones are used for surveys and inspections. And at a more progressive advanced stage, these activities will be enhanced with Artificial Intelligence, and further streamlined with Building Information Modelling (BIM) workflow.

A recent example of a drone job of this nature was when SMEC (Member of the Surbana Jurong Group) Dams Team travelled to the Eungella Hinterland in North Queensland to conduct a site recce as part of the Urannah Dam Feasibility Study. At the site, a drone was used to capture video footages, which were subsequently used by the project team to carry out their studies and video conversion. And still shots have been incorporated in relevant sections of the report.

From the end-user/client’s perspectives, drone surveys help inject real-world conditions into design and constructability conversations. The ability to easily capture site information improves the rate at which designs can be iterated on. Please refer to illustration 1 on how drones can be utilised during a design and build project lifecycle.

One simple method is to take an aerial shot of what potential tenants and investors would see when they look out from their office. This includes other visuals such as the reface views of the development, building models in the neighbourhood context, and even 180 or 360 degree visualisation from each floor.

Illustration 1: The use of drones during a design and build project lifecycle. Image credit: SJ Academy

Construction jobsite monitoring can use drones to capture pictures for daily, weekly, and monthly progress reports, or site survey maps that provide foundation for work plans. Drone images used in daily progress reports are great for change detection: they can help uncover issues that allow site managers to quickly resolve problems that can lead to performance delays.

Highly sensitive thermal camera can also be used as a payload in drone to assist facilities and security management teams in the creation of “live” data such as hotspot and water ingress behind façade.

And in the case of security management, AETOS uses drones for crowd surveillance and general security at major events. “AETOS has accumulated extensive experience in providing state-of-the-art UAV Services to the Singapore market, ranging from security surveillance and safety inspections to 3D modelling, photogrammetry and even land surveying”, shared by Robin Littau, Vice President (Business Development) of AETOS Holdings.

Robin continues, “Drones are able to complement traditional surveillance methods by covering larger areas, including blind spots while acting as a deterrent to illegal activities. Their versatility and reliability, as well as their potential to increase efficiency and productivity when used to aid ground operations, make UAVs a worthwhile investment for businesses in the security and safety industry”.   

Embracing the Technology; Small Step for Big Result

BIM offers cost and time savings, creates greater accuracy in estimation, and cuts down on errors, alterations, and rework due to information loss. To reap the benefits of BIM, everyone in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries will have to learn to work in fundamentally new ways.

As BIM-plus-drones is a whole new paradigm, taking small steps when implementing a BIM/drone data project is recommended. Choose the appropriate steps and tackle them one at a time. Do a test run on a pilot project, compare, and then use the pilot project to prepare for wider BIM/drone data implementation.


The key takeaway for drone technology is the ability to collect data, and to execute the same mission over and over without causing huge disruptions operationally. A long-term cost and manpower saving tool for the build sector, it has survived the test of time, and has proven to cut down human and technical errors. The drone technology has undergone many generations of technological advancements. And what’s left really is how much the value chain can take to its use, and embrace it in tandem with the digital age.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Wanted: A New Paradigm for Construction

The Business of the Future

It’s an exciting time to be in the world. Humankind is dipping its toe into an expanding ocean of transformative technological innovation. The popular media is full of headlines claiming that technological innovations in medicine, transportation, finance, manufacturing and service industries are about to transform our lives. Social media is full of melodrama on Artificial Intelligence and how our world is about to change. Futurists like Gerd Leonhard warn us that we must embrace this challenge now, and not bury our heads in the sand or risk becoming a short biological prelude to a machine intelligence explosion.

But this article isn’t about predicting the future, it’s about looking hard enough and being brave enough to take action. We can all look back at predictions of the future made decades ago and laugh at their naivety, however any such disappointing points of reference simply divert attention from the fact that the accelerating rate of technological development will impact all our lives in the near future.

If you were working as a salesman in the automotive industry, a taxi driver, or even as an insurance or legal professional, would you have known 10 years ago that machine learning, coupled with advancements in scanning technology, would not only render drivers irrelevant but literally transform our paradigm for personal transportation? Probably not. In the coming years, a similar story will unfold in finance, law, service industries and many other professions.

Business leaders across the globe are now spending more and more time looking into the future. Artificial intelligence, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology and robotics are poised to penetrate and transform our industries, and business leaders want to be ahead of the curve. Futurism is now big business and business is taking it very seriously indeed.

Getting Left Behind

But what about the construction industry? Of all humankind’s industries, it is surely the most fundamental; fulfilling our basic physiological and safety needs described in Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs. Indeed, the Institution of Civil Engineers defines civil engineering in its Royal Charter as;

…the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature for the use and convenience of man…

Indeed, what other professions could claim such a grandiose role in society? Looking beyond the many great monuments across the world representing milestones in mankind’s historical ability to direct “the great sources of power in nature” such as the Pyramids of Giza, The Great Wall of China, The Empire State Building and the Panama Canal, the history of the built environment is littered with other lesser known but transformative technological milestones; Iron Bridge (1781, the first iron bridge), Ditherington Flax Mill (1796, the first iron framed building) and Alvord Lake Bridge (1889, the first reinforced concrete bridge) to name just a few.

The truth is these technological milestones have defined our paradigm for construction in the last few centuries. Our understanding of these traditional materials, and our ability to squeeze out ever increasing performance from them has continued to refine and improve the efficiency of the paradigm, but nevertheless the fundamental methods of construction, and the materials used to create our modern built environment, have remained exactly the same as they were.

Let’s take reinforced concrete for example. Ernest Ransome’s Alvord Bridge used deformed (twisted) reinforcement, placed by hand, and bonded to concrete poured into a shape predefined by temporary formwork. This process used in 1889 will seem familiar to many construction professionals today because it has fundamentally remained unchanged.

At this point I may hear protests from the industry, claiming a multitude of developments in the last few decades – concrete additive technology, prefabrication, modular construction, high strength steel and concrete to name a few. These are improvements sure enough, but they are no more than incremental changes, or slightly different applications of old technologies.

A similar story is apparent when we look at design. Computers have certainly improved our efficiency in performing calculations, and in some instances have helped us to perform calculations that were not possible before, however the fundamental paradigm for design remains largely unchanged.

Concept designs are based on the often tacit experience of individuals – feeding into a collaborative, iterative process to arise at a solution which is usually measured and compared using a combination of intuition and qualitative judgement. In general terms, as a project moves through the design stages the process becomes less creative, increasingly linear, more constrained by standards and more numerically driven. Despite the computing power that can be brought to bear using a standard desktop PC, the process remains relatively disjointed, slow and typically results in a compromised, imperfect outcome.

In terms of design communication, the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) has improved our ability to visualise, measure and coordinate in three-dimensions, however the industry still insists, through fear and/or habit, on delivering 2D drawings – essentially the same format used to document designs several centuries ago.

There have been attempts in the construction industry to provide a vision of the future. A 2050 plan was recently announced by a major contractor which predicted the use of drones for surveying, Augmented Reality goggles for construction visualisation, exoskeletons for site workers and autonomous vehicles for delivery and movement of materials. When you consider that this represents a vision of construction in 33 years’ time (greater than the average age of many organisation’s employees), but is wholly based on current (or near-future) technology and relies entirely on current construction paradigms, it seems relatively short-sighted when compared with the blue-sky vision and ambition of other industries.

That’s not to say there aren’t innovation forums and platforms in the industry (i3P for example), all of which are welcomed, but I fear none really ask truly challenging questions of the industry or are brave enough to look far enough outside the box.

All of which reminds me of one of Henry Ford’s supposed quotations;

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”

Although it is quite possible he never actually said these words, they certainly ring true for the construction industry – replace the words ‘faster horses’ with ‘stronger concrete’, ‘better drawings’ or ‘more accurate surveys’ and you will see the parallels. The industry has spent the last couple of centuries trying to perfect faster horses.

So (staying with the equine analogies), while other industries have been seen accelerating technological change transform their horses into rocket-propelled drag bikes, the construction industry appears to be happy with its old lumbering nag, brushing its tail and giving it a pretty rosette from time to time when it learns a new trick.

Why is this? Where is the new paradigm for construction? What makes the construction industry different from other industries where innovation, forward thinking and technological advancements are embraced quickly with rapid rewards?

Industrial Lock-in

In Jaron Lanier’s book ‘You are not a Gadget’, he explains the concept of lock-in as it applies specifically to programming and the design of computational systems. The concept is that it can often be difficult to implement change, even when technology can provide a far better solution, simply because of the prevalence of the current system. The example Lanier gives is the use of the MIDI format in the digitisation of sound and music; a format that stubbornly persists despite its limitations. Indeed, Lanier states that lock-in hinders development and creativity as solutions are inevitably developed to work around the limitations rather than challenge them.

On this basis the construction industry has more lock-in than Alcatraz. Indeed it has more than any other industry I can certainly think of, and that includes the massive automotive industry. However, if size is not the key factor to lock-in then what is?

  • The construction industry builds unique products every time, differentiated either by brief, by design or by geographic/topographic constraints. As a result, the research phase of the product development cycle is non-existent and project teams are continually formed and disbanded without the benefit of continuity.
  • The design and delivery cycle of a construction project is typically divided by procurement models that aim to pass on risk and limit reward. It’s inherently an industry of self-interest. After all, who reaps the rewards for innovation and who carries the risks?
  • Economic drivers simply do not encourage innovation. How is anything different when there is no economic benefit to invest in change or do things differently? Why invest across boundaries when your commercial position is only as strong as your latest project?
  • Clients continue to equate value with lowest cost. Whilst there are notable exceptions to this, for many in the industry, it is extremely limiting when clients do not respect or value brands that represent quality in engineering. Whilst this can be seen in other industries, it would appear that these industries seem better at educating and influencing the market place. Why has the construction industry continually failed to educate clients away from a ‘lowest bidder wins’ mentality and towards one that values quality and innovation?
  • Standards and regulations always favour those that play safe and follow the status quo. They also vary by geographic location making it even more difficult to see the global picture when looking at the economics of innovation.

So there is lock-in on an industrial scale, the effects of which can be seen not just in an apparent lack of innovation but in stagnation of performance and a failure to meet society’s ever-increasing demands.

This is not new. Constraints to research and development in the construction industry have existed for decades and continue to hold the industry back. An example is the relatively recent application of additive manufacturing (3D printing) to the construction industry which, although holding great promise, has not yet been met with an adequate level of investment and interest by the industry;

  • 3D printing innovators are crying out for partners and investors to help them effectively penetrate the construction market.
  • Enthusiastic designers are wondering how they can apply the technology within current standards for competitive fees, or fit in a research project when they have ‘real’ projects to deliver.
  • Contractors are wondering how the technology adds value, whilst reducing cost and decreasing (or at least maintaining) levels of risk.
  • Clients just want their one-off asset at the cheapest price. Full stop.

While there is some innovative thought out there, the fact that the industry has failed to grasp the opportunities with both hands demonstrates a lack of holistic innovative thought and (cringe as I say it) an ‘out-of-the-box’ mindset. Why should it take a competition by NASA to get innovative thought moving in construction?

Similarly, in design delivery and design communication, advancements in technology have yet penetrated the industry. Issues of software compatibility, formats for data exchange, bandwidth for digital collaboration, digital change control, the application of machine learning algorithms, and the use of so-called ‘big data’ have yet to find their way to the construction market-place. The software part of the supply chain is too small to invest in the research and development necessary to apply these technologies effectively. And while the top-tier consultants inevitably use their own innovative abilities to apply patches to achieve certain aims (in the form of scripts and add-ins), the approach is parochial and the outcomes limited.

Design communication and coordination is perhaps an area where there is more of a buzz in the industry. Building Information Modelling (BIM) has gained momentum in the last decade, however this extended timeframe is symptomatic of an industry that is slow to realise the benefits of technology and stubbornly insists on keeping one foot in the past. Despite the obvious benefits in coordination, clash detection and design visualisation, one of the reasons 3D BIM was slow to penetrate the market was due to the criticism that it produced poorer quality drawings. We can all see the irony, but such lock-in is still pervasive today. 2D drawings are still a default contractual deliverable and are still the primary tool for design coordination and on-site reference. Faced with a problem, a site engineer is still likely to pull out a bulky roll of A1 drawings, thumb through them and scribble on them with a pencil – so clearly there is still much to be done to move an industry out of its comfort zone. With developments in virtual reality, and in particular augmented reality now providing tangible solutions, there is every reason to look at new paradigms for visualisation, communication and coordination that do not rely on rolls of paper, aid practical delivery and add significant value to project stakeholders. It’s not hard to see how powerful BIM could be when aligned fully with Life-cycle Asset Management and the Internet of Things.

To summarise, unlike a ‘widget’ market, where successful business models demand a more efficient widget, a different kind of widget, or even the benefits of a widget delivered in a different way, the construction market has no significant driver for change or innovation, or any effective mechanism to deliver it. The lock-in in construction is systematic and self-fulfilling. Faster horses it is then?

Time For a Change

The debate continues and the causes persist. But of course talk is easy and turning it into action is where it gets difficult. There’s clearly no magic bullet and making changes to an industry is akin to turning an oil-tanker locked on auto-pilot.

In very simple terms, the industry must turn its attention away from giving individual clients what they want and instead focus on developing new solutions for what society will need. The tail should stop wagging the dog. Clients will ultimately want what we can provide for society as it will make overriding commercial sense to provide it.

So how do we do it?…

  • More collaboration, less barriers. The construction industry is unmatched in its ability to collaborate on huge projects at very little notice, pulling together multi-disciplinary teams and extraordinary talent to solve problems. This collaboration needs to bridge across contractual, procurement and project barriers if long-term, value-adding, holistic solutions are to be realised. We need industry-led mechanisms to pull these barriers down.
  • More ambition. We need people to be ambitious and have strong and persuasive visions. Where are the industry visionaries sticking their heads up over the parapet? The industry needs to look beyond how it can utilise the innovations of other industries (although they inevitably have their place) and lead innovation from within – setting itself bigger goals. Institutions such as the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Structural Engineers are critical to engendering this ambition.
  • More learning from other industries. The construction industry will learn to innovate from within better if it looks outside itself. How do other industries do it? What barriers have they broken down? How do they work together? How do they fund research?
  • More original research. With greater collaboration and ambition, the industry will understand the research that it needs in both materials and construction methods, and the investment necessary to develop new holistic design solutions. As a regular reviewer of technical papers, I see very few that actually tread new ground or present innovative technologies or methods.
  • More understanding of the potential risks and opportunities technology presents to the industry. There is a general lack of understanding seen in other industries regarding the areas where technology will be pervasive and the consequences and strategies that go hand-in-hand with its use. The potential for automation, the application of machine learning and the future impact this will have on the design industry I will explore in a later article.

New paradigms for construction will only come from within the industry if the above challenges are met head on. So, while contemplating this challenge, it is worth remembering that the recent transformative developments in the automotive and personal telecommunication industries did not come from within those industries.

The world needs smarter construction solutions. I would like to think we are smart enough and determined enough to provide them from within the construction industry, but we must look to the future soon or someone, or who knows – maybe something, will take the future out of our hands.

BIM for Facilities Management – Towards Digital Sustainability

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. It is about information that is built up starting from the phase of design, to construction, and finally operations and maintenance, in both geometry and non-geometrical form describing building elements. It is gaining traction around the world, presenting new ways of building models that were previously not possible. So, how can a BIM model be advantageous to facility managers?

It is important to firstly understand that BIM is not a technology. While technology helps in the creation of a BIM model, the software alone does not make up BIM. It is the way in which the model is produced, shared and used throughout the entire project life cycle. And in the case of Facilities Management (FM), it means working on the same vanguard beyond construction phase.

Where Model Integrates Data

Effective FM includes the ability to achieve real-time access to accurate information on building facilities. Knowing instantly about your assets (basic information) and how things can be fixed correctly (maintenance information) are key to providing quick & effective responses to issues & problems.

With BIM modelling that integrates real-time data, FM professionals are able to plan smartly for building systems that require preventive maintenance, and understand the real-time health conditions of the operations systems. For this, extending BIM modelling through to meet the needs of FM is essential.

Manufacturers are now offering their products in BIM format, so engineers and architects can incorporate specific product data into the model from the onset. One could even create a quick link of the manufacturer’s manual and operating instructions to our BIM FM models.

BIM Processes, Standards & Classifications

The BIM development process is usually planned and defined in the BIM Execution Plan (BEP), to ensure that all parties involved have access to shared data and platform. Data exchange formats need to be agreed by the entire value chain, collaborating and contributing to the Information Delivery Process.

A step-by-step approach (Refer to Diagram 1 – BIM Guide for Asset Information Delivery) is conducted to assist the building owner in:

  • Defining and identifying information requirements at Strategic Level (Organisational Information Requirements or OIR);
  • Achieving information requirements at Operational Level (Assets Information Requirements or AIR);
  • And how this could be specified in the Tender Specifications (Employer Information Requirements, EIR). our BIM FM models.
BIM Guide for Asset Information Delivery
Diagram 1: BIM Guide for Asset Information Delivery (AID), Source: BCA Singapore

The process also establishes an Asset Data Drop throughout the whole project cycle, adding data in the build-up of the BIM model. It is designed for BIM managers to manage all data drop during the design stage, and further complete it throughout the entire construction stage.

The current situation with the design and build sector is that asset information handovers are usually done in the form of 2D drawings or paper documents. Hence, COBie (Construction-Operations Building information exchange) standard is introduced as an open, standardised electronic format to replace the current paper-based documents. In general, the COBie standard was developed for the exchange of information including spaces, equipment and assets. This standard defines expectations for the exchange of information throughout the lifecycle of a facility.

The importance of building an Asset Classification Systems in BIM (Omniclass; Uniclass or other) is to provide the sector with agreed and standardised terminology and semantics. It is a unique set of numbers to describe everything in the building element, and is usually agreed upon at the planning & design stages. It also aids the contractor to ensure the completeness of this information in the handover BIM as-built model. The as-built model will then be made suitable for further development into BIM FM models, to be integrated for building facilities management.

BIM Maturity Towards Digital Sustainability

New projects are always planned with different set of requirements. Either the client or the local authorities have high expectations of the overall process of implementation regarding building standards and sustainable design. BIM allows all parties including building owners, architects, consultants, contractors and FM, to work simultaneously with the access of shared collaboration and BIM information.

In this section, we explore the different levels of shared collaboration and information throughout the lifecycle of a building asset and these are known as BIM maturity levels. As we move across the levels, the collaboration intensity increases. There are 0-4 distinct BIM maturity levels (please refer to Diagram 2):

Diagram 2: BIM Maturity Towards Digital Sustainability

Level 0 (Low Collaboration)

At Level 0, there is no collaboration between parties collating information about a built asset. Most data is available in 2D (likely CAD) drawings, and any exchange in information is done so using paperwork.

Level 1 (Partial Collaboration)

Most organisations today are conducting their work at this level. A Common Data Environment (CDE) is used in this case. It is an online shared repository, where all the necessary project data is collected and managed. BIM Level 1 focuses on the transition from CAD to 2D/3D pieces of information.

Level 2 (Full Collaboration)

At Level 2, collaboration is introduced between teams and the process of BIM is now being followed through. There is still a lack of a single source of data, but crucially any data collected about a built asset is now shared. There is commonality in the data structure which enables a federated BIM model to be produced.

Level 3 (Full Integration)

Level 3 is where full integration (iBIM) of information is achieved in a cloud-based environment. This is accomplished through the use of a common shared model. A new dimension (6D BIM), which is also known as BIM for FM is expected to evolve and develop at this stage to address the needs of FM operators.

Level 4 (Digital Sustainability)

This level describes how 6D BIM Model can be well integrated with SMART Data to develop the final BIM FM Model within the Operational Digital Environment (ODE). A higher level of intelligence can be achieved through added information generated from Big Data Analytics. This environment (ODE) develops predictive and prescriptive ability – from iterative domain processes that optimises work efficiency, through continuous learning throughout the lifecycle of the building management.

The complete process of BIM maturity progression towards digital sustainability encompasses two stages of “transformation”. First, it will undergo a model transformation at Level 3 where a “Heavy-weight” BIM (as built) Model is “transformed” into a “Light-weight” 6D BIM Model. Irrelevant information that is not required for facilities management purposes will be taken off from the completed BIM (as built) Models.

Secondly, in order to be applicable for Facility Management, a final transformation process at Level 4 into an Asset Management System or “BIM FM” operational readiness is therefore necessary. This final stage of transformation shall rest on the Operational Digital Environment (ODE) for future digital sustainability.

Glossary of Terms

4D – A 3D representation of an asset with the element of time is included to enable simulations.

5D – A 3D representation of an asset with the element of time and cost included/linked to enable simulations, commercial management and earned value tracking to take place.

6D – A 3D representation of an asset which includes data which enables the efficient management, operation and maintenance of the completed asset.

Bringing Benefits to the FM Industry

The progress of BIM maturity delivers the following important benefits for the FM Industry:

Increased Productivity

With the ability to share information faster, easier and more accurately, it offers a significant productivity boost to the work process. The increased productivity through collaborative work can also help lower cost and increase efficiency in terms of building maintenance & management.

Efficiency Transformation

The digital transformation through leveraging on technologies requires the FM team to re-strategise current working methods. It is not just about improving the overall service quality and realigning the scope of works, but most importantly, it’s about changing mindsets and moving out of comfort zones.

Iterative Learning Process

It is by nature that we often depend on our experiences to conclude that we have reached work optimisation. Or are we less comfortable and more reluctant to manage changes? The process to digital sustainability requires continuous iterative learning push. Refining process and our domain knowledge as we move along with internal and external changes (including building management constraints and the advancement in technologies) is what we need to adapt.

Improved Liveable Environment

When attaining full integration of BIM modelling with higher efficiency in FM, more complex & higher quality buildings can be designed and built. This is also determined by the ability to manage more complex building with operations that require higher precision and service quality.


The introduction to BIM for Facilities Management represents the highest level of BIM maturity towards Digital Sustainability of the intelligent built environment. All these new processes & technologies hold potential, but it depends on how much efficiencies and group synergies can be maximised from the various stages of integration. Can the different stakeholders across the design & construction stages contribute to a better delivery of BIM model for FM? As BIM for FM is a relatively new kid on the block, adding it to the traditional FM process means rethinking how the team works together. Nevertheless, this is still an evolving practice & change that has significant meaning & value towards building a better, efficient, smarter and sustainable environment.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Facilities Management – Moving in Tandem with Technology

The old paradigm of Facilities Management (FM) is viewed primarily as a maintenance focused field, with FM team running on regular team schedule, and the use of nuts and bolts to rectify faults and breakdowns. This model has since evolved with technological advancements making great strides, having the ability to aid the facilities manager in carrying out his duties more efficiently.

The facilities manager needs to stay updated with current innovations and be prepared for digital transformation. The reality is that buildings are increasingly intelligent, all affixed with softwares, sensors, and even artificial intelligence developments.

This shift is being motivated by the convergence of a few key factors:

  • Internet of Things (IoT) in FM
  • Advanced HVAC Technology
  • Drones in FM
  • BIM for FM

The Internet of Things (IoT) in Facilities Management

In the FM sector, IoT refers to the network of internet accessible devices used by a building/facility. It relies on tools such as sensors and thermostats to evaluate data, thereby reducing the amount of energy used for each FM task. Each sensor picks up data in a building to better inform the FM team on current temperature, number of people utilising certain areas, light, vibration or even sound levels in different areas of a building.

A smart FM system is capable of interacting with the occupants and designing preventive or predictive systems for building owners. For example, organisations that provide cafeteria service for a large staff, can display a sensor system capable of detecting the amount of clean trays stacked on the shelves, so that cooks are able to find out if more food needs to be prepared.

The example of IoT is better described using the human anatomy. With better communication between the sum of different body parts, it yields better results for a healthy person with a fully functional body system. In the case of using IoT systems, it can potentially reduce total energy bills, and provide insightful data to improve the entire value chain of a building.

The Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI), where it is home to state-of-the-art vertical green walls that run on an automatic irrigation system is an example on the use of sensors (in this case to measure water levels) to evaluate data. This is where Surbana Jurong’s FM site team works alongside building owner, to devise a schedule that holds records on balanced water supply, ensuring that the plants are acclimatised to the unpredictable weather, and are properly hydrated. (Please refer to Diagram 1 for the vertical green walls with automatic irrigation system)

An Energy Management Programme was initiated with LLI building tenants to help them reduce carbon footprint through energy reduction. The team was able to do this by individually customising the air-con operating hours of in-house tenants, so they will automatically switch on/off during business hours. LLI has also started the use of Smart Building Management System, which works on a single platform to control various mechanical and electrical systems in the building.

The use of automation such as Robotic Cleaners, Automated Mobile Floor Scrubbers, and Customer Service Kiosks, not only improve efficiency level, there is also a significant reduction in the need to employ more cleaning staff.

Lifelong Learning Institute
Diagram 1: Lifelong Learning Institute with vertical green walls (building façade and internal walls) that run on automatic irrigation systems.

Advanced HVAC Technology

We know that the HVAC system is expensive to use and maintain in large facilities. And building owners are armed with the objective to reduce cost of heating and cooling a facility, while also reducing environmental footprint. Advancements in HVAC facility management technologies and Building Automation Systems (BAS) have come a long way in reducing FM costs, which also provide building owners the opportunity to prevent costly equipment failure by solving problems, ie preventive maintenance, before they occur.

In the last couple of years, technology and the implementation of “Green” ideas have prompted some transformational changes in HVAC systems. The Hive @ National Technological University of Singapore (NTU) first adopted and implemented the Passive Displacement Ventilation (PDV) technology, with the assistance of Surbana Jurong’s FM team in their maintenance efforts. PDV is a method of cooling a room where no fans are required, resulting in the elimination of vibration and noises from the supplied air flow. The building is equipped with special metal coils with cold water flowing through them. This cools the wind which enters the classroom and removes hot air via convection. In addition, the openings between pods allow for natural ventilation to the atrium, corridors, staircases, and lift lobby. As PDV does not contain mechanical parts, the likelihood of faults and breakdown is reduced significantly. Manpower needed for maintenance is also decreased, as it only involves vacuuming and draining the system. In the following years, approximately half of NTU’s campus space will be retrofitted with PDV.

Surbana Jurong’s FM team has also proposed and assisted NTU to implement several energy savings strategies for its Air-Conditioning & Mechanical Ventilation (ACMV) systems. These notable energy saving strategies based on a two-pronged approach have helped NTU achieve the required energy efficiency for the BCA Green Mark Platinum Award.

Drones in Facilities Management

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, bring about incredible opportunities for improved efficiency in FM. They are set to revolutionise the way FMs work. Access equipment such as aerial work platforms, scaffolding and lifts is expensive, but is necessary to inspect rooftops and other hard-to-reach areas. It is also time-consuming to build and put in place, and then to tear down. Drones, on the other hand, allow inspections of areas that are difficult to access or dangerous to monitor, saving time and keeping workers safe. JTC Corporation, in which Surbana Jurong provides services & support for its industrial projects, uses drones to carry out trial and façade inspections.

The speed of collecting data is another huge benefit for FMs who use drones. It is not just money saved in man hours, it is also money saved through getting equipment back in place sooner than later.

BIM for Facility Management

Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a method of creating and using coordinated computational information about a building project in design, construction and operation. It is gaining traction around the world, presenting new methods of analysing models in ways that were not previously possible.

BIM takes on different meanings to different stakeholders – it is based on the different requirements and objectives across the entire building lifecycle. Architects can analyse designs and look at more design iterations earlier in the process, and provide basic rendered models faster to help communicate design intent. Engineers can understand how their systems will affect building design, operation requirements, sustainability and cost. Construction teams can use BIM model for time and cost management in the fabrication and assembly process. Facility Managers can have 3D visualisation from the geometry model of the design, and both the model and data can be ported into FM systems to better manage the building.


The demands of constantly building the most technologically advanced FM systems and automation is prevalent in keeping pace with the growth of global economy. Integration is key to streamlining processes, and the involvement of FM at every stage of building plan, design and construction is crucial

The role of the Facilities Management team, in a nutshell, also changes with time and ever-evolving technology. The FM team now plays a more involved role in co-managing/partnering a facility. While the delivery of service quality to clients remains a top priority, the ability to co-manage a facility cohesively and successfully, together with the building owner, is a skill which may not be trained.

In an organisation like Surbana Jurong that offers the full suite of urban planning, construction and maintenance, the Facilities Management team or the “Heartwares” behind it, is truly the backbone that will withstand the building’s test of time – making it operationally viable, and sustainable.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Beyond software: Are we ready for construction’s digital transformation?

Transforming the construction sector to take advantage of the opportunities presented by digital technologies is a global challenge. Singapore has a vision to meet this challenge, but is the industry prepared for the scale of change required?


The use of digital technologies is transforming the global construction industry. New data-led tools and processes are available with the capacity to boost productivity in design and construction and are already enabling new levels of efficiency and collaboration across the supply chain.

Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) is embracing this opportunity and responding to other global challenges such as climate change and rapid urbanisation with its recently launched Construction Industry Transformation Map (ITM). This intends to power Singapore’s construction industry into the modern world by supporting supply chain skills to underpin competitiveness.

The widespread use of Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD), as illustrated in diagram 1, is one of three key initiatives driving the transformation announced by BCA on 24th October 2017. IDD sits alongside the adoption of Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) techniques and the development of Green Buildings as key investments that the government hopes will radically change Singapore’s approach to construction.

Yet this transformation is a global challenge. As such, BCA’s ITM initiative looks to support existing home-grown design and management systems expertise and position Singapore’s industry ready to compete across other international economies. Changes to the syllabus taught in Institutes of Higher Learning (IHL), should see some 80,000 personnel trained to create a new national skill base ready to tackle these critical global challenges.

Integrated Digital Delivery
Diagram 1: Scope of Integrated Digital Delivery (IDD) – Credit source: Building and Construction Authority

Putting Integrated Digital Delivery at the Heart of Construction

Integrated Digital Delivery describes the use of digital technologies to integrate all processes and stakeholders throughout the construction lifecycle. It is a process which, using cloud-based technologies, enables a single, up-to-date source of project data to be accessed by all.

The adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) is the key to the success of IDD, enabling all parties and stakeholders to collaborate using advanced info-communications technology (ICT) and smart technologies.

However, there are also many design and dimensional uses of digital technologies and IDD encourages and enables information sharing while also reducing the risk of error and duplication. Technologies that underpin this delivery include:

  • The use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) and all its different dimensions such as 4D time and scheduling, 5D cost management, 6D asset management and 7D simulations;
  • Coupling peripheral technologies such as using drones for inspections;
  • Virtual, mixed, immersive, and augmented reality for visualisation;
  • Computational science to analyse data and optimise or even solve design challenges.

The BCA’s ITM puts these technologies at the heart of construction’s transformation to deliver more sustainable design and construction practices.

Making the Case for Digital Change

One of the biggest global challenges facing the construction sector as it prepares for digital transformation is overcoming the inherent social resistance to the use of new technologies. In such an established and conservative sector, establishing a robust plan for change is essential.

The move away from 2D design to embrace technology started with 3D Computer Aided Design (CAD). More recently, the widespread adoption of BIM has caused a major shift in thinking, practice, and process across the sector.

The shift towards the use of centralised cloud-based data storage as the foundation of Integrated Digital Design presents new challenges for a sector used to working locally. It will require industry professionals to adopt an open mind and to thoroughly question what and how processes should be changed to maximise potential gains.

Embracing this change should also include work to identify the potential gaps in knowledge or any immediate practical issues that might arise from the use of a cloud based system. Staff will need to be trained to embrace this new world.

Helping a generation accustomed to existing technologies and processes will require focus to steadily change their mind-set towards the use of new technologies and new ways of working. Awareness of the likely immediate impact on staff motivation is vital along with establishment of a change management programme designed to break down any barrier to adoption.

A New Approach to Design

The use of the powerful shared modelling, design and visualisation technologies are central benefits of Integrated Digital Design processes. They provide clients and developers with more options to interrogate and virtually “see” finished designs, and provide designers with an excellent opportunity to showcase and contrast a range of design options and considerations.

Significantly, this ability to rapidly assess multiple options across the design process, provides commercial opportunities. In effect, the firm capable of designing and demonstrating the best value solutions, with the best options and design, should be better positioned to win the job.

Diagram 2: Planned 4D-BIM vs Actual Progress (Project: Wisteria Mall, Mixed Use Development at Yishun Avenue 4, Singapore)

As a result, we also now see IDD, and in particular the use of 4D (as seen in Diagram 2 – the use of 4D BIM for design and consultancy works for Wisteria Mall in Yishun) and 5D BIM, driving a new approach to design in which construction and constructability is kept top of mind. This so-called Construction-Led-Design (CLD) boosts efficiency by integrating the design and construction process, preventing contractors from having to redesign proposals to suit their specific methods or working preferences.

Inevitably the sector will shift more and more towards this CLD approach as developers quickly realize that in a world of high land prices requiring quick product-to-market times, such techniques will improve yield, rates of return and profitability.

Embracing IDD processes should also underpin greater use of off-site fabrication and Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA – as seen in Diagram 3) principles to create a win-win across construction – from the client down through the supply chain. And from Singapore’s national economic perspective, this approach will improve productivity as measured by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI).

Diagram 3: Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) concept using Prefabricated Volumetric Construction (PPVC)

Unleashing the Power of Collaboration

Singapore’s ITM vision also called for greater collaboration across the construction supply chain, in the way that contracts are set out. The use of IDD is central to delivering this vision.

Traditional contracts can be adversarial, setting firms head to head with clear winners and losers. In contrast, collaborative contracts such as, for example, the New Engineering Contract, take a fairer approach; sharing information and working with a blameless culture.

The increased use of IDD in Singapore will inevitably accelerate the move towards more such collaborative contracts. But it will also prompt new roles in the industry, roles that help facilitate collaboration and help to avoid and/or decide on disputes faster so that the project can move on.

This change will require a new breed of professionals with facilitation and coaching skills to help foster better communication between the project team members. These individuals will not only have to be proficient in contracts, mediation and facilitation, but also have the technical skills to spot potential issues early.

The move to embrace digital technology will also change the way that construction professionals interact, with office spaces changing to accommodate tele-conferencing and virtual reality workshops. Co-location will be commonplace in construction teams and so-called WAR (Work Action Resolution) Rooms will enable geographically separated teams to collaborate and interact virtually.

Choosing the Right Hardware and Software

As the construction sector embraces the new digital world, it becomes increasingly important that professionals understand and manage the impact of their software and hardware choices and the associated costs.

The market for construction-focused hardware and software has grown rapidly. For example, in the virtual reality field, there are already a multitude of solutions available based around products such as the Microsoft HoloLens and HTC Vive headsets and many other platforms exist to create bespoke Immersive Virtual Reality Rooms. Each has its specific purpose, capital and operational cost, and maintenance regime which need to be thoroughly understood.

Similarly, there are also several types of collaborative platforms with different brands serving different purposes. Choosing the wrong software not only can be costly but may also cause users to dislike the software, taking them longer to embrace new work processes.

The Need for Education

Greater use of digital technology in construction has prompted a transformation in the way professionals are educated and a change to the subjects taught at universities and technical colleges.

Globally it is vital that industry works closely with academia to set out the requirements of a modern construction syllabus. With Singapore’s universities now adopting a mix of academic and practical learning, Institutes of Higher Learning (IHL) are increasingly seeking volunteers from industry to transfer their practical knowledge into education.

There is also an increasing trend for private and public-sector firms to create corporate laboratories in schools in which academics and practitioners sit together to resolve technical and management issues.

However, as more and more of engineering design becomes computerised and modelled, there are growing calls from industry for IHLs to focus on the basics and ensure that the foundations are taught well. Without these basic skills, the use of IDD process could propel the production of poor or even life-threatening designs.


The use of IDD will see future designs optimised, with buildings hosting a wide array of high-tech Internet-of-things (IoT) sensors and monitors to improve building performance, boost the quality of life for occupants and aid facilities management.

Yet embracing the required change will not be straightforward for many in this traditional sector. Leadership is vital to embed new technologies into process management and to encourage the adoption of new working practices and tools by staff.

To maximise the opportunities that this change presents, industry must shape the sector to capitalise on the digital journey. That means making investment not only in the vital hardware and software tools necessary to embrace a digital future, but also in the education required to provide professionals with the right skills.

However, it is also clear that for construction to embrace its digital future, educators cannot overlook the teaching of core engineering knowledge. While digital process can certainly enhance design and communication, there will still be a vital need for human participation, leadership and engineering skill.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

AUDIANCE: Towards Adaptive Applications

There is not a single aspect of the human experience that has not been touched by technology. Everything from industry, to construction and transportation, to how we work has been fundamentally reshaped by the technologies which emerged in the second half of the 20th century. In this section, we discuss the ease of conducting Audit Compliance checks using digitally empowered devices during site inspections, and how this virtual information can benefit users in the value chain.  

Mobile phones and tablets have become indispensable in our daily lives where we previously only communicate through text messages.  We now have our entire social networks living in the cloud with constantly changing status and content – from news, emails, to online retailing, and messaging applications that define ourselves.

The proliferation of mobile applications can be defined under two broad categories.  It allows users to either consume or to create content.  These applications can be standalone or reside on a service platform for users to do both where content can be shared to a wider audience.

Rise of Mobile Application

The beginning of the new millennium saw a rapid surge of mobile content and applications. Mobile@HDB – a mobile application developed by Housing Development Board, cleverly captures information pertaining to the resale flat prices, market rental rates, and car park information. All this is done at fingertip convenience.

Closer to heart, “OneService” is a Smart Nation initiative by the Ministry of National Development – providing a convenient channel for reporting municipal issues within Singapore. Public users may submit feedback such as cleanliness of their housing estate, and report defects & maintenance issues of the common areas they live in – all these will be efficiently attended to.

Mobile applications like these not only enhance user experience, but also increases operational productivity by capitalising on user generated feedback – to drive efficiency in addressing complaints, and thus responsiveness in attending to them.

Various applications for the construction industry have been developed, and they are mostly geared towards developers, contractors and consultants. These are enterprise grade applications that provide users anything – from document management, to whole project management suite that spans the entire spectrum of a construction life cycle.

AUDIANCEAn Adaptive Audit Compliance Application

While there are various applications built for large scale projects, there are a few that focus on the user and how they would like to use them.

Here is where AUDIANCE, an Audit Compliance (how the name was coined) application developed by Surbana Jurong, is designed to provide; it allows users to create their own forms in a standardised work flow format to monitor and analyse data captured.

AUDIANCE capitalizes the use of any tablet (iOS or Android) as a data acquisition device to capture and record audit details and synchronises the information back to the cloud.

Users can access the information captured and act upon them either through the tablet or a web interface to manage the audits made.

While AUDIANCE is suited for the construction industry, it can easily be adapted to any other industry, based on how a user defines the data that needs to be captured.


Inspections are essentially audit compliance checks, and AUDIANCE simplifies the process by providing a platform to customise audit inspections based on the user’s requirements.  Imagine how life-changing it is to have the ability to create customised forms on a tablet, as opposed to manually writing on hard copies, printing, and distributing them to various other parties for follow-up and closure.  A lot of man-hours is saved from this single exercise.

There is a gamut of administrative tools available in AUDIANCE to facilitate the management of all users.

  • It allows auditors to upload drawings as a reference plan to pinpoint (indicated by coloured pins, as seen in Diagram 1) an audit location. And each audit location can be further described with photos, comments and even status updates to indicate “non-conformance” or NC;
  • It allows the uploading of multiple layout plans, and the overlay of details for each inspection point;
  • Audit details can also be assigned to respective users, auditors or auditees – for the purpose of addressing audit comments and access details of each NC indicated, and take corrective action to close the NC observed.
Diagram 1: Coloured pins to indicate “non-conformance (NC)” of an identified site/location.

Depending on the level of data captured, AUDIANCE can be used in the following manner:

Monitor performance of audit closure. All parties involved in the project – from architects, to building contractors, site supervisors and business owners can have seamless access to the status of NC closures after rectification works are done (please refer to diagram 2).

Assess quality of work across all levels of the value chain. Dashboards allow developers, contractors and consultants to determine the number of NC generated from each contractor.  Data can be drilled further for a granular assessment of performance and quality of work.

View live status of open, in-progress and closed audits. Changes and amendments can be made on or off-line and when there is internet connection, info-synching is available to everyone in the project.

Provide analytics on any performance indicators. The backend web interface allows customised analytics to be performed based on pre-defined performance indicators.

Diagram 2: AUDIANCE’s interface displaying details on requirements, and NC’s status closure after rectifications works are done.

Adaptation – Therein Lies Its Beauty

AUDIANCE works wonderfully as a quick deployment application – helping architects, engineers, building contractors and owners to view, monitor rectification works, and update progress on floor plans, based on real time capture. Once synced to the cloud, instantaneous changes are made on multiple devices with the latest updated information.

The beauty of AUDIANCE lies in its adaptability for users to define their own audit details in their respective work areas.  Potential usage can include hand-over inspections, ISO audits, safety audits, conventions & exhibition contractors, etc, and is not limited to the construction industry.

With digitisation, AUDIANCE not only helps save the environment and increases productivity, it also tangibly improves the quality of work through analytics of the data captured.

The Future of AUDIANCE

Many captains of technology are predicting that in ten years’ time, half the jobs known today will be replaced with the advancements in automation. Without a doubt, the ever-advancing march of technologies like robots, digital services, self-help kiosk and AI will continue to reshape the world economy.

Likewise, applications will have to evolve and reshape itself to suit the current needs. There are plans for AUDIANCE to widen and deepen its capabilities without sacrificing the simplicity in using them.  Further enhancements will also come from user generated feedback which will be incorporated in future versions.

An application such as AUDIANCE may not be an industry’s first but the flexibility and adaptability of the application places it in a unique proposition amongst similar applications.  It is said that the only known constant is change, and so there is an impending need to embrace these technology changes, in order for organisations to function in a more robust and forward thinking manner.

This article is co-created by Surbana Jurong Academy.

Beyond technology: Surbana Jurong’s digital journey

Digital technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM), Machine Learning and Mixed Reality are set to disrupt the global construction sector over the next few years, raising productivity, boosting efficiency and providing better outcomes for clients. Businesses like Surbana Jurong (SJ) recognize that to succeed, industry must go beyond just introducing new technologies, and focus on changing traditional practices.

The global construction sector stands at the brink of exciting change; ripe for major digital disruption and with the opportunity to embrace new technologies that will transform productivity levels, modernize project delivery and bring the industry into the 21st Century.

Yet for many, this journey into unchartered territories will herald an era of uncertainty. To borrow a phrase from Charles Dickens’ classic The Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

While the opportunity in terms of greater efficiency, customer service, safety and value for money is compelling, the challenge is monumental for an industry which has remained largely unchanged in the past 2,000 years.

Technology holds the key

In its latest report, Reinventing construction: A route to higher productivity, the McKinsey Global Institute highlights digitization as a key to unlocking a $1.6 trillion opportunity in the sector alone. Construction, it points out, continues to evolve at a “glacial pace”.

And as McKinsey’s December 2015 digitization index shows, when compared to all other industry sectors across the US, construction is rooted at or very near to the bottom when it comes to embracing the opportunities of digital technology. (see Exhibit 1 below).

Exhibit 1

While there is clear evidence that this slow start is holding back the sector, it does present a significant opportunity to disrupt from the status quo: for construction to move away from its traditional paper-based and labor-intensive practices, and benefit from the falling cost of technology, higher quality information and enhanced collaboration through better information sharing and visualization.

Business as usual is not enough

Regardless of the opportunities that can flow from new digitized working practices, navigating change on this scale requires fundamental review of the way companies operate and significant adjustment to the way staff think and work.

Success means putting in place strategies and resources to understand and master not only the technology required for change but also the cultural challenges that will be met along the way. A case in point has been the introduction of Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology to the sector. Despite significant benefits to productivity, companies have dragged their feet in implementing them, forcing governments to now make the use of BIM mandatory for submissions.

A different mindset and an open culture is clearly needed to break away from the norm.  Fundamentally, it is not about the technology itself, but rather how we change businesses operations to embrace the benefits that technology brings, and how we collaborate with one another as a result.

People connect the dots

SJ embarked on its own digital journey about a year ago. It has been an interesting journey not least because the organization has grown three-fold – by headcount and by revenue – and many more times in terms of business complexity.

Recognizing that people are at the core of our business, we chose a more people-centric approach to our digital transformation journey rather than adopting a pure technology-centric play. The idea was to engage the business units and bring them along, help them understand and experience the value of digital, thereby helping the organization to gain traction on its transformation. This was done through repeated engagement sessions, idea generation workshops and probing business units to share their clients’ and their biggest pain-points.

We also avoided creating an isolated team to develop new digital tools for the business on its own. Instead the innovation team works across the organization – creating a mindset that is essential to sustaining the digital journey and motivating people to embrace new ideas and come forward with more.

As we look back on this journey so far, three program design choices have made a clear difference to the success of our transformation:

Journeys, not solutions

As we established our digital plan together, we initially found ourselves focused on the technology – discussing what to implement, which tools were cutting edge, and how to apply them.

However, what really helped was to reverse this thinking, and start our transformation by looking at the journey of our customers. The goal was to understand the problems that needed to be solved so that our clients could have a more intuitive and engaging, yet more efficient approach to understand proposed designs and provide their inputs, and in the process significantly better experiences and outcomes.

We applied this approach to good effect, for example, when we introduced a Hololens design collaboration solution. Rather than simply using a new – admittedly ‘cool’ – devices just to view digital building models, we also sought to raise the quality of our design exchanges with our clients.

Once we understood the challenges, we could redesign our processes. Today, instead of using physical models and paper-based floorplans to explain designs at face to face meetings, which were time-consuming and tedious to follow up, we now conduct design walk-throughs in virtual environments, allowing colleagues and clients to join these design sessions from multiple locations around the world.

Thus, we did not just develop point solutions looking for problems, but came up with holistic ways to solve problems in which digital technologies and optimized processes offered our clients a better value proposition.

The technology brings our virtual design center capability to a new level and gives us the edge against our competitors. But it is also key to delivering a better client experience, at lower cost, and is completely aligned to our designers’ processes.

The outcome was a higher quality impact that was more easily embraced and “absorbed” by our business units and so was also more valued by clients.

Returns, not budget

Going digital can be costly, and we have found that traditional budget management methods fail to properly capture the value of the investment. This is particularly evident when we compare the risk/return profile of our innovation investment-driven business model to the current, traditional construction approach.

Yet, quantifying the return on investment in digital initiatives is a critical step and, while challenging, is crucial to understanding how to commercialize and capture the value of innovation before investment decisions are made.

For example, while scoping the use of digital tools to automate compliance checks for urban planning, the initial focus was on how to boost the productivity of our planning staff. Although technology allowed days of checking to be completed in minutes, it was soon clear that the payback period for recovering our investment in building this tool was still much longer than desired.

However, by widening the brief and using the tools to cross-sell checking services to clients we found a new revenue stream, and a new service model – a service with significantly higher revenue streams that eventually provided a reasonable return on the investment.

This additional value would almost certainly have been overlooked had the team focused only on getting the budget to build the tools.

Business units and innovation teams are now compelled to own their investment plans and think deeper about how to extract value from the innovation that flows.

Partner, don’t do it alone

When we launched our digital journey, partnership was a key pillar of our strategy. Rather than “re-invent the wheel” by investing in R&D which others had done, we wanted to partner with these organizations, their technologies and solutions, and only invest to build where it made sense.

Our new Building Information Modeling for Facilities Management (BIM:FM) digitized facilities management platform demonstrates this partnership strategy in action.

Digitizing the traditionally manpower intensive FM business has created a new sustainable business model for the future using powerful new digital technology to transform the way buildings are monitored and maintained.

But rather than build a system from scratch, our innovation team sought out and identified partners who could accelerate our development program. As a result, we estimate that our “time-to-market” has been brought forward by at least a year.

Being able to “jump start” programs and tap into the strengths of other organizations, helps to make our solutions better, but also gets them to market faster, to serve our clients better. Our innovation teams and business units are free to focus more effort on understanding clients’ needs and finding the right solutions.


Digital technology is already disrupting the entire global construction industry’s business model, and, as the old saying goes “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”.

That means a business as usual approach, with a focus on technology alone, is insufficient. We must go beyond the traditional solutions to problems to consider journeys and outcomes; we must go beyond budgets to consider returns on investment.

We must reject silos and embrace collaboration to stay ahead, or risk being left behind in what will be the most exciting change ever witnessed in our sector.

Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.

How technology can make Singapore a car-lite society

Modern cities are embracing new digital technologies, the power of data and artificial intelligence to wane populations off the car and onto a new range of more sustainable transport modes. Singapore is leading the way in this challenge with its new strategy to become “car-lite” by 2030.

Easy access to high quality and efficient transportation infrastructure already makes Singapore one of greatest cities in the world to live and work. But the desire to attract the best talent and businesses from around the world has prompted Singapore to embrace a new challenge to become “car-lite” and boost public transport use to globally leading levels.

Singapore currently boasts a public transport mode share of 66%. Policies such as the Vehicle Quota System (VQS) have been limiting the use of private cars since the 1990s and Singapore leaders understand that, in such a small state, the continuous construction of new road infrastructure is unsustainable.

Instead the population is being weaned off the car, and the transition to public transport use is underpinned by a programme of investment to improve public transport infrastructure. The government’s new target is to achieve a public transport mode share of 75% during peak hours by the year 2030.

However, despite substantial effort over many years, Singapore is still seen as being too car centric in comparison to cities like Hong Kong, which has an even higher public transport mode share of 88%. The challenge, therefore, is for Singapore to not only hit its existing targets but to also embrace new technology to accelerate the change towards a new “car-lite” future.

The new technology trends

Digital technology will be at the heart of this new “car-lite” future, a concept in which individual car ownership will disappear to make way for public transport and car use as a service. Advances in this technology, particularly around the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI), are set to revolutionise all aspects of life in the future, including transportation.

Transport is set to be one of the early winners from this technology revolution with autonomous vehicles (AV) now one of the most talked about products to be driven by AI. Technology giants Google, Tesla and Uber are already testing their fully automated vehicles, and smaller companies like nuTonomy and Delphi are now conducting their respective pilot tests in Singapore.  Singapore leaders predict that within 10 to 15 years the technology will be mature enough to be deployed widely[1].

The key to the use of AI technology across transportation will be dependent on “big data”, a concept which is already having a major impact on our lives as our consumer buying, browsing and movement trends are analysed and capitalised on. Singapore’s Committee on the Future Economy has already identified such data use as “an increasingly important source” for the future development of the economy.

These technologies will not only directly change our lives, but will also increasingly trigger new business models, as we embrace the sharing economy and use the power of data and communication technology to maximise the use of our infrastructure capacity.

China, for example, now plays a leading role in this new model as it starts to transform the sustainable development and lifestyles of its growing and urbanising population using the real time transport data and information which is now made publicly available across the nation’s cities. For example, mobile phone apps, driven by this publicly available live date, now enable dock-less bicycles to be found, unlocked and shared. In return, the enormous amounts of travel and behaviour data collected from these apps can be further analysed, helping cities to better understand travel patterns, and enabling resources to be planned and utilised more efficiently in future. This has helped communities to abandon cars and traffic jams and switch back to the low carbon bicycle transport culture that was commonplace in the last century.

Singapore’s transition to a car-lite society

Singapore expects to use similar technology to transform its society to a new “car-lite” model. Having started on the path to secure this future with investment in major new public transport schemes, it has already seen a significant drop in private car numbers this year, down to an eight-year low of just over 550,000.

However, the use of technology underpins the new strategic plans being implemented, and will see Singapore make a step change by 2030 to reduce this number even further.

Effective and forward-looking master planning is key to maximising the benefits of big data and technology. To achieve the “car-lite” model, the appropriate demand-supply balance of city must first be established.

A good example of this is the design of Singapore’s second Commercial Business District now under construction in the Jurong Lake District. A number of major government agencies such as BCA and LTA have already re-located there or are planning to move there, highlighting the way that, with appropriate public transport options, such de-centralized urban planning can reduce commuting times and distances, and so reduce the reliance on the private cars.

The use of big data is vital in the planning stage to help city planners understand and target the drivers for such changes in human behaviour in Singapore’s context, and to optimize the city structure accordingly. For example, Uber has already published point-to-point real-time travel time information which is aggregated from its huge database. As such information and data trends build up; it will be more and more useful for planning ahead over various time horizons.

An efficient and reliable public transport system

Providing good public transport links to connect people to these new developments not only drives people out of their cars but also creates the most efficient means to move people and achieves the lowest cost-per-capita. Singapore’s LTA targets to expand its rail network to about 360km by the year 2030 and to develop a more efficient and integrated bus system that aims to improve journey quality, such as improve waiting time and enable seamless transfers for the bus commuters.

New technology is set to improve the reliability of this vital public transport. For example, driverless buses are expected on the streets as early as 2020, to enhance the efficiency and reliability of the system, as well as improve the level of safety.

However, achieving last mile connectivity for public transport passengers – moving people between their homes or work places to main transport nodes such as MRT stations – continues to remain a challenge.

Similarly, active mobility is another sustainable solution for the “last mile” provided you can persuade people that walking or cycling is both safe and convenient.

This transition will start in Singapore with newly constructed footpaths and cycle paths along Bencoolen Street, with additional active mobility connections provided within Singapore’s central region. Three bike sharing service providers, Mobike, Ofo and Obike’s have been launched in Singapore, providing more convenient and cost-effective cycling options on Singapore’s streets. However, it is not without teething problems. There have been reports of indiscriminate parking in some areas, misuse of bikes, reckless riding, etc. To enable a sustainable ecosystem and bike sharing culture to take root as part of the Car-lite nation initiative in Singapore, bike-sharing operators, authorities and building owners, etc. will need to work out a practical framework to regulate (by merit or demerit systems) and establish the necessary bicycle infrastructure (designated bicycle parking zones, bicycle racks, etc.) in Singapore.


Digital technology is evolving at the fastest pace ever and is set to transform the way that we live, work and travel. While some fear that developments such as AI and big data will either replace humans one day or undermine our privacy, in fact they are key to securing our sustainable future and creating models such as a “car-lite” transport system.

As these technologies are deployed to serve global populations, communities will continue to evolve and adapt to the new opportunities as they are presented. By upgrading ourselves with this new knowledge, and by thinking globally and systematically, we can make our environment more car-lite, more sustainable and a more attractive place to live.

[1] “Can autonomous vehicles replace human-driven ones?” The Straits Times, 15 May 2017


Perspectives, developed by SJ Academy, is our platform to explore new ways of tackling some of today’s most complex challenges. We draw on ideas and opinions from our staff associates and experts across different businesses. Click here to read more about Technology & Innovation, Infrastructure & Connectivity, and Design Leadership.