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Digitalization in the Construction Industry

Witteveen+Bos is an engineering and consultancy firm with 22 offices in 11 countries. Its global team of over 1,200 engineers is responsible for completing an average of 4,000 projects in infrastructure, water, the environment, and construction yearly. Witteveen+Bos aims to create sustainable solutions, maximum client value, and opportunities for its workforce's ongoing development.

An interview with Otto Schepers, Manager Digital Acceleration & Support Lead at Witteveen+Bos, conducted by Michael Maurer, Principal Digital Data Consultant at Xebia.


Q: The slow digitalization of the construction industry is striking. What is Witteveen+Bos' view on this?
It's undeniable that the building and construction industry is lagging in terms of Digitalization. I was aware Engineering was no frontrunner in Digitization. But after reading a McKinsey study, I discovered the engineering industry is one of the slowest of all industries studied when it comes to adopting new technology. Only hunting is slower to adopt new technology! That was when we decided to make a change.  

One of the big drivers for change is the ‘waste’ of public funding. The industry's inefficiency is costly since infrastructure and engineering often involves large multi year projects. This adds up to billions. As a large part of our revenue comes from public sector funds, we want to maximize its general cause value. However, it's hard to digitalize if standardization is not standard practice.

Bespoke one-off designs dominate building and construction: engineers create impressive solutions that are custom designed and involve much manual labour. This practice hasn't evolved much over the past decades or centuries even. It makes you wonder, if this is how we operate, are we equipped to deal with the enormous challenges we are facing, like water security, drought, floods, and global warming?

Q: That does pose a challenge indeed. And there is also population growth and a global need for new homes. How to address these needs then?
There is indeed a global need for new housing that our industry cannot meet with traditional methods. In the Netherlands alone, we need 1 million new homes to accommodate for the population growth. While we build these structures, 8 million existing buildings are deteriorating and will need renovation (also to make them more sustainable) at some point. Significant change is needed! The way the industry works right now is too costly and slow to address these global challenges. 

To give you an idea, a typical construction cycle looks like this:

The engineering challenge starts with stakeholders acknowledging there is an issue. A discovery phase starts, then decision making, leading to the delivery of a design which then gets built. From start to finish, all phases of infrastructure projects can take from 15 to 60 years to finish - delayed by higher authorities, an abundance of stakeholders, and a new team responsible for each new phase. For instance, after deciding to build a bridge, a different team is asked to design that bridge. They will dispute or question the decision because they were not included in the decision-making phase. There is too much waste in the execution and phase transitions of these mega projects. 

Q: How do you aim to change the nature of construction projects?
Our work focuses on design and construction - improving efficiency, and using smart processes and tools to ease the transition between phases.

Internally we do so by digitalizing our processes with 3D modeling, parametric calculations, and flexible design methodologies. We are also inviting stakeholders to actively participate in multiple phases, improving decision-making quality and the final designs' relevance. Unfortunately, much information is still getting lost in the move from one phase to the next. For instance, the design phase's outcome is a PDF that doesn't reflect the steps we took to get there or provide context.

Q: Was this why you started to digitalize?
Within our company, there's a strong drive to make designs more comprehensible for non-experts and citizens. We started using photorealistic 3D drawings and interactive public websites to show designs to stakeholders. This led to a 2-year global innovation program, in which we used new digital engineering practices and methods to engage with our global customer base. We defined our digital vision and started a transition to make this approach the new normal with our desire to innovate at an all-time high.

"Digital technology is worthless without the data that drives our business processes. We want to drive digitization and become more data-driven at the same time. One is useless without the other", Otto Schepers, Manager Digital Acceleration & Support Lead at Witteveen+Bos.

Q: Where are you driving change in the organization?

We identified four domains that needed change: calculation, design, consultancy, and project management. These are the cornerstones of our business, so change came with quite an impact.

"We aim to embrace digital, to excite our most talented people and while still allowing for full autonomy on a unit-level", Otto Schepers, Manager Digital Acceleration & Support Lead at Witteveen+Bos.

Our business model is based on funding at a project level; in contrast, our new way of working is non-project-based. It requires us to connect, break functional silos, move from one-offs to standard procedures, and create autonomous market-driven cells for more adaptability. But how does that rhyme with wanting to drive a change centrally? Transforming presents some real challenges.

Q: How are you dealing with these challenges?
We started a new business entity: Digital Acceleration and Support (DAS). DAS automates current processes, creates digital services in co-creation with other units, offers engineers IT support, and develops platforms and structures to span silos and connect business and IT. DAS is also responsible for introducing new business models and revamping finance, security, and IT management.

Q: What have you accomplished so far?
Our first steps were aimed at the digital enthusiasts within our business, who are effectively engaged and very excited to proceed. Now we need to keep the mass in motion! We established the vision and were able to retain the people that started the movement. Still, transforming is a long and, at times, slow process.

One notable achievement is that nobody questions the urgency to change anymore. We are past #WHY? and addressing #BUT_HOW? In an industry that is reluctant to change, this in itself is a great accomplishment.

Q: What are your future goals? What difference do you want to make to the construction industry?
Change is taking place on all levels. At a micro-level, we are using digitized engineering knowledge to improve practices. We aim to build a modular design and engineering toolset that contains tools to overcome the great engineering challenges mentioned before. I like to call this the "IKEA Kitchen planner of public space". The vision is that this will help communities to take ownership and design their living environment and only involve the government when needed. For larger-scale projects that need to be managed by the government, we continue leveraging participation platforms to ensure all stakeholders are involved. Finally, we aim to do away with 60-year cycles, reduce transition waste, connect value chains and make a significant shift towards digital and data-driven engineering and construction.

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