Digitization

1 Digital information

This chapter presents the key challenges AECO is facing with the digitization of information and outlines the content of this book with respect to these challenges.

Information explosion

One of the key characteristics of our era is the explosive increase in information production and registration. It has been estimated that human societies had accumulated roughly 12 exabytes until the digital era. Then, annual information growth rates of 30% raised the total to 180 exabytes by 2006 and to over 1.800 exabytes by 2011. In the most recent period, the total more than doubled every two years, towards a projected 44 zettabytes by 2020 and 180 zettabytes by 2025.[1]

Such astounding calculations are updated regularly, with even more dramatic projections, so future totals may become even higher. The main reason for this is that the population of information users and producers keeps on increasing and is currently expanding to cover devices generating and sharing data on the Internet of Things. But even if we reach a plateau at some point, as with Moore’s “law” concerning the growth of computing capacity,[2] we already have an enormous problem in our hands.

The situation is further complicated by changing attitudes concerning information. Not so long ago, most people were afraid of information overload.[3] Nowadays with the general excitement about big data we have moved to the opposite view. From being a worry, the plethora of information we produce and consume has become an opportunity. Attitudes may change further, moreover in unpredictable ways, as suggested by reactions to the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica data breach in 2018.

Regardless of such attitudes, two things will not change. The first is that we have to manage existing information efficiently, effectively, securely and safely. The second is that the means of information production, dissemination and management will remain primarily digital.

Information explosion in AECO

The explosive growth of digital information relates to AECO in various ways. On one end of the spectrum, we have new information sources that produce big data, such as smartphones and sensors. These tell us a lot about users and conditions in the built environment, and so promise a huge potential for the analysis and improvement of building performance, while requiring substantial investment in technologies and organization. On the other end of the spectrum, there are established information and communication technologies that have already become commonplace and ubiquitous, also in AECO. Email, for instance, appears to dominate communication and information exchange[4] by offering a digital equivalent to analogue practices like letter writing. Replication of analogue practices that dominate digital information processing is typical of AECO: digital technologies and information standards are still geared towards the production of conventional documents like floor plans and sections.

In between these two extremes, we encounter domain-specific technologies that aim to structure AECO processes and knowledge. Currently paramount among these is BIM, an integrated approach that is usually justified with respect to performance.[5] Performance improvement through BIM involves intensive and extensive collaboration, which adds to both the importance and the burden of information. The wide adoption of BIM means rapid expansion to cover more aspects and larger projects, which accentuates interoperability, capacity and coordination problems. In a recent survey, 70% of AECO professionals claim that project information deluge actually impedes effective collaboration, while 42% feel unable to integrate new digital tools in their organizations.[6] This surely impedes the deployment of solutions to their information needs: AECO appears to share many of the problems of the digital information explosion, yet to profit relatively little from the information-processing opportunities of the digital era.

Digitization in AECO: origins and outcomes

AECO has always been an intensive producer and consumer of information. In fact, most of its disciplines primarily produce information on buildings rather than buildings, e.g. drawings and related documents that specify what should be constructed and how. Especially drawings have been a major commodity in AECO; they are ubiquitous in all forms of specification and communication, and quite effective in supporting all kinds of AECO tasks.

The history of digitization in AECO starts quite early, already in the 1960s, but with disparate ambitions. Some researchers were interested in automating design (even to the extent of replacing human designers with computers), while others were keen to computerize drawing. The two coexisted in the area of CAAD, with design automation been generally treated as the real goal. With the popularization of computers in the 1990s, however, it was computerized drawing that became popular in AECO practice.

As with other software, the primary use of computerized drawing systems has been the production of analogue documents: conventional drawings like floor plans and sections on paper. For many years, the advantages of computerized drawing were presented in terms of efficiency improvement over drawing by hand on paper: faster production of drawings, easier modification and compact storage. Even after the popularization of the Internet, the emphasis on conventional documents remained; the only difference was that, rather than producing and exchanging paper-based documents, one would produce and exchange digital files like PDFs.

A main consequence of this has been that AECO remained firmly entrenched in conventional, document-based processes. While other analogue documents like telephone directories were being replaced by online information systems and apps, and people adapted to having their day planners and address lists on mobile phones, AECO stubbornly stuck to analogue practices and documents, prolonging their life into the digital era.

BIM: radical intentions

Drawing from product modelling, BIM emerged as a radical improvement of computerized drawing that should provide a closer relation to design. The difference with earlier design automation attempts was that it did not offer prescriptive means for generating a design but descriptive support to design processes: collaboration between AECO disciplines, integration of aspects and smooth transition between phases. By doing so, it shifted attention from drawings to the information they contained.

The wide acceptance of BIM is unprecedented in AECO computerization. Earlier attempts at computerization were often met with reluctance, not in the least for the cost of hardware, software and training to use them. The reception of BIM, by contrast, was much more positive, even though it was more demanding than its predecessors in terms of cost. Arguably more than its attention to information or collaboration, it was its apparent simplicity (a Lego-like assembly of a building) that made it appealing, especially to non-technical stakeholders. The arcane conventions and practices of analogue drawing no longer seemed necessary or relevant.

Nevertheless, BIM remained rooted in such conventions. It may have moved from the graphic to the symbolic but it did so through interfaces laden with graphic conventions. For example, entering a wall in BIM may be done in a floor plan projection as follows: the user selects the wall type and then draws a line to indicate its axis. As soon as the axis is drawn, the wall symbol appears fully detailed according to the wall type that has been chosen: lines, hatches and other graphic elements indicating the wall materials and layers. The axis is normally not among the visible graphic elements. Such attachment to convention makes it rather hard for users to understand that they are actually entering a symbol in the model rather than somehow generating a drawing.

More on such matters follows later in the book. For the moment, it suffices to note that BIM may indicate a step forward in the digitization of AECO information but it remains a hybrid environment that may confuse or obscure fundamental information issues. As such, it deserves particular attention and, being the best option for AECO for the moment, it is used as the main information environment discussed in this book. Future technologies are expected to follow the symbolic character of BIM, so any solutions developed on the basis of BIM will probably remain applicable.

Representation

Ideas about information and how it works can be vague or even confusing if one fails to realize that most of it is not unstructured or haphazard but organized in meaningful representations. These representations allow us to understand and utilize information effectively and economically. Consequently, they are critical for both information and digitization. As intensive but generally intuitive users of representations, we have to become aware of their structure and characteristics in order to understand how we process and disseminate information. We also have to appreciate that existing representations are not necessarily appropriate for the computer era. Computers have different capacities to humans, therefore familiar representations we have been using successfully for centuries may have to be adapted or even abandoned.

This is evident in changes that have already occurred but are not always apparent, even to avid computer users. Anticipating the following chapters on representation, let us consider just one example of the effects of computerization: humans mostly use decimal numbers, arguably because we have ten fingers to help us with calculations, while computers use binary numbers because they are built out of components with two possible states (on an off). Humans are capable of using binary numbers but they require significantly more effort than decimal ones. As a result, while computers use binary numbers, user interfaces translate them into decimal ones. Despite the added burden of having to employ and connect two different representations, this solution works well for the symbiosis of computers and humans.

In dealing with information, one must therefore be aware of all representations involved, their connections and utility. This is a prerequisite to effective and reliable computerization, e.g. concerning the role and operation of interfaces. The same applies to the treatment of digital information: knowing the characteristics of a representation allows one to ascertain which data are well-formed and meaningful in the particular context.

Information management

Managing information is not just a task for managers and computer specialists. It involves everyone who disseminates, receives or stores information. Very few people are concerned with information management just for the sake of it; most approach information and its management in the framework of their own activities, for which information is an essential commodity. This makes management of information not an alien, externally imposed obligation but a key aspect of everyone’s information processing, a fundamental element in communication and collaboration, and a joint responsibility for all those involved. Given the amounts of information currently produced and exchanged, its careful management is a necessity for anyone who relies on information for their functioning or livelihood.

For these reasons, in this book we view management issues from two complementary perspectives: that of design management, as representative of all management, coordination and collaboration activities in AECO, and that of generic information management, not restricted to AECO, as a source of generally applicable principles and guidelines. As we shall see, the one depends on the other for providing a suitable solution to information management problems. As with all aspects of this book, emphasis is not on technical solutions but on the conceptual and operational structure of information management: the definition of clear approaches and transparent criteria for guiding people to a better performance and selecting or evaluating means that support them towards this goal.

The reasons for doing so are already rather pressing. Despite the broad acknowledgement of the information deluge in AECO, the development of effective IM approaches appears to be lagging behind. Information may hold a central position in AECO computerization, as the “I” in BIM testifies, yet IM in AECO is generally poorly specified as an abstract, background obligation in management — as something that additional computer systems should solve or as a reason to create additional management roles, such as project information managers, BIM and CAD managers and coordinators, so as to cover the increased technical complexity (not just quantity) of digital information. Such new computer systems and technical specializations nevertheless add to the complexity of IM by their mere presence, especially if they operate without clear goals.

A primary cause for confusion and uncertainty is the lack of a clear definition of information. Despite wide acknowledgement of its importance in all AECO products and processes, to the extent that perceptions of information in DM vary from a key means of communication and decision support to the main goal of design management, there is considerable fuzziness concerning what constitutes information in AECO. Many adopt a conventional view and equate information to drawings and other documents, even in the framework of BIM. As a result, IM is reduced to document management and to the use of document management systems, which often exist parallel to BIM, increasing redundancy and lowering overall efficiency.

Considering a document as information goes beyond using the carrier as a metaphor for the content, in the same way that we say “the Town Hall” to indicate the local authority accommodated in the building. It also reflects a strong adherence of AECO to conventional practices that have managed to survive into the digital era and may be uncritically replicated in digital information processing. For IM, this means that coordination of information production, exchange and utilization is in danger of being reduced to merely ensuring the presence of the right files, while most content-related matters, including quality assessment, are deferred to the human information users. It is therefore not surprising that both industry and academia complain that AECO has yet to define clear goals for information management and governance, even within BIM. Lots of data are captured but they are not always organized in ways that support comprehensive utilization.

IM literature is not particularly helpful in this respect. Arguably consistently with its broad scope, IM is rather inclusive concerning what is to be managed and covers documents, applications, services, schemes and metadata. To make such disparate material coherent and usable, IM literature proposes processing it in ways that establish correlations between data or with specific contexts, classify and categorize or condense data. This may be apply to conventional practices in AECO but is incompatible with new directions towards integration of information, as represented by BIM.

Finally, it should be stressed that IM is not a matter of brute force (by computers or humans) but of information organization. One can store all documents, files and models and hope for the best but stored information is not necessarily accessible and usable. As we know from search machines on the Internet, they can be very clever in retrieving what there is but this does not mean that they return the answers we need. If one asks for the specific causes of a fault in a building, it is not enough to receive all documents on the building from all archives to browse and interpret. Being able to identify the precise documents that refer to the particular part or aspect of the building depends on how the archives and the documents have been organized and maintained. To do that, one can rely on labour-intensive interpretation, indexing and cross-referencing of each part of each document – or one can try to understand the fundamental structure of these documents and build intelligent representations and management strategies based on them.

Key Takeaways

  • Computerization has added substantial possibilities to our information-processing capacities and also promoted the accumulation of huge amounts of information, which keep on increasing
  • Computerization in AECO is still in a transitional stage, bounded by conventions from the analogue era and confused by its dual origins: automation of design and digitization of drawing
  • Information is often organized in representations; understanding how representations are structured and operate is a prerequisite to both computerization of information and its management
  • Information management is becoming critical for the utilization of digital information; instead of relying on brute-force solutions, one should consider the fundamental principles on which it should be based

Exercises

  1. Calculate how much data you produce per week, categorized in:
    1. Personal emails
    2. Social media (including instant messaging)
    3. Digital photographs, video and audio for personal use
    4. Study-related emails
    5. Study-related photographs, video and audio
    6. Study-related alphanumeric documents (texts, spreadsheets etc.)
    7. Study-related drawings and diagrams (CAD, BIM, renderings etc.)
    8. Other (please specify)
  2. Specify how much of the above data is stored or shared on the Internet and how much remains only on personal storage devices (hard drives, SSD, memory cards etc.)
  3. Calculate how much data a design project may produce and explain your calculations analytically, keeping in mind that there may be several design alternatives and versions. Use the following categories:
    1. CAD or BIM files
    2. PDFs and images produced from CAD & BIM or other software
    3. Alphanumeric files (texts, spreadsheets, databases etc.)
    4. Other (please specify)
  4. Calculate how much of the above data is produced by different stakeholders, explaining your calculations analytically:
    1. Architects
    2. Structural engineers
    3. MEP engineers
    4. Clients
    5. Managers

  1. Calculations and projections of information accumulated by human societies can be found in: Lyman, P.  & Varian, H.P. 2003, "How much information." http://groups.ischool.berkeley.edu/archive/how-much-info/; Gantz, J. & Reinsel, D., 2011, "Extracting value from chaos." 2011, https://www.emc.com/collateral/analyst-reports/idc-extracting-value-from-chaos-ar.pdf;Turner, V., Reinsel D., Gantz J. F., & Minton S., 2014. "The Digital Universe of Opportunities" https://www.emc.com/leadership/digital-universe/2014iview/digital-universe-of-opportunities-vernon-turner.htm
  2. Simonite, T., 2016. "Moore’s law Is dead. Now what?" Technology Review https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601441/moores-law-is-dead-now-what/
  3. The notion of information overload was popularized in: Toffler, A., 1970. Future shock. New York: Random House.
  4. The dominance of email in AECO communication is reported in several sources, including a 2015 survey: https://www.newforma.com/news-resources/press-releases/70-aec-firms-say-information-explosion-impacted-collaboration/
  5. Performance and in particular the avoidance of failures and related costs are among the primary reasons for adopting BIM, as argued in:Eastman, C., Teicholz, P.M., Sacks, R., & Lee, G., 2018. BIM handbook (3rd ed.). Hoboken NJ: Wiley.
  6. Research conducted in the UK in 2015: https://www.newforma.com/news-resources/press-releases/70-aec-firms-say-information-explosion-impacted-collaboration/

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