Collaboration is the key

Written by: Eureka! | Published:

Competitive advantage has always been the driver of business. However, BuroHappold Engineering’s global design & technology director, Neil Billett, says proprietary software is actually harming businesses and that cross-platform integration is the key to survival.

As a design and engineering company in the built environment, we are driven by a desire to be the best. Our enduring purpose of mission is to improve the lives of people who interact with our projects, but we also want our work to stand out and our successes to be recognised over those of our competitors. This is the nature of our work and it improves it: the healthy competition and pride it has generated has been the catalyst for some of the most memorable and defining buildings the world has seen.

Now, though, this competition is harming us as much as it is helping us. We are blessed with incredible technological advances which are blurring the lines between what we’ve always believed to be achievable versus what is fantastical – providing us with new ways to design and build more impressive developments more efficiently. There is, however, a downside. Valuable as this technology is, it is also serving to fragment the sector. Key players are competing to create market-leading software that, rather than integrating with other platforms, actually works to make them obsolete. Losing competitive advantage by producing software that allows cross platform integration is simply not a prospect that most businesses could countenance.

Let’s look at the practical effects of this. Designers could want to use a state-of-the-art tool to help develop a challenging element of a project – a tool wthat could bring performance breakthroughs by helping to improve its visual impact, boost energy efficiency or make it more sustainable. However, if they know that any work developed using this tool won’t translate to other pieces of project software then there’s no point, they have to make do without it or at least bring unwanted friction. This is a daily occurrence in our industry – the best pieces of software aren’t being harnessed to their full potential because they clash with others. We are picking and choosing which technology we’re able to use, rather than bringing all the resources at our disposal to the table.

Break the impasse

This lack of interoperability is, quite simply, holding the sector back, forcing us to work around a problem that shouldn’t exist. Of course, it’s understandable that no one wants to hand the fruits of their labour to competitors on a silver platter. It’s just not how business works. But we can’t continue with this impasse, or we’ll never realise the full potential of what these technological advances could allow us to achieve. The route to success requires collaboration, putting a focus on experience, intellect and the ability to innovate. We need to use software that helps us do this, not create more fragments or friction. The aim here is, essentially, to let the intellect breathe, rather than stifling it.

The key is to take the first steps together, identifying a path forward that avoids any one party losing ground. A possible solution has been developed – using an open source approach which has already been tried and tested in other industries. The idea behind this is that open sourcing platforms can be made universally available and free for all to use. It cuts out the risk that one company would benefit above others.

Right now, we’re part of a team with 3D Repo, Speckle Works, UCL Bartlett School of Construction & Project Management and Rhomberg Sersa Rail Group that is putting theory into practise. The platform we’re using, AEC Delta, allows all partners to share code from a variety of pieces of software and effectively translates this into one universal language. We plan to use this as we collaborate on a number of upcoming UK construction projects. In doing so, we hope to be able to demonstrate results which show that open sourcing can deliver efficiencies and overall outcomes which are too good to pass up.

As this software grows it will become more effective. The more people contribute to open source platforms such as this, the more universal and useful they will become. This gives me more confidence in eventual success. If early models such as AEC Delta can prove to be beneficial, then we can only improve from here. As open sourcing becomes a tried and tested method of sharing software, we will gain speed and truly begin to break down the barriers which currently limit us.

Taking the first step

As much as I believe that this is the future of open sourcing – it is presently very much in its infancy and will remain there until more firms take that bold first step and commit to digital collaboration via open sourcing platforms. The quicker we do so, the quicker this fragmentation will become a thing of the past and we can continue to expand our horizons.

There aren’t many industries which get to shape our society in quite as defined a way as ours. Our work provides the backdrop for people’s everyday lives. Our most impressive ideas will change moods, inspire people and provide the picture postcards of tomorrow. I genuinely believe that we have a duty to take that seriously, and commercial objectives are no excuse for not fulfilling this potential to the greatest possible extent.

It seems nonsensical to me that the cutting-edge technology which should be making our lives easier is being limited by something as basic as human nature. Competition is only healthy if it drives us forward, not if it holds us back. Open sourcing provides a co-generation of intellect – a way around this problem which benefits everyone without harming our business prospects. The best thing we can do is to trust and embrace it. The results will follow.

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