Common data ecosystems; Common data ecosystems;

How a common data ecosystem will transform the built environment

Practitioners across the architecture, construction and engineering industry have long been heavy users of digital tools and technologies. At the same time, the sector as a whole has lacked the common data standards that would enable industry-wide collaboration and innovation. Development of a shared data ecosystem would drive incredible economic growth across the sector, leading to a new app/data economy. A common data ecosystem will also help us to tackle goals around net zero and resilience, by reducing data friction in the built environment we can be more ambitious and rigorous in the performance targets we set. Ultimately, as we make clear in our new report with the Open Data Institute, it will be good for everyone in the sector’s growth and future commercial relevance.

Many of the built environment challenges cities, communities and countries now face, like developing a new network of renewable energy sources for electric vehicles, or more energy efficient housing, can’t be overcome without setting data standards. These are increasingly projects that require system-wide performance improvements – clearly, relying on many, largely distinct and proprietary data standards will make this work much harder than it needs to be.

Data is also now essential to ESG performance in the built environment. Common data standards are vital if the industry is to provide the level of meaningful, credible reporting increasingly demanded by national and international regulators. If you ask a company how it’s actions are contributing to the Paris Accord targets, right now there’s no clear way to achieve this. A new level of data clarity is urgently needed if market players are to understand the impact/contribution they’re making.

Learning from open banking

In our work with Icebreaker One, the body trying to seed this new data ecosystem, we’re consciously emulating the open data revolution achieved in the banking industry. They had a similar issue: new fintech companies would develop innovative service ideas but lacked access to the customers and data held by traditional banking service providers. It was also an understandably tightly regulated industry, a situation that suited existing players but that stifled change.  To break the deadlock, industry players, plus venture capital investors needed to come together to push for a truly open data environment, and convince existing institutions that they too would benefit from opportunities to innovate. ‘Collaborate on the rules, compete on the solutions’, was the mantra.

To say it worked would be an understatement. There has been an explosion of new financial services, reaching mobile-first digitally savvy customers, producing new services in everything from credit/loans to investing, trading, cryptocurrencies, saving tools and retirement planning. The Open Banking Initiative has also led to over £7bn in sector growth.

So how do you set data standards?

Currently, built environment firms, from architects to engineers to constructors, have to work within the limitations of the industry’s existing and quite fragmented data structure and formats. This lack of simple interoperability and standards leads to unnecessary costs and friction when core markets have no idea how to collaborate and share. It’s not possible for any single market player to set the standards (and governance) around data, while operating in a competitive context and somehow demand that “everyone do as we do”.

This friction is a break on building projects’ ability to meet the net zero target. It hampers data driven collaboration among suppliers and constructors. Everything is workarounds, translations of formats and relies on repeatedly solving familiar problems.

Today, the industry achieves only limited, bilateral data sharing between clients and service providers – simple handover of large single files at the end of a project or phase. Millions of exabytes of valuable data are simply being stored rather than refined, used or shared.

Towards an ecosystem

The first logical step is for the industry to embrace data ‘pooling’, where data is available for re-use or made available through a platform that all competitors can pay for and access. There are limited examples of this already, including commercial services like ESRI or /Atlas. Commercial platforms that monetise data, built on truly shared standards, would lead ‘federation of data’ – something competing market players cannot achieve on their own.

The next development would be to operate ‘data trusts’ – where a 3rd party entity like the ODI or similar trust body is given project data by all market participants. The trust then manages and shares non-commercially sensitive data for others to explore and make use of. The structure of a trust means there is effective governance, so everyone can participate and benefit on the same basis. It doesn’t monetise the data itself, but it leads to higher sharing.

Perhaps the ultimate prize, would be decentralised data. This would represent industry-wide collaborations that involve organisations publishing or sharing data using open standards. Examples of these initiatives include Open Banking, OpenActive and OpenContracting – they define a new standard model for accessing, using and sharing specific types of data across an industry.

Data-driven means more sustainable

Market openness is an end-state everyone can agree on, but there are still obstacles to overcome. In our work as part of Icebreaker One, we are starting to define the approach, including what needs to change, what needs to be agreed and by whom. We have also begun to work on a ‘minimum viable product’ version of a data ecosystem for the energy industry, with backing from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department.

With an agreed, common data infrastructure the sector can start to develop a thriving ecosystem of new services, insights and practices. This level of market openness is our best hope of achieving the ambitious goals set for our industries by the UK government and could become a blueprint for an accelerated net zero transition for the built environment across the world.