BIM as Industrial Strategy
Construction of the built environment is subject to many government regulations, legislation and policies. On the demand side interest rates, taxes, public infrastructure spending, urban development and housing policies are all important, but are also external to the built environment sector itself and they determined by a wide range of factors beyond the sector. There are the effects of planning and environmental regulations, and restrictions limiting the supply of new housing or infrastructure, an issue that has featured in recent debates and spills over into other issues around affordability of housing and the cost of major projects. All costs the complex institutional and policy environment entail are crystalised at the moment a contract is signed for a new building or construction project, as part of a total cost that typically includes finance and land, or access to it. The remaining share of the project cost is design and delivery, so that is what built environment industries can affect. On the supply side the issues are about efficiency, productivity and production costs.
A brief, general discussion on BIM and industry policy follows, before discussing the importance of BIM mandates. The pervious post was on the experience of the UK after 2011 in promoting use of BIM. That is an example of an industry policy that has worked, after the UK government launched a new broad-based industrial strategy to improve competitiveness with a BIM mandate for public construction included.
BIM had its origins in 1960s 2D drawing programs that developed into architectural drawing software. Two companies dominate the market, Autodesk was founded in 1982 and Bentley Systems in 1984. The first version of ArchiCAD’s file exchange solution was released in 1997, which allowed multiple designers to work on a collaborative platform. At this point enthusiasts began believing in BIM as a universal panacea for the problems and issues endemic to construction. Twenty-five years later they are still waiting, despite the fact that BIM is no longer a new technology but an application widely used in construction, one that is now offered as a cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) to manage and maintain project digital twins.
Countries took different approaches to promoting BIM. Broadly, Scandinavian and western European countries, Singapore and the UK followed a government-driven approach, but Australia and the United States (US) a more industry-driven approach. However, the US General Services Administration (GSA) established the first public sector program in 2003, the National 3D-4D-BIM Program, on best practices for design and construction teams. The GSA was also the first client to require mandatory use of BIM in 2007, for program verification. The first government BIM roadmap was from Singapore, for 2010-2015, by the Building and Construction Authority, with a second in 2016 that included BIM for facility and asset management and the BIM for DfMA Essential Guide for integrating BIM and DfMA.[i]
The UK Government Construction Strategy 2011–2015 mandated fully collaborative 3D BIM for all public projects by 2016. Importantly, the UK also began publishing BIM standards to provide guidance for industry on how to produce, exchange and use information in BIM. In 2015 standards BS 8541-5 and 6 on offsite construction and modular buildings were released. The Construction Strategy was extended to 2016–2020, with a single shared building model to be held in a centralized repository for operation of assets over their life cycle[ii]. By 2020 most western and northern European countries had plans to mandate BIM in some way, although the level of use varied greatly between countries, with BIM adoption in the UK, Denmark, Germany and France similar to the US, Canada and Singapore, but Southern European use much lower.
In the US many land use and building codes are local, and a range of different approaches has been followed. The US also has standards and guides from both government and industry. The GSA 2009 Guides were on 3D imaging and 4D schedule management, extended to life-cycle management in 2011. The American Institute of Architects published six series of guidelines after 2007 for the use of BIM in the design and operations of projects for architects. The National BIM Standard was published in 2009, updated in 2012, and is in its third version. The US followed an industry-driven approach and, compared to Singapore and the UK with their BIM mandates, the government was less involved.
In Australia, the Commonwealth Government released a national BIM initiative in 2012 and recommended requiring full 3D collaborative BIM for all Australian government projects by 2016. However, with no mandates or targets for use nothing actually happened. As in the US, policies and uptake varies across the states. In 2018 the Queensland government started mandating BIM, to be expanded to all built assets by 2023[iii]. Other states are following.
Industry Policy and Industrial Strategy
These is little practical difference between a country’s industry policy and national industrial strategy. They are both typically framed around competitiveness and productivity, focus on innovation and R&D, and follow pathways and roadmaps through scenarios and scoping studies. Some industries like agriculture, steel and automobiles are regarded as strategic and have always been surrounded by rules and regulations and subject to government intervention. Governments’ have science and technology policies that influence industrial structure and macroeconomic policies that affect economic development. For many countries the emphasis in industry policy has shifted to industry 4.0 technologies and AI, as governments and industry respond to these technologies.
Government policies targeting supply side issues are not as high profile as others, they don’t get regular updates like monthly unemployment or quarterly GDP statistics and capture attention like announcements of interest rate changes. Because productivity has become the measure used for industry performance, despite the statistical questions that raises, it has often been the target for government policy. However, many policy measures affect productivity in the long run, such as education, training, infrastructure, innovation and R&D, tax and capital expenditure subsidies, and pilot or demonstration projects. When the intention of such policies is to influence a country’s economic structure and performance they are described as industrial strategy or industry policy.
Industry policy was out of favour for a couple of decades before the financial crisis in 2007-08, especially in countries like the US, UK and Australia, although the European Union and many Asian countries followed well developed national strategic plans. In the West this was partly ideological, a view that it is about government intervention and picking winners, and partly because some issues traditionally addressed by industry policy like tariffs and market access moved into negotiations around trade policy, at both the global level with the WTO rounds and in the increasing number of bilateral trade agreements. Traditionally manufacturing was the focus for industry policy, but after 2007 the approach became more about coordinating a wide range of policies to achieve objectives across the economy and society. The rollout of protective equipment and vaccines during the Covid pandemic in 2020-21 both tested and accelerated this new approach.
Following the financial crisis governments looking for sources of economic growth and employment creation began focusing on specific sectors in manufacturing and services where they saw opportunity in global value chains. Industries like pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, semiconductors, aerospace, IT, AI, cars and steel have featured in the industry policies of many countries since then. Any policy intervention intended to strengthen the economy is an industry policy, and governments establish priorities and target industries. Countries protect or favour industries with legislation for many reasons but some of them are strategic and long term, like innovation programs with their associated challenges, roadmaps and milestones, and many of these programs currently involve digitisation in some form.
While it is a fact that governments can have major impacts through regulation, tax, and R&D these policies are spread across departments, there are significant institutional constraints on government buying power. What history generally does show is that it is hard to get industry strategy right, implementation is difficult and outcomes are uncertain in dynamically evolving economies. There is also the problem that results take time to happen and thus take longer than the electoral cycle to develop, and there is often little benefit to the government of the day even if a policy is working well. Although inquiries in the UK, US and Australia into construction industry performance recommended leveraging purchases of materials, machinery and equipment and buildings and structures to push industry reform this was not widely used, despite being common practice in Asian countries like Singapore and Japan.
Infrastructure is often found within a country’s national strategy for science and technology, required for building out the networks underpinning modern society and the economy. There is unrelenting pressure from public sector clients for the lowest possible cost of work, given the circumstances of the industry, and in many countries the public sector is the largest single client for construction work. Housing is another area with complex overlapping issues that affects the cost of delivery. The cost of major projects and lack of productivity growth in construction has been an issue for governments and major clients for decades, since productivity statistics first became available in the 1960s.
BIM Mandates and Industry Policy
Building information modelling (BIM) has been promoted as the solution to the problems of poor documentation, fragmentation and lack of collaboration in building and construction for many years. It has not, however, been disruptive as we understand the idea, at least not so far. BIM has its origins in 1960s drawing programs, and Autodesk was founded in 1982, so this is not a new technology. Therefore, BIM does not qualify as transformative, rather it is the required enabler of further developments, a necessary foundation for the transition to the construction technological system in the digital age. BIM is more like digital plumbing underpinning digital construction than an elevator to higher performance.
BIM is plumbing because the digitized construction data it generates gets shared across the different built environment industries. At a basic level this is just sharing files and managing documentation. However, BIM can run on platforms, it allows access to cloud manufacturing, it is being combined with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems for a holographic 3D virtual project that contains every detail of a building, and that information can be shared through a project management platform with all project participants. At this point the expectation is that VR will be used more on the design side by architects, planners and engineers, while AR will have a larger footprint on construction sites, although some construction firms have started looking at using VR in areas like safety and training. BIM is obviously central to these technologies. Other uses include drones matching site work to BIM plans for buildings and excavators measuring earthworks. Some clients are demanding as-built digital twins to manage their buildings with.
Two reasons why BIM is not more widely used are inertia of industry culture and the incremental process followed by clients in requiring BIM. These are both discussed in the context of the UK below, which provides a good example of the policy approach now being followed by many governments. These policies broadly follow roadmaps with stages for BIM adoption, using both level of use and size of project as targets, that are intended to allow time for industry to adjust. A small number of countries have implemented national BIM mandates:[iv]
2004 Singapore for public construction projects
2007 Finland for all public projects over 1 million euros
2007 US General Service Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers required use
2010 South Korea public construction over KRW 500 million from 2016
2011 UK for public building
2018 Spain for public construction
2019 Abu Dhabi for all major projects
2020 Germany for Federal infrastructure projects
Many countries have published roadmaps, standards and guidelines since 2015 without so far following up with a mandate, for example Austria, Australia, France, Switzerland and Japan are at this stage. In every case the underlying assumption is that BIM will become business as usual over the decade of the 2020s, but at the beginning of the decade countries that were early movers like Singapore, Finland and the UK have the highest use of BIM.There are also state and city level mandates in the US and Australia. Wisconsin required BIM for projects over $5 million in 2010, and Queensland for public projects in 2018. By 2021 most major projects for both public private clients worldwide are done with BIM.
BIM mandates are important because the use of BIM unlocks the potential of digital construction, and affects the organisation of suppliers of materials, products and services for construction of the built environment as well. The deeply embedded nature of the culture and processes of this production system, and the large number of small firms involved, slows technological diffusion and limits voluntary uptake of new technologies like BIM. Therefore, government mandates in particular and client’s mandating BIM in general are needed. The experience of the UK is a good example.
The UK construction strategy applied to all firms involved in projects, and thus included designers, consultants and suppliers as well as contractors and subcontractors, and targeted technology adoption not the separate industries of residential building, non-residential building and engineering construction and the distinctive characteristics of each of those industries. The differences in the subcultures of these separate industries accounts for the differing rates of uptake found across firms in the UK since the launch of the strategy. Also, national and local governments, universities, regulators and industry bodies were all given significant but loosely specified roles in these policies to support industry engagement.
Achieving industry policy goals requires a great deal of coordination, determination and long-term commitment,[v]qualities not always associated with government policy. Over the decade after the UK government launched the new Industry Strategy in 2011 and the Construction Industry Strategy in 2015 there was investment in capability, new standards were developed, and BIM requirements increased usage. This new conception and practice of industry policy was about collaboration between the public and private sectors,[vi] rather than imposing unrealistic outcomes on the industry. Industry policies do not have to be original or innovative to be useful and effective, as the success of the UK after 2011 in promoting use of BIM shows.
[i] See Jiang et al. Government efforts and roadmaps for building information modelling implementation, 2021. BCA, BIM Essential Guide for DfMA. 2016.
[ii] UK Cabinet Office. Government Construction Strategy 2016-2020.
[iii] Queensland Government, Digital Enablement for Queensland Infrastructure, 2018.
[iv] , BIM policy and management, 2020. Links to the relevant documents for each country can be found in the article.
[v] Aiginger and Rodrik, Rebirth of Industrial Policy and an Agenda for the Twenty-first Century, 2020.
[vi] Chang and Andreoni, Industrial Policy in the 21st Century, 2020.