In one of the concluding sessions at Bentley Systems' Year in Infrastructure Conference in London, which wrapped up Nov. 3, a panel challenged to envision the path forward for technology development serving the construction of buildings and facilities saw lots of roadwork ahead, but expressed a certain optimism about progress.

The industry panelists drew encouragement from Bentley product advances touted at the conference, as well as from a trend—within the Bentley suite of offerings, anyway—to consolidate more tools into fewer products, and to move toward connecting those products across disciplines so that data entered and edited in one can move smoothly and without degradation, back and forth between others. Elaine Lewis, managing director Cadventure, a British integrator of design and engineering software, served as moderator of the “Envisioning the Path Forward” panel.

Bentley has reduced its product list to about 300 from 650, said CEO Greg Bentley in remarks made earlier, and it plans to continue in that direction. Now, also, Bentley’s “connect” system is using Microsoft Azure servers to enable it to reach into the cloud servers supporting other vendors’ offerings, including those of Trimble and Bureau Veritas, to open similar connections to data created by their products and services.

As Peter Vale, engineering information manager with Thames Tideway Tunnel put it, the trend brings “fewer pieces of software and more solutions.”

Panelists drew the conversation into a discussion about the mechanics of data interoperability, the need to stress data quality, data security and the emerging need for what Jugal Makwana, AECOM’s BIM director for Asia-Pacific business technology solutions and global IT, called a “data consumption manager.”

“Over the past few years we’ve been talking about the creation of data, but now it’s about how we consume that data—that is where the focus will be—consumption in design, consumption in construction,” Makwana said. “We have an information manager but what we need now is more of a consumption manager.”

Security was one of the needs that a consumption manager would be called upon to address, the panelists agreed. In a given building information model, for example, suggested Peter Taylor, engineering system manager, TSP Project, the layout of the private chambers of a university president in a new building could be the kind of sensitive information that should not be generally shared along with other construction data, but determining who should see it and controlling that access to data is a job description still to be written.

“We have to make sure that just as the designers are designing properly, we also are sharing information that is appropriate. “Are the people who are creating ‘all that data’ the right ones to ‘evaluate the consequences’ of having all that data?” he asked rhetorically.

Makwana noted that the primary data consumption method now is by exchange of a model, but said that there are other ways to go about sharing data, including Bentley’s iModels and the company’s expanding “connect” services.

“This is something that I think iModels and CONNECT will facilitate. It becomes a database where you get what you want,” he said, but he added that the issues confounding the development of structures for project data go beyond technology, and include the need for coordinating and resolving contractual questions, as well as issues of intellectual property ownership and procurement. “All have to be transformed for that to happen,” said Makwana.

Cory Brugger, director of design technology at Los Angeles-based architectural firm Morphosis suggested that moving forward will involve establishing new relationships. “How do we get through the trust barrier?” he asked. “On our side we do it very heavy handedly: most of our projects are design, bid, build, but then we’ve written into the specifications a set of procedures.

“We’re gone direct to fabrication on a design-bid-build project, which involves us taking a risk. [But] You have to put yourself in the room and be willing to get contractors the information they need to move forward with the processes.

“You can’t move forward without taking risks. And as a profession, that’s one of the things that should change. We need open communication and reliability of information, and that’s part of the end goal of producing a better product—which is what we are all really supposed to be doing!”

iModels themselves came under considerable discussion because, as Taylor, suggested, “there is a general lack of knowledge and competency in the workforce about iModels.”

Taylor gave an example he has of working with three groups who are all giving his team iModels, “and they are all very different.” He said the idea of a data-rich iModel and a transformation tool that can then connect to other things “is really interesting,” but “we need to get down to the level where we are consistent across the board. iModels are not just something that magically appear. What goes on in the background is the classification of the raw data itself.  I’d like to see examples of best practices on how to configure them and structure them.”

“In principle, it is lightweight—but in our own work we see that it can be huge. We need to be thinking about what the deliverable is, and the iModel is just a method of being able to exchange,” Taylor said. “It isn’t easy,” he added, “—and we get wowed by this sexy stuff—while in reality a lot of effort has gone into that deliverable."

Taylor continued, “We develop and work in an IFC world, especially in the U.K. with BIM, but in the infrastructure world it’s not quite there. But we have iModels—a Bentley product. In my point of view, I want to err toward open standards [and] an iModel is exactly that. We show that it can be used for lots of different things,” Taylor said.

But if the discussion of issues to be resolved to progress on the path forward turned into a mapping out of a work in progress, it also was indicative of a general optimism on the panel that there is a clear path forward.

As Peter Vale put it, “You sense opportunity! It’s not just drawing lines and arcs—we’ve moved way past that, and it’s not just intelligent content—we’ve moved past that. It’s the whole interface of providing information to a user to do design and analysis—the whole way of working has an opportunity to change. And that’s the exciting bit…you don’t know what it is but you have a sense that everything is coming together.

“It’s not just that I do my little bit and give it over to you. I know we have collaboration in working, but it’s actually on the fly now. You sense there is a change, not just in open platforms but in opportunity to do things that you haven’t been able to do before. And that I think is what is the beauty of CONNECT," Vale said.