Technology and surveying: how to thrive in a digital future

A measured pace

5 March 2018

A well-planned approach to adopting technology will enable surveyors to thrive in a digital future, says Michael Wolter

One would be hard-pressed to find a profession today that isn’t talking about artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a phrase that seems to be on the entire world’s lips as devotees laud its potential to benefit any type of business. Machine learning in turn promises to advance business models at lightning speed.

The property surveying profession is no exception to these trends, and despite being historically averse to technology it forges ahead in its discussion of AI. Although for many people surveying conjures images of printed floorplans and clipboards, the future of the profession will be very different. Digital 3D models and mobile devices will be the tools of the future surveyor, augmented by an array of complementary software and hardware.

AI can be prohibitively expensive

Although these advances are already here, we won’t start seeing them in widespread use any time soon. State-of-the-art software offers big value yet comes with a price tag that is too high for most surveying practices, and while they have recourse to other forms of technology, we should be wary of an all-out tech takeover and complete automation.

AI is transforming property surveying by mapping existing structures, enabling real-time data collection, and plans for ultra-efficient buildings of the future. If it does so carefully, it can both enhance property surveying and futureproof the roles of many surveyors.

Applying AI

The major hindrance to widespread use of AI in existing structures is financing: as with most cutting-edge technology, AI can be prohibitively expensive. A recent RICS insight paper, Artificial intelligence: What it means for the built environment, shows that the use of certain technologies such as building information modelling (BIM) is not financially feasible in structures that are already built. Without sufficient funding, therefore, the AI currently available is simply not viable, and the report warns that 'the costs of creating a digital model might not be recouped for many years'.

Building management systems (BMSs), on the other hand, hold more promise for both existing and prospective structures. The RICS report The Impact of Emerging Technologies on the Surveying Profession defines BMSs as being 'computer-based systems that manage, control and monitor building technical services (HVAC, lighting etc.) and the energy consumption of devices used by the building'. Integration of BMSs into existing structures is easier than integrating BIM, since the former have started to become mainstream with the arrival of smart-home devices and are compatible with systems that are already in place. BMSs can apply data gathered from smart-home devices for a twofold benefit:

  1. systems can apply real-time data from building monitors to enhance comfort and productivity for occupants; and
  2. once enough historical data has been gathered, analytics can optimise the building’s energy efficiency and alert users to potential hazards.

Real-time data

When it is managed by BMSs, the value of having data in real time is obvious: changes are made instantly, ensuring built environments function at optimal efficiency and comply with safety standards. In the wider property technology, or proptech, sphere, exchanging data as it is collected eliminates any delays, and represents a considerable gain for a practice; the recipient is able to process the data as soon as it is received with no need to convert it into digital format, ensuring further efficiency for the process. Real-time data is what transforms a building from a lifeless structure into living, breathing organism, one that responds to changes immediately and thrives in its environment.

Real-time proptech is also an affordable way to adopt technology without stretching a company’s budget. Software that offers the ability to submit data in real-time is currently available at a range of prices, so it offers a possible solution for a company of any size. While large companies may invest in bespoke systems, small and medium-sized businesses can take advantage of proptech that is better suited to their scale. Jax Kneppers, founder of app developer Imfuna, writes in the paper Workflow Improvements and Project Success Driven by Mobile Technology: 'Projects that do not have the benefit of budgets that allow for expensive modelling software can look to platforms that support common tools that respond to the challenges faced in a competitive environment without breaking the bank.'

Kneppers’ firm offers Imfuna Surveyor software for both residential and commercial fields, which is scaleable for different practices. Users can perform a survey, collect site data and then submit this through the cloud to an online platform where it is automatically collated for report composition. The data is sent in real time with the use of a mobile app and then disseminated appropriately, enhancing overall efficiency and leaving the surveyor with a more flexible schedule.

Technology priority

Software such as Imfuna Surveyor allows many companies to get on the grid (see also Property Journal December 2017/January 2018 pp.16–17). Taking up AI, machine learning and other digital technology is not necessary for most surveying practices, and is not necessarily practical or even possible. Yet it is incumbent on surveyors at all levels to enable their practices to speak the language of technology, thus ensuring a smooth transition from paper notes and spirit levels to digitally formatted surveys.

The goal must be for surveyors to become active members of a digital future

Building the bridge to the practice of the future can be done slowly and in stages, but the goal must be for surveyors to become active members of a digital future. The rest of the world will not wait for them to begin adopting technology, and with many roles currently at risk from automation, the more actively surveyors can participate the more they futureproof their careers.

Natalie Cohen says in Meet the surveyor of the future that, 'As the latest innovations change the way we work, it will become increasingly important to allow technology to do the heavy lifting, in turn freeing us up to provide professional judgement, risk identification and solutions. Embracing change is paramount'. As she suggests, surveyors will remain a vital part of the surveying process; the amount of participation is up to them, but the time to act is now.

The building of the future

New buildings are already beginning to use some of the AI tools available to them, for example by adjusting services without human intervention. The Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), for instance, has revealed plans for its new headquarters building Al-Sheraa, which it claims will be the world’s 'tallest, largest, and smartest' net-zero energy building. Al-Sheraa will make use of AI to achieve this aim: according to DEWA, 'It will feature a control centre which will allow essential systems to operate and shut down non-essential systems, including air conditioning and lighting'. This is in addition to a mobile app that helps employees track their energy use, book parking spaces and meeting rooms, and advises when to leave homes to ensure they arrive at work on time, based on current traffic reports.

Al-Sheraa represents the direction in which modern buildings are headed. It is of course a well-funded project and thus enjoys every conceivable state-of-the-art facility. But as machine learning becomes more widely available the price will inevitably drop, and enhancements that offer the same benefits will be adopted at a pace across the sector.

Save surveying

AI offers significant benefits to the property surveying profession, but its adoption must be done with a view to the future. Shun technology entirely and it threatens to automate nearly all parts of the surveying process; take it up too early and its benefits may not be financially viable enough to sustain its use.

However, if surveyors begin to adopt proptech now in some way, not only will processes be immediately improved by real-time information and the digitisation of built environment data, but full adoption will move at a measured pace, ensuring surveyors can stay a relevant and necessary part of the built environment professions.

Michael Wolter writes on behalf of Imfuna

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