A Missing Piece: Need for greater deployment of GIS in infrastructure projects

The infrastructure industry has a powerful support and multiplier effect; it can shoulder the weight of sustainable developme­nt of other industries by facilitating trade and job creation, and boosting overall economic productivity. It is indeed a critical sector that drives economic development and societal progress. The infrastructure sector has lofty tasks at ha­nd, including designing, building, operating and maintaining essential facilities such as transportation networks, water and wastewater systems, and energy infrastructure.

This sector, however, is faced with complex challenges. While the demand for new infrastr­ucture is rising exponentially, existing infrastructure is ageing and being challenged in new ways. As one of the most disaster-prone nations in the world, the risk to Indian infrastructure is growing. Increasingly, the sector is being tasked with striking the right balance between the economic, social, environmental and ecological factors surrounding infrastructure projects.

In view of the rising climate change and global warming concerns, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms can no longer afford to look at infrastructure development in silos. While planning for tomorrow, the­re is a need to strike the right balance between the natural and the artificial world. There is a need to protect property and people, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce disaster risk. Leaving behind decision-making based on hunches or incomplete information, AEC firms must embrace smart technology in all phases of a project’s life cycle, for the most effective outcomes. A geographic information system (GIS) is one such enabling technology that can empower AEC firms with rich data and insights to overcome challenges, reduce cost, achieve high returns on investment, and build resilient, sustainable and equitable infrastructure.

GIS in plan, design, build, and operate

Modern infrastructure projects are very complex, take multiple years to complete, and re­quire very careful planning and execution. Very often, this necessitates access to large amoun­ts of data in real time and very effective information management. It has been proven that close to 40 per cent of engineering time in ma­jor engineering projects is spent on locating and validating information, and poor communication between systems leads to wastage of up to 30 per cent of the project costs.

Effective data and communication management is, thus, very important for not only saving on the direct costs of projects, but also for ensuring statutory compliances (such as environmental compliance) and timely completion; and avoiding associated penalties and levies. Engineering information systems benefit significantly from GIS, and today, many ma­jor global projects leverage GIS over their whole life cycle — planning, survey, construction, ope­rations and maintenance.

GIS allows stakeholders to access survey and field data in real time, replacing ineffici­ent and disconnected workflows. During cons­truction, as the connected data environment is en­riched, a digital twin is enabled. At project handover, the asset is physically and digitally delivered, ensuring a long-term relationship with the client.

GIS-powered dashboards enable AEC firms to make better-informed decisions at every ph­a­se of a construction project. Dashboards, by presenting quantitative data from different so­urces, aid in visualising construction prog­ress, as well as monitoring logistics tracking of materials, structural integrity, site crew safety, etc. GIS provides the type of data transparency that project stakeholders need to carry out effective multiparty communication.

Construction projects that use GIS are also in a better position to consider the environmental and social impacts of the design. During co­n­struction projects, care must be taken to re­du­ce waste and energy consumption wherever possible, and protect the natural enviro­nme­nt. GIS can help in achieving this. Sustainable construction can be achiev­ed through GIS-powered Geode­si­gn. Geo­design combines geography with design by providing designers with ro­bust tools that support the rapid evaluation of de­sign alternatives against the im­pacts of those designs. Geo­design in­fuses design with a ble­nd of science- and value-based information to help de­si­gners, planners and stakeholders ma­ke be­tter-informed decisions.

Integrating GIS and BIM

Building information modelling (BIM) is the foundation of digital transformation in the AEC industry. GIS takes BIM to new levels by providing real-time data about an asset’s existing en­vironment. The integration of BIM and GIS lea­ds to the creation of a robust model where geogra­phic and infrastructural design information is put together. This information helps de­sig­ners and engineers explore and evaluate the design and construction more effectively. An information-rich model can also be used to improvise all the assets within a larger area for operations and maintenance.

Advancements in 3D modelling and simulations have increased the importance of real-world “digital twins” in AEC workflows. By bringing GIS and BIM data together, GeoBIM allows users to incorporate and use data from multiple systems, access project data for a common ex­perience, explore GIS and BIM data side by side, collaborate and share information with stakeholders, and minimise costly data conversions.

Esri pioneered problem-solving through GIS and is integrating BIM and location intelligence to drive improvements in the infrastructure industry. It has partnered with Autodesk to put GIS and BIM integration at the centre of construction projects for a more sustainable, resilient future. The objective is to effectively bridge the gap between GIS and BIM, thereby delivering real business value to architects, en­gineers, contractors and owners. While allo­w­ing them to build site context with respect to the environment, GIS provides them the capabilities to sense site change at every phase of development. Designing and visualising the real world in 3D and integrating this with internet of things (IoT) sensors helps them optimise infrastructure operation intelligence. By contextualising a BIM model with local and regional environments, GIS provides efficient design, project management, and improved coordination and collaboration among stakeholders, while addressing sustainability and resilience.

Studies also indicate that depending on the size of the project, the average costs saved with the integration of BIM and GIS can go up to 14 per cent, which is substantial considering the scale and the total investments involved.

GIS for sustainable infrastructure

In the dynamic times we live in, adaptability is the critical success factor at every phase of transformation. With the influence of technolo­gical advancements on one side and climate change events on the other, it is important that we are able to assess, visualise, quantify, predict and prepare for changes in our infrastructure ecosystems and adapt with time. This is the only way we will be able to ma­nage uncertainties before pressures build up.

As climate change clouds the future, building climate-resilient infrastructure has become inevitable for sustained economic growth. The­re is no doubt that contextualised geo-intelligence delivered by modern GIS will be the foundation for future intelligent, data-centric and dyna­mic infrastructure. Decision-makers are already taking a geographic appro­ach, and in­fra­structure systems are being integrated with geospatial technology including Geo­BIM, digital twins, sensors and advanced spatial analytics. Esri has been at the forefront of enabling these.

Esri’s ArcGIS portfolio supports the end-to-end AEC value chain. ArcGIS enables all sta­ke­holders to harness the power of location in­te­lligence for insights that are timely and actio­nable for smarter decisions. Bringing together environmental, demographic, political and so­cial data ensures that due importance is given to all sensitive factors and ensures sustainability and resilience at every stage. Recognising the gravity of the emerging situation and technological heterogeneity in the AEC industry, Esri solutions are conceptualised and developed embracing findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (FAIR) principles.

Spurring investments in infrastructure and supporting them with complementary policy actions will help India reach its 2025 economic growth target of $5 trillion. Fortunately, the In­dian government has gauged the vital role the infrastructure industry has to play in India’s growth story, and is greatly emphasising the en­hancement of this sector. In­fr­astructure buil­ding will be a key focus area for India in the next 25 years, as the country aims to emerge as a developed nation by 2047. Enabling steps such as the Smart Cities Mission, Natio­n­al Infra­structure Pi­pe­line and Gati Sha­k­ti are booster programmes for the in­fra­structure industry, and GIS technology has the potential to help achieve sm­a­rter outcomes, thereby paving the way for building a more resilient and sustainable India.