Why technology brings both risk and opportunity

9 Jun 23

Technology is both part of the solution and part of the problem when it comes to error, David Cormie, Arup’s director of resilience, security and risk, told delegates at GIRI’s recent members’ meeting. He argued that while technology can reduce error at interfaces, it may also increase risk in some circumstances, particularly where reliance on it replaces human oversight. 

David pointed to digital modelling as a technology that brings both risk and opportunity, using an example of a high-rise project in San Francisco to demonstrate the latter. “This was a very tall building, and differential movement due to the construction of that building and other buildings in the area meant that some complex analysis was required to prove there was a viable structural solution. We could do that because we have the tools and the technology.” 

However, any tool is only as good as its user. “These tools are getting more complex, and the flip side of that is that users risk becoming deskilled. If you cannot check [the output] by hand, there is a strong argument that you shouldn’t build it. Being able to check is fundamental, but with the march of technology, fewer engineers are coming into the profession with these skills. Gross magnitude checks on designs are happening less frequently,” he warned.

David also argued that working practices since the pandemic have reduced the opportunity for desk-side conversations. “It is less likely in a post-Covid world with more people working remotely that someone will walk past a desk and point out something on a screen that looks wrong. That’s part of how I learned as an engineer, and part of how I have helped others learn.”

On the other hand, technology can facilitate the big, complex projects that require thousands of drawings. David agreed there is a place for automated checks in such situations to establish whether drawings meet the required standards. “The only way we can adequately check so many drawings is by using automated methods, but there is risk here too. Such checks don’t assess the actual content of the drawings, just whether they are consistent and meet required standards.”

Management of digital plans is another area where technology brings both risks and benefits. David highlighted an example of how technology can be used in a simple, effective way to reduce errors – Arup’s StampR system, which uses a QR code to help users check they are looking at the most recent version of a drawing. “Today, drawings are replicated and shared in any number of forms and by different methods, and something like this cuts through the noise and provides an easy way to check that you are looking at the right version.”

But one of the biggest challenges of technology is the proliferation of communication platforms, and what this means for the management of data, he said. “A few years ago, we knew where to find information. It was on the network drive. Now it might be in the cloud, the common data environment, on a Sharepoint site, someone’s Onedrive or shared in Teams. There is a real concern, as an industry, that if we have to go back to a project in ten years’ time, we may not be able to find the relevant information. I believe this is one of the biggest areas of risk in the way the sector is now working.” 

Technology, he concluded, is a double-edged sword. “It can reduce risk at the interface, but it cannot guard against our own fallibility and there is no substitute for strong, effective controls over its use. In any project, we need to approach the use of technology with our eyes open.”

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