What professionals need to know: ethical and responsible competencies for a data-centric society
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
Dr Kwadwo Oti-Sarpong, Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, University of Cambridge
Tags: BIM, data privacy, professional competencies, data-centric technologies, ethics, responsibility
Output type: Research briefing
Target stakeholders: Facilities managers, asset managers, developers, architects. engineers, start-ups
"CAD - Cyber Aldoz Design" by aldoaldoz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
What’s the issue?
The scarcity of discussion around the relevant competencies needed by built environment professionals and clients to deploy data-centric technologies for the construction and maintenance of housing is the motivation for this blog. Discussions about the use and potential benefits of data centric models and sensors, part of a wide repertoire of technologies, positioned as being key to improving construction and asset management are rife. Yet, the competencies needed to ensure such technologies are deployed in ways that are responsible and ethical to ensure holistic value delivery are rarely the focus of ongoing discussions. This blog describes dimensions of ethics and responsible innovation that ought to inform the competencies of housing clients and built environment professionals.
The transformation of how construction is delivered, and assets are maintained remains central in several change initiatives implemented around the world. Governments and the private sector have both rolled out initiatives that are meant to revolutionize construction into being more efficient whilst tackling several challenges. In the UK, for instance, the government has prioritized achieving greater use of digital technologies and manufacturing approaches for the delivery of public infrastructure for education, health and social care, and housing. The need to provide affordable housing to tackle the supply shortage and by extension homelessness in the UK is particularly pressing. The use of building information modelling (BIM) – a data-centric modelling technology useful for optimized planning, design, monitoring and post-delivery asset maintenance – for instance, is already mandatory. This mandate has been seen as critical if the benefits of the Golden Thread can be realized in the housing sector, and for public housing clients, relevant data is needed to avoid terrible incidents like Grenfell. Following this, Homes England aims to deliver about 25% of all houses built under the ~£7.4billion affordable homes programme using modern methods of construction (e.g., offsite manufacturing) complemented with digital technologies.
Beyond technological devices…
It is evident that significant effort is being put into the use of modern and data-centric approaches of delivering housing projects to meet societal needs. Across policy, research and practice, there is a preoccupation with optimizing the technology needed to capture and input data needed to make a digital technology like BIM (for construction or asset management) more efficient. Bolt on data-centric technologies and wide-ranging sensors are also receiving attention for the purposes of post-handover to asset management decision-makers, to help improve maintenance planning. The ability to use these technologies for such purposes, it is argued, holds benefits for lowering maintenance costs and to slow the rate of asset deterioration, leading to better return on investments. Housing clients are therefore keen to implement such data-capturing sensors and technologies.
The successful implementation and use of data capturing technologies and analytical modelling tools is not simply about having the ‘right’ piece of kit installed. This has been discussed in several empirical studies in the field of technological innovations in the built environment. Yet, there is a continued strong preoccupation in the housing sector about the installation of optimized technology and sensors. Considerations for the competencies needed by both housing clients and built environment professionals to deploy and use these sensors in both ethical and responsible ways are almost non-existent in ongoing discussions about the use of digital technologies and sensors in the housing sector. The lack of attention to these competencies is alarming for several reasons, including possible asset vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks that can compromise the ability to use data in a responsible way, and the potential of dwellers to have their privacy infringed, and their personal data exploited based on potential observable home use patterns.
Addressing the competency gap
To begin addressing the competency gap, it is important to emphasize how deploying data capture and monitoring sensors in building and managing housing is not merely a technical exercise. Such an undertaking holds far-reaching implications. It is a socio-technical process which ought to consider what the deployment of such technologies means to the delivery of the housing project (process wise), but also for how it would be used in a way to deliver value for the users (responsible innovation), and the potential exposure of users to monitoring which might infringe on their private rights (ethical considerations). During the construction phase, for instance, it brings forward the need to establish infrastructure for securely and efficiently managing data that will subsequently be handed over to housing clients for their asset management team to integrate into their system architecture for maintenance purposes.
For the post-construction and occupancy phase, processes guiding secure data management ought to be in place for the safe use of data from both the building and its end-users must already be in place. The technical competencies needed for the preceding cannot be underestimated. However, to be more holistic, these competencies ought to be enhanced by frameworks useful for the development of non-technical competencies related to deploying digital innovations responsibly. This is important for both housing clients and professionals in the sector who seek to approach the use of digital technologies in a responsible manner, considering the growing awareness of the public about the possible ‘dark sides’ of data capturing and monitoring technologies in recent times.
A competency framework
The responsible innovation framework is a helpful tool for developing such competencies. This framework comprises anticipatory, reflective, deliberative and responsive dimensions. Within the context of intentions to deploy any form of digital innovation (e.g., data-centric modelling, data capturing and monitoring sensors for building and managing housing), the application of the framework can help build competencies among clients, their construction and asset management professionals by drawing attention to being:
Anticipatory: Asking scenario-based questions (e.g., what if, and what else could be done) to assess the possibilities surrounding a technology and any risks and unintended consequences that might emerge from the digital innovations
Reflective: Discussing and identifying core motivations, assumptions, questions to inform known / unknowns about the digital innovations, and to devise strategies to achieve desired outcomes. This reflective process involves reviewing ethical guidelines and existing regulations
Deliberative: Engaging with others (e.g., potential end-users) and identifying what the digital innovations might mean to them, and what they find important through various engagement approaches. This enables co-creation and helps identify various interests and values that need to be considered
Responsive: Revising earlier intentions with new information to achieve collective outcomes expected from the digital innovation. Being responsive requires one to possess adaptive learning and dynamic capabilities in considering the deployment of digital innovations
These dimensions of the framework, when incorporated into the thinking processes of clients and built environment professionals, can expand the often techno-centric considerations underpinning digital innovations in housing into one that encapsulates issues regarding responsible innovation and ethical questions. Possessing responsible innovation competencies developed around this framework is helpful for equipping both clients and built environment professionals with tools to evaluate their intentions, reflect on critical actions to take for their vision to materialize, and develop strategies which will ensure that outcomes are positive, and potentially negative ones have structures in place to mitigate them. Consistently guiding a digital innovation attempt in the specified context with this framework can lead to incremental broadening of the often-overemphasized technical competencies to include the non-technical aspects which are both needed to effectively deploy data-based model with data capturing sensors in building and maintaining housing and other forms of buildings.
In conclusion, delivering value is not simply an outcome from plugging in a raft of technical components. Rather, it emerges from deliberately deploying competencies to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved, and potentially negative corollaries are avoided. How housing clients and professionals in the sector would develop and successfully deploy these competencies constitute important directions for action research in the future.
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 A universal definition for a competency is scarce. However, it can be gleaned from various definitions (e.g., Woodruffe, 1993; Ely et al., 2019; Plummer et al., 2021; Ubaldi et al., 2021) that a competency refers to the repertoire of knowledge and abilities defining how an individual should effectively function in a specific role to deliver desired outcomes.