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Smart cities, digital assets and BIM

In 2013, the UK Government paper “Smart cities: opportunities for the UK” estimated the global market for smart city solutions and the additional services required to deploy them to be US$408 billion by 2020. Cities throughout the world are embarking on smart agendas to help to deliver more services for less by embracing the use of new sensor and data management technologies to gather and then share data through web-based programmes.

February 2017

Although often associated with energy efficiency and sustainability, smart cities are more than that; they are concerned with the efficiency of urban operation and services and how these services can be better integrated with real time information and analysis.

In the UK, Glasgow is seeking to become a smart city by embracing the power of data and technology. Bristol (winner of the Smart Cities Award 2016) is delivering initiatives to contribute to such things as maintaining the efficient use of the city's housing stock and to help with social care needs of its elderly. Milton Keynes has invested in smart bins which alert refuse collectors when they are full, smart sensors in water systems to enable leaks to be better detected, and a city-wide transport information network. Newcastle is developing a smart city strategy and there are trials on how to give priority on roads to non-emergency vehicles transporting patients between hospitals, cutting NHS fuel costs and improving patient care. In the more distant future, we may see driverless buses and robot repair workers to fix the potholes or repair leaks.

While many aspects of smart environments are already in use through internet-controlled building management systems which regulate the lighting and temperature within buildings, in-traffic management systems where variable speed limits ease congestion, and apps which feed real-time information about train delays to users, we are likely to see further increased use of smart technology in the delivery of smart cities, infrastructure, and other built assets.

Standards and common approaches to UK smart cities

To assist UK cities with their smart agendas, guidance, standards and common approaches to the evolution of cities in the future have been produced by British Standards Institution. For example PAS 180:2014 defines terms for smart cities and PAS 181: 2014 provides a guide to establishing strategies for smart cities and communities. In addition to the standards strategy, the Cities Standards Institute, a joint initiative of the BSI and the Future Cities Catapult, brings together cities and key industry leaders and innovators to work together to identify the challenges facing cities, providing solutions to common problems and seeking to define best practice solutions.

What is a smart city?

There is no standard definition of a smart city. In BSI PAS: 180 a smart city is stated to be one that demonstrates "the effective integration of physical, digital and human systems in the built environment to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens". Perhaps a better definition comes from the SAC, the Chinese National Smart City Standardisation, which describes smart cities as "a new concept and a new model, which applies to the new generation of information technologies such as the internet of things, cloud computing, big data and space/geographical information integration, to facilitate the planning, construction, management and smart services of cities".

So smart cities are not just about the technology and exploiting the power of open data but about how that data is then shared to enable a city to function better. Smart cities are also about managing the physical assets and buildings and creating smart city infrastructure which will enable better decisions to be made about future maintenance and use of those assets.


The construction industry can play a major part in smart city development, not just in developing new and smarter buildings and infrastructure, but also in upgrading and retrofitting existing buildings. New technologies can assist with monitoring of assets, for example, by enabling the age and design life of an existing building or structure to be defined. Knowing how infrastructure and buildings are going to perform throughout the design life will enable authorities to be proactive rather than reactive in managing that asset. The installation of innovative fibre optic and wireless sensor networks in the tunnels at some of the new Crossrail station sites is an example of the use of new technologies. The analysis of the data collected will provide insights into the performance of construction materials in the tunnels allowing decisions to be made about upgrades to be managed efficiently, and so reduce the need for disruptive maintenance.

Digital assets and BIM

Interactive digital assets using intelligent 3D building information modelling (BIM) technology are becoming more commonplace particularly on public sector projects, supported by the government's requirement that all public projects must utilise BIM level 2 technology as from April 2016. The push to develop BIM to the next level, BIM 3 and to help deliver on the idea of smart cities was officially launched by the BIM Task force in Digital Built Britain, October 2016.

BIM modelling describes the process of using building data in the design process to digitally create a 3D model of the actual building or structure, so that buildings can be visualised in 3D. This data is invaluable as it enables models of hospitals, airports or roads to be seen and tested before construction begins. The data can also demonstrate how a building might perform or how complex components can be integrated so reducing the risk of errors. BIM can also enable modelling of the potential use of the asset. So, for example, BIM technology used at Terminal 5 at Heathrow, enabled predictions to be made about the way that passengers and users would move through the airport before construction.

Apart from streamlining the construction process, BIM also provides data regarding the building components which will provide the owners of buildings or assets with access to real-time information about the service installed in the building and to make accurate assessments of the condition of such assets, how buildings operate and where efficiencies can be made, which will enable better usage and utilisation of assets.

Of course, as BIM models become more developed, there is no reason why such models should not be used by smart cities in considering development of portfolios of buildings. This would allow co-ordinated designs of districts, integrated services and co-ordinated maintenance programmes for those assets when buildings become operational, as well as scenario modelling to assess the impact of certain events on the existing assets and public safety.

Security issues

At the heart of BIM is information about the built asset which is created, stored, processed and viewed in a digital form. With data sharing and collaboration between parties involved in the design and construction process becoming more commonplace, project participants should be aware of the code of practice concerning the protection of that data set out in PAS 1192-5:2015. This provides a framework to assist asset owners and stakeholders in understanding the key issues surrounding digital assets and is intended to provide guidance on how to keep BIM models and the assets they represent safe from threat. It encourages a 'need to know' approach to sharing digital information about the built assets so that the data is kept secure and its value preserved. Looking to the future and the introduction of BIM 3 technology, the Construction Industry Council’s BIM2050 team identified that digital connected infrastructure and systems could be vulnerable to electronic attack and recommended that organisations “review their data residency, integrity strategies and agreements to proactively defend our digital and physical assets from cyber-attacks.”

In summary, the evolution of the digital built environment is well under way. Digital innovation and BIM technology have the capacity to transform the process of design, construction and management of smart buildings and smart cities. The future of our cities looks bright.

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Smart cities, digital assets and BIM
Rona Westgate

Rona Westgate

Matthew Jones


Rona and Matthew look at the potential of smart cities and some of the UK standards which apply to their development.

"Digital innovation and BIM technology have the capacity to transform the process of design, construction and management of smart buildings and smart cities. The future of our cities looks bright."