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PA OPINION

Land and property teams must embrace digital to drive major infrastructure projects

The land and property teams of major infrastructure projects are yet to fully embrace digital, failing to integrate digital systems. With infrastructure programmes becoming larger and more complex the lack of digital processes creates a real risk of programme delays, low confidence in data, and even Judicial Review. By getting digital systems right, the entire programme can make faster decisions and accelerate delivery while reducing costs and cutting risks.  

So, how can land and property teams move beyond incremental digital improvements to go through the true digital transformation required to support major infrastructure programmes? Our experience tells us the key to this lies in creating a vision for digital land – one that looks to automate workstreams and processes to remove as much manual handling of data as possible.

Make digital changes at the core, rather than bolting on solutions at the edge

Infrastructure programmes are often too reactive when implementing digital systems for land projects. This creates a series of obsolete systems that can’t cope with the volumes of data, or simply aren’t fit for purpose during the next stage of the project lifecycle. Each stage is distinct, but data needs to flow seamlessly from one to the next as they’re inextricably intwined. For example, data collected about land owners during the early stages of compulsory purchase needs to link up with case management data for acquisition, land management and, eventually, disposal or ongoing asset management. Without these links, you end up with data siloes that hamper efficiency.

Bolt-on solutions only serve as sticking plasters – they don’t last as a programme matures. Infrastructure programmes need to put digital at the core of land projects, creating a single system, or fully integrated systems. This would enable access to a single source of truth that drives decision-making and eliminates the work required to process and integrate data from multiple sources. The result would be faster decisions based on more consistent data and a reduction in operating costs for processing the data.

For those at the start of an infrastructure programme, the opportunity is to develop a strategy for land data and systems that empowers investment in flexible digital tools. This would allow for the creation of systems that are scalable and agile enough to adapt to changes, and that are designed with the entire end-to-end process across the whole value chain in mind. We did this for Network Rail when we led the separation of their commercial estate in preparation for sale. We defined the future state then worked towards it, joining up the activities of all the different workstreams and advisors. That included implementing new systems, new and changing business process and much more. This resulted in a sale price 25 per cent higher than expected and showed the eventual buyer that the estate would be a viable business from day one.

If you’re part way through an infrastructure programme, and dealing with existing legacy systems, the challenge is greater but assailable. A transformation programme embeds changes to established processes and teams. It’s an approach we’ve taken when delivering digital transformation in the private security industry, where we developed and delivered a transformation programme that put all the right preparations in place. This included establishing how the new technology would affect the way people work and developing processes, policies and training to reflect this.

While integrated or single systems remove siloes, enabling more coordinated and agile delivery, the system will only ever be as good as the data you put into it.

Capture data in real time and make it accessible

Client organisations, suppliers, subcontractors and other stakeholders accumulate vast amounts of land data in varying formats during major infrastructure programmes. There has been a lot of work to enforce the format of data outputs, but errors occur in the translation process, particularly as different parties use different software for the task and there is significant human input to the process.

The volume and frequency of uploads further exacerbates this, with data usually going to a central gatekeeper for review and quality assurance (QA) before upload onto a client system. This is a slow process compared to the pace of infrastructure programmes, so the data often ends up outdated or out of sync with other information. This results in leaders making decisions using obsolete data, leading to abortive work and rework.

In an ideal scenario, the data suppliers would have a direct link into the central system via an Application Programme Interface (API). An API allows for the real time push and pull of data from suppliers to the client systems. It’s also possible to use technology to automate the QA so the data is truly ‘live and real time’. Access to such real time data would unlock opportunities to accelerate accurate decision making, avoiding rework, and ensure greater data confidence to defend against challenge. This leads to improved visibility and earlier certainty on land delivery, reducing risks and enabling wider programme delivery.

Use AI and automation tools to increase efficiency and accuracy

Today, inputting and manipulating data is a largely manual process in the land industry. But the human interaction required to upload, correctly format and transfer data increases the chance of errors, which leads to rework and delays, and takes a lot of time and resource.

AI and automation tools can increase accuracy and speed when uploading data, and facilitate the processing of large volumes of data with vastly reduced resource. This cuts programme costs by reducing rework and the amount of manual input required. And having accurate and reliable data first time also de-risks the programme by enabling the on-time delivery of land access and acquisition, which reduces delays to surveys and construction.

 To capitalise on such smart tools, understanding what processes could benefit from available technology is key. So, review the as-is processes and identify opportunities to improve efficiency as you develop the wider data and systems strategy. Then put together an implementation and transformation plan that addresses governance, resourcing and communications to properly embed the tools. By taking this approach, you’ll get everyone bought into the changes and people will shift their ways of working. We did this with a national transport operator that needed a new quality management system to bring information to the fingertips of the whole organisation. By centring on the needs of employees, we were able to deliver a high-quality system at pace that the entire organisation bought into.

Digital is the key to better land projects in major infrastructure programmes

Major infrastructure land and property teams need to create integrated digital solutions that use real time data and fully embrace AI and automation. This is essential to enable delivery in an increasingly complex environment. Getting digital systems right will reduce delivery timescales and costs by offering access to more reliable data that informs accurate decisions. In turn, this will increase the efficiency of the whole infrastructure programme and provide a means to defend against challenge. 

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