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Sustaining intrinsically 3D infrastructure

Infrastructure is reaping better returns than ever, thanks to information modelling and its application in every aspect of infrastructure lifecycle. In this exclusive interview, Greg Bentley, CEO, Bentley Systems Inc., shares his vision and Bentley’s commitment in building sustainable infrastructures

Greg Bentley
Greg Bentley
CEO, Bentley Systems Inc.

Infrastructure is reaping better returns than ever, thanks to information modelling and its application in every aspect of infrastructure lifecycle. In this exclusive interview, Greg Bentley, CEO, Bentley Systems Inc., shares his vision and Bentley’s commitment in building sustainable infrastructures

What has been the evolving vision of Bentley Systems over the last two decades?
All through the history of our company, we have focussed on the same mission, although we have not always articulated it in the same way – what we call sustaining infrastructure. By infrastructure, we refer to every way in which people improve the world, things that are built and contribute to our economies, while also improving our environment. It is possible for today’s engineers, architects and geospatial professionals to do these things together, with the help of technology providers like us. It is all about sustaining infrastructure.

What are the essential ingredients for building sustainable and intelligent infrastructure?
To build sustainable infrastructure, the most essential ingredients are investment and return for the owner. Without the promise of return, there is no investment and without investment, there is no infrastructure. Fortunately, infrastructure is a very attractive investment in the world at large now, especially in developing countries. It is a more compelling investment than alternatives that might have looked attractive before the financial bubble, but were not as intrinsically and fundamentally important for our economies and our environment as infrastructure. It is a better return than ever, thanks to information modelling and its application to integrated projects that involve information movement and contribute in every aspect of design, construction, operations and maintenance. In the lifecycle of intelligent infrastructure, our contribution is what we can do with information modelling to improve integrated projects, yield more intelligent infrastructures, and improve the return for owners.

Infrastructures are interdependent. It is essential for these interdependent infrastructures to function reliably for the ROI you mentioned. Can you elaborate on how geospatial technology in general and Bentley products in particular can ensure these interdependencies?
An obvious interdependence amongst structures and infrastructures is that they are connected by way of networks of transportation, utilities, communications and so forth. A discussion on interdependencies makes me think of an aspect of sustainability that is worth mentioning at this point in time, especially in the face of natural disasters. When we think of resilience or sustainability, it can be in terms of withstanding natural disasters to simulate and improve resilience, strengthen our infrastructure on the one hand and mitigate the impact of disasters on the other hand, be it earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and then recover. Let us consider the situation of Japan, a country that had been relatively well prepared. Given the scale of the disaster that affected the country, a number of interdependencies come to mind. There were nuclear problems, transportation problems, electrical grid problems, and so forth. To put all this in context, and to be able to simulate and respond better, is a huge challenge. An opportunity in this situation, however, is in ROI to infrastructure engineers and addressing not only the human cost but the economic cost of such disasters.

Bentley has strengthened its commitment towards infrastructure by releasing ‘Infrastructure 500 Top Owners’ and by constituting the infrastructure ambassadors’ council. Can you elaborate on these?
The Bentley Infrastructure 500 Top Owners are the organisations we researched based on their cumulative investment measured by their net tangible fixed assets, and they are the largest owner operators of infrastructure in the world. Interestingly, more than 12 percent of top owners are in Brazil, Russia, India, and China alone. These 500 top owners have investments of over USD 13 trillion at net asset value in infrastructure. Helping them leverage IT through integrated projects and more intelligent infrastructure is a huge opportunity for all of us. Everyone can win by helping. In particular, we consider these top owners as an opportunity for us to target our AssetWise initiative pertaining to their operations and the maintenance of their infrastructure.

Our Infrastructure Ambassadors Council comprises recently retired, experienced infrastructure leaders to help bring attention to the cause and merit of infrastructure professionals in the world.

You have observed that about 12 % of the 500 top companies are from BRIC countries. More than 75 percent of the population lives in the developing world, while the investment on infrastructure is 10-15 % implying that infrastructure challenges of these economies are much more complex. What is your strategy to capture this market?
There are lot of exciting opportunities with all the technologies coming together now. For instance, 3D cities are elegantly feasible now. In countries where the number of large cities is growing quickly, for instance India and China, there is a need to be smart about how to build and operate infrastructure that is so essential at that scale. What has us really intrigued is the opportunity for geospatial initiatives on behalf of 3D cities in developing countries – to start with the notion of being intelligent and intrinsically 3D, and not to be held back by the institutional barriers of separate information environments that have characterised the history of geospatial industries. Our recently launched editions of Bentley Map are intrinsically 3D and can help accelerate and slingshot the progress for return on investment on infrastructure in developing countries and specifically cities in these countries.

What according to you are the critical challenges facing sustainable infrastructure?
A challenge in general in this area, especially in developing countries, is that the adoption of IT hasn’t been as advanced as in other countries. In many infrastructure projects, for example, traditionally a set of paper drawings have been handed off from the design team to the construction team, and the intelligence that may have been in the 3D design model has been lost. Now with design/build and private investments, the best practice is to start with a 3D model, from which one can derive the plan set. And with our hypermodel innovation, these can be amalgamated, by way of 3D models in which drawings are embedded in their appropriate context, providing users the advantages of both. So where there may have been a slow adoption of technologies, we can catch up, especially with so much investment in the world at large in terms of devices, computing and database technologies. We are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns in applying to infrastructure productivity the breakthroughs that continue to be yielded by investments in consumer technologies and mobile devices. But a particular challenge for those of us on the technology side is to accordingly inflect infrastructure’s relatively slow adoption to date.

In the past, computing may have been a bottleneck. At one point in time, one could not incarnate in the same computer memory an engineering- precision model that was of the scale of the earth. Now, of course, that is more than feasible. In fact, projects and assets can rely upon, and abstract from as needed, precise engineering models that are comprehensive in every dimension, including below the ground, to work smarter in addressing the challenges of infrastructure.

How do you see Bentley solutions working towards integrating with other technology segments like imaging, positioning and location intelligence as well as engineering workflows?
Our users apply geospatial technology as a means to an end. For Bentley users, that end is better realising and operating infrastructures, by which we mean everything that’s built. Therefore, having an environment in which the intrinsic 3D nature of the world, and all its other aspects, can naturally be federated to support simulation, design, construction and operations in the same environment is what occurs naturally to us at Bentley. I think this is where we distinguish ourselves. For instance, in our recently launched Bentley Map V8i (SELECTseries 2), we are taking advantage of Oracle Spatial 3D so that 3D geometry is stored natively in Oracle Spatial. To use another example, this year we will be rolling out a terrain model as a fundamental data type in MicroStation, because a scalable terrain model is applicable in every geospatial context. Where 3D surveying is concerned, point clouds are fully supported now. Where images are concerned, in addition to 3D images and texturing supported in the new Bentley Map, we are working on 3D panoramas that can be conveniently created with standard digital cameras, another breakthrough stemming from the consumer space. The focus in what we do is on infrastructure owners. What serves them is not any particular aspect of technologies but the information modelling to bring it all together, to federate it and to focus on interoperability and openness to make that possible.

How do you see the role of interoperability, not only within the various technology segments of the geospatial industry but also within the geospatial datasets as well as architecture datasets?
We need to take the standpoint of infrastructure asset owners. They have water systems, utility systems, nuclear campuses, etc. Their work is characterised by project after project that are all at engineering scale, with content that improves and refines it, but always set in a geospatial context. When they make decisions, say about their drainage, at the same time as roadways, transportation and communications, it is all in a 3D environment for both engineering and planning cycles. There is physical modelling, but there is also schematic modelling. We talk about “the smart grid,” but the grid in which the world has invested trillions of dollars is our existing utility distribution network. Bentley Substation product addresses that reality and helps make it smart. It is a great example of bringing together the schematic and the physical in one information modelling environment.

We can now have AssetWise, which supports the operation and maintenance part of the infrastructure lifecycle, share services with ProjectWise, which supports the design/build part of the lifecycle. All of the data is maintained in its native efficient format and referenced and queried on demand within the federated environment. That is the world we work in, when we talk about engineering. Of increasing importance is design/build delivery, for better return on increasingly private infrastructure investment. Public-private partnerships will always require continuity of information flow to yield their economic promise – from design into construction, to optimize performance under service level agreements that depend on traffic flow, and so on. These projects will fully apply information modelling for maximum safety as well, because all-in economics demand it, including the benefits of as-built models for operations and maintenance.

Let’s take an example of bridges in a transportation project. Bridges made of segmental concrete are very important in India, because the transportation challenges in the cities of India require building flyovers and overpasses, which are all bridges and in concrete. There are issues of the materials and fabrications to be delivered just-in-time to the site, minimising the risk in downtime, and so forth. Then there are issues of moving large loads. For instance, to safely deliver a transformer or turbine to a nuclear plant entails simulating the actual stresses on the bearing members of the actual bridge in real time. Then there are the dimensions for ramps and clearances. All of this is neither a 2D problem nor a 3D problem; it is an information modelling problem. Every release of ours makes strides towards addressing this.

Infrastructure is definitely the largest and the most important business driver of the geospatial industry. What else do you think is driving the geospatial industry today?
Our focus, of course, is infrastructure. Our interest is better returns for infrastructure owners.

Every database with things or people in it needs to intrinsically include their geo-references. Things and people in real time will be connected by the intelligent devices they carry and sensors around us. There will be real-time information about things and people. These are going to bring terrific economic benefits and leverage smarter and more versatile information models and information modelling processes that can relate, and which have an accurate, precise and complete incarnation of the infrastructure content that is so important to every application in the economy.

In the process, work on information modelling for infrastructure will be more complete, more natural, more interoperable, easier to use, less institutionalised and separated, for instance, between GIS technologies and engineering technologies. By rights, we shouldn’t be able to tell the difference as projects are always there, assets are always there, design is always there, planning is always there, linked by realisation. The best mission for us to apply ourselves to is having users not worry about those institutional distinctions, in particular if they are infrastructure owners, who will profoundly benefit from investments in smarter devices and better database technologies. For instance, beyond historical “GIS” distinctions, we benefit through inclusion of point cloud and images, the use of Oracle Spatial 3D, CityGML and interoperability to relate together data types that are naturally related by what we do in the world, but have been unnaturally separated by institutional history. Most of all, it is intrinsically a 3D world. As developing countries begin their 3D cities initiatives, they will be able to take advantage of an intrinsic 3D environment such as Bentley Map. It can help them use information modelling by way of integrated projects for more intelligent, safer and sustainable infrastructure.

You have a vision of acquiring technologies that come from the application user domain, and you have successfully done this in the last five years. What are your plans to expand your technology offerings?
When I look at what’s new over the past year and our 2011 priorities, much of it has geospatial aspects. I have mentioned geo-coordination. All Bentley products put projects and content in a geo-coordinated context that’s intrinsic everywhere. The scalable terrain model I mentioned earlier ought to have been part of GIS all along, but never has been until now. We have integrated visualization and animation, CityGML, and for instance the notion of gravity as it relates to water modelling, drainage, and geotechnical structures. The geospatial essence of these things is such that you can’t demarcate where geospatial leaves off and engineering begins. That’s the principal insight, for our work.

3D cities and 3D city modelling are considered new and novel, although they are one of our fastest growth areas, especially in developing countries and cities. I think it will become an accepted and mandatory strategy for high return on investment and improvement in human life. We focused on what our users are doing, what they are investing in, and how we are helping them to get better investment, interoperability, openness, inclusion and federation. Contribution to increasingly valuable geospatial datastores is something that all of us as vendors are contributing to.

What are your views about the recent acquisition of Intergraph by Hexagon?
The acquisition of Intergraph by Hexagon is interesting. The related effect of the acquisition on Bentley Systems is that Intergraph, which had invested in Bentley Systems 24 years ago, is no longer a stockholder, as we repurchased its shares earlier this year. Our family and Bentley Systems colleagues now own 85 percent of Bentley’s equity.

Hexagon is primarily a hardware company and Intergraph was primarily a software and services company. There have been instances in the past where the vertical integration between hardware and software has not worked out well for users. Unless there is a commitment to openness on both the sides, one winds up with a stack that is intraoperable but not interoperable. I think both of these merged companies in the past have had that tendency, and we will have to see whether that turns out to be the case in the present combination or not. I think Hexagon sees some of the same opportunities as we do in the connected and intelligent world and I commend their thinking and determination in increasing their investment.