BIM and data as such are not valuable

The world is constantly filled with new innovations that embody little to no understanding of the very people that the product or service is built for. They fail fast. It is common knowledge that most new products don’t make it through their first year on the market. “Users” of the product or service have likely been given some thought, but too often only in the form of hypotheses from thin air or by way of reflecting mainly the needs and assumptions of the team building the product. Then projecting them on the market. Or user insight is built only by looking at people from afar, through spreadsheets and quantitative abstractions lacking tangible understanding of what really drives us and our perception of value.

The first question of any innovation work should be: how does this thing of ours relate to and produce anything of value for people and societies? What kind of needs does it answer to, what kind of human and cultural practices, functions and meaning should it be part of, which actual problems might it solve for actual people and how? How does our product make life better?

Suffice to say, this is something we need to think hard about also in the 4APIs project. As such, our BIM and data can be of no value. They become valuable only through performing functions and holding meaning perceived valuable by people and institutions. Can they make life better? For whom? How?

With these questions in mind we began meeting potential target groups last month. We have now engaged with different stakeholders and potential users of our BIM and data, covering roles from energy operations to school management and real estate services. The work has just started, but here’s a few thing we have learned so far.

Could it save what’s scarce? Could it make us more safe?

The general perception of possibilities from our interviewees was mainly very positive. We found this perception of potential value to be based especially on the promises of efficacy, safety and wellbeing.

Illustration by Maria Niemi (Solita)

By ‘efficacy’ I refer here to precise allocation of scarce resources ranging from money, energy and environment to space, time and attention. Data combined with BIM hold lots of promise as a tool for better understanding of very context-specific conditions, their variation over time and also anomalies we otherwise might have difficulties perceiving. Possibilities especially with real-time data, predictive modelling and machine learning can enhance excitement and the feeling of novel possibilities. One key aspect of efficacy would be also the integration of datafrom several currently fragmented information systems into one real-time API.

The themes of ‘safety’and ‘wellbeing’ were raised especially in the context of a very special worry, even a public trauma of sorts regarding some of our public spaces. Throughout recent decades there has been growing concern over the quality of indoor air especially in schools. If we could collect more precise and rich data of the environments our kids spend their days in, this could have a reassuring function. And when data indicates problems in conditions, especially problems difficult for human senses to directly perceive (e.g. related to correct humidity levels), proper actions could be taken in time. Another given concrete example relates to acute situations of crisis, e.g. fires, when real-time data could be used to monitor people flow getting everyone safely out of the building.

Two takes on your world: data and BIM as aids of perception

Other potentially valuable functions included the use of BIM and data as pedagogical tools and as examples of smart tech relating to the very meaningful and tangible environment of everyday life for pupils and teachers alike. What holds promise here is the possibility of combining two types of information: First, the subjective and sensory information we humans directly generate by observing and sensing our environment. Then combined with the objective and unobservable conditions provided by data and BIM. The subjective experience gives meaning to the environment and its changing conditions. It is then given a complementary lighting by data of objective conditions like temperature or humidity level. Together they show how the subjective and the objective relate and might differ. And by helping perceive the effects of even minor adjustments and optimizations in conditions and behavior alike, data and BIM could be also used to provoke for example environmental awareness and positive behavior change.

This combination of the physical, tangible and sensory information provided directly by our bodies and the objective information provided by data is nicely mediated by the BIM. The 3D model makes data-measured conditions easy to perceive, understand and interpret in relation to the actual environment.

The building information model and reality. A virtual reality illustration of the Ypsilon demo.

This was brought up also in the context of maintenance of the building where this would provide actual help when not physically present to perceive the environment (to remotely and holistically grasp the conditions of the whole building quickly) or when physically present but now also being able to perceive and locate more objective data-informed conditions and their temporal variation (history, future predictions).

From data to information, from information to action

Data as such is not information, it doesn’t inherently lead into understanding let alone required actions. Actually, it rarely does. This is something we painfully know from encountering organizations equating more data with better decisions. Interpretation can be tricky. Easy-to-grasp communication, intuitive visualization and contextualization of data is usually an important factor. “No one is interested in my excels! … But when I have nice visualizations to show…”, as one interviewee remarked.

This need for easy interpretation holds especially true for multipurpose premises with modifiable spaces like the Ypsilon building. Ypsilon’s (and similar sites’) data has a broad spectrum of potential user groups ranging from building maintenance and its partners to energy authorities and more site-specific user groups like service coordinators, teachers, pupils and citizens in the area. Therefore, we need to help different users read, contextualize and understand the data as “with new data, there’s always the possibility of misinterpretation.”

But even this is not enough. After data turns into understanding, understanding still needs to turn into action. For this we need to consider organizational drivers of action and work to incentivize and structurally motivate people’s behavior. Otherwise, the possibilities for efficacy, safety and wellbeing will remain only latent.


Antti is a sociologist and ethnographer at Solita Design & Strategy. For the past 10+ years he has worked with applied social science in service design, organizations, brands and marketing.

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