Research Nation: A Visit to Finland, Part1
Jerry Laiserin

Pinned for hundreds of years under the successive thumbs of Sweden, Imperial Russia, and Soviet Russia, Finland came late to the globalization party. However, as any competitor of Nokia mobile phones can tell you, the Finns have learned fast—with nationwide deployment of disciplined and focused methodologies for competitive advantage in both domestic and export markets. Simultaneously one of the most wired and wireless countries in the world, Finland is rapidly surging to the forefront of global innovation in building information modeling and simulation technologies through strategic alliances, partnerships, and carefully managed R&D—much of it led, sponsored, or directed through Tekes, the National Technology Agency, operating under the slogan, "Technology creates future well-being."

As part of the Finnish Ministry of Trade and Industry, Tekes focuses primarily on applied research and product development, with some overlap in "upstream" basic research by the Finnish Academy and the universities and in "downstream" commercialization efforts by the private sector (some of which receives venture funding through SITRA, the Finnish government's venture capital arm, whereas Tekes itself funds only projects, not companies). As a funding agency, Tekes relies on just a few hundred technical experts to review, approve and administer project funding requests. Although Tekes' budget is a direct line item of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, its organizational structure insulates project funding from direct intervention by Parliament, although it is still subject to advice from a Science and Technology Policy Council that is chaired by the Prime Minister.

Tekes' R&D funding amounts to approximately US$375-million per year, 20% of which goes into information and communications technologies (ICT), with another 20% going to energy, environmental and construction technologies (EECT)—the lion's share of the rest going to biological, chemical and materials technology research. For comparative purposes, the annual public investment lavished on construction technology-related R&D in Finland, a country of five million people, would be the per capita equivalent of the United States government investing some $4-billion per year in construction technology R&D (obviously, the USA spends only a tiny fraction of that sum on R&D for its construction industry). Little wonder, then, that some of the best international thinking—and results—in the field have been coming out of Finland.

Much of this work is done in conjunction with VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland, which also is a part of the Ministry of Trade and Industry and which operates as a contract research organization for projects that include domestic and international, as well as public and private clients. VTT has 3,000 employees and annual turnover of about 200-million Euros (roughly the same in US$). One of the key Tekes/VTT initiatives has been the Vera project for information networking in the construction process, launched in 1997 and scheduled to wrap up in 2002. The target of the Vera project is to help all members of the building team to participate in networks for sharing project data rather than paper documents. Life cycle information management is one of the key themes of the Vera project, alongside the use of ICT as an enabling technology to reengineer the design, construction and facility management (FM) processes. Upon completion, Vera will have funded over 140 R&D projects with an aggregate budget of $45-million.

A large portion of this effort has, in turn, been devoted to Finnish participation in the work of the International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) and the parallel efforts of the Building Lifecycle Interoperable Software (BLIS) Project. Starting with the first IAI roadshows to Europe in 1995, the Finns have taken an active role and are now among the global leaders in interoperability—and all the benefits of improved project information flow that derive from interoperability. The goal, often misunderstood by those outside the process, is not merely the exchange of model data among different CAD programs (which is the way "interoperability" is usually meant in an industrial design or manufacturing context); rather the goal, especially on the BLIS side of the process, is the sharing of CAD model data with other analytic applications upstream, downstream and concurrent with the traditional design phase of a project.

As a small country with a relatively homogeneous construction and real estate industry dominated by a few large players, Finland offers an interesting test bed for IAI and BLIS initiatives. For example, Senate Properties, Finland's largest real estate asset manager, is a government owned enterprise responsible for managing and leasing the property assets of the Finnish state, including university, office, research, cultural and other buildings. No USA property manager, not even the government General Services Administration (GSA) plays as dominant a role as Senate Properties does in Finland. Similarly, Olof Granlund, Finland's largest engineering company, commands a 25% market share, whereas no USA firm can claim as much as 1% of the American market. The position of YIT, Finland's largest construction company is one of comparable market dominance. Thus, with key dominant players on board among designers, constructors and owners, the Finnish AEC industry offers more fertile ground for the seeds of project collaboration.

This collaborative potential is so strong that earlier this year, the Federation of Finnish Construction Industries published a report on the Technology Strategy for the Finnish Construction Industries, a document that, in its own words, "considers the customer-driven services of the future. It embraces the technologies and expertise required, such as production and materials technologies, information management and life-cycle expertise." The report goes on to state flatly that "information management for construction and product model-based construction design will be adopted, and production and procurement data will be processed electronically" [emphasis added].

The Finns' matter-of-fact acceptance of 3-D visualization, performance simulation, code validation, collision checking, 4-D schedule simulation and so on make parts of the USA AEC industry seem positively "third world" by comparison. Tekes and VTT attract researchers from all around the globe—I met folks from France, Japan, Russia and Pakistan during my visit. These organizations routinely interact with leading centers of building research around the world, including Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering (CIFE—see IssueFive and the Building Technologies Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL—see IssueSix). In fact, Tekes has established a branch office in California's Silicon Valley, to foster technology collaborations in a variety of disciplines (not just design and construction).

In coming issues, we'll report on first-hand visits to some of the other Finnish initiatives in construction and real estate, such as: Tekes' Healthy Building, REMbrand and ProBuild; VTT's work in knowledge management for AEC; Granlund's in-house software development and ICT efforts; and the extraordinary collaborative design environments of Exterprixe Software.

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