The adoption of technology in the construction industry

Having recently coordinated and attended events relating to the adoption of technology in the construction industry, it is clear that young professionals have an important role to play in identifying and tackling the obstacles to innovation.

To plan how best to achieve this, it is important to understand challenges specific to the sector

Panel discussions at both events highlighted common themes that might have contributed towards late investment in technology in the construction industry. Tight profit margins can leave little capital for reinvestment into innovation, with hand-to-mouth business models seeing several high profile liquidations in the last two years alone. It is often argued that construction is wrapped up in excessive layers of red tape, favouring traditional methods of work above experimental or unproven methods. Prestigious and traditional organisations such as the RICS or RIBA have been criticised for not adopting frameworks for the regulation of new technologies, for example, the use of BIM.

Businesses are not always set up to embrace investment in new methods of working, with a common expectation to realise immediate value from new investments. When the safety and wellbeing of our workforce is at risk, it is inappropriate to take a trial and error approach that may have serious consequences past lost time or cost.

It is possible that the net combined impact of these challenges has led to a poor attitude towards innovative technologies

Digitals methods of communicating information continue to sit behind traditional methods of working which take precedent as the most reliable source of information. This has created a damaging view of the construction industry amongst the younger generation; who have the right skills to succeed in the industry but do not see it as an obvious choice to match their interests. With a steady stream of innovation coming to the market, can technology form the heart of a new modern narrative about the construction industry?

To answer this question it is necessary to look at the key drivers of today’s industry, suggested to be cost, efficiency, quality, and sustainability. A race to the bottom, encouraged by competitive tendering processes, continues to challenge designers and contractors to find cost effective methods of working. Efficiency has a major part to play in this challenge, with smarter ways of working and faster delivery of projects both high on the agenda. However, the drive to greater efficiency does not substitute a requirement for quality, and clients continue to remain discerning.

Sustainability is more relevant than ever, with high profile campaigns including the extinction rebellion protests, school strikes inspired by 15-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, and the ‘war on plastic’ creating an increasing urgency when it comes to action on climate change. Environmental technologies have been elevated from ‘nice to have’ to ‘must have’.

Efficiency is also a leading narrative within the climate change arena, with waste a significant area of interest on the sustainability agenda. It is widely acknowledged that the carbon footprint of the construction of a building could be significantly reduced just by improving the efficiency in which we operate as an industry. Looking further, a significant performance gap often exists between the designed and operational energy efficiency of a building which can far outweigh any energy savings made within the construction phase of a building’s lifecycle. It is clear these four drivers will need to be addressed by new technology to make its adoption successful.

To move forward, it is suggested that construction companies take a holistic approach towards the adoption of technology

It is critical that businesses engage in strategic conversations about what they would like to achieve and how this can be measured. This is straightforward with quantitative data, however some qualitative objectives are less straightforward to capture. For example wellness, and the wellbeing of the users of a building.

The adoption of technology must be accompanied by a strong business case, directed at problems that need solving. There can be hype around ‘gimmicky’ technologies designed to solve problems that don’t appear to exist, which often overshadows smaller scale innovation that is vital in driving the industry forward. It is therefore critical that when we talk about technology, the conversation is not limited to expensive and disruptive technologies alone. Small efficiencies introduced into a pre-existing methodology for completing tasks can have the most significant impact on the delivery of a project. Finally, the outcome of not implementing technology should be a key conversation piece for businesses that want to continue to grow and keep one step ahead of the game.

If a shift of view is required, companies need to focus on the outcomes of adopting technology rather than specific technology itself

Effective communication will be key to changing attitudes with narratives that are persuasive and bespoke towards their audience. Shareholders and senior management who need convincing about the business case of implementation require different reassurance than the average team member who might have concerns that technology could lead to a change in the workforce, and ultimately redundancies. It continues to be necessary to provide assurance that technology does not remove the skill requirement in the industry. Parametric design and computer modelling require software users with an effective understanding of their field of expertise to ask the right questions to the software. Heritage properties are simply not compatible with modern methods of construction, and there will continue to be a skills requirement to manage an aging building stock.

Having highlighted the changes required to enable to adoption of technology into the industry, what are the next steps that the industry should take in order to accelerate the adoption of these technologies?

Accurate reporting and continuous data collection must be embraced to facilitate the effective use of the vast majority of technology coming to the market. Data strategies should be implemented to ensure that we are capturing relevant and valuable information. Companies are often quick to talk about success stories, but less open to talking about failures or lessons learnt. The practice of hiding the true financial cost, or resource requirement to deliver a project can lead to inaccurate data reporting that cannot be reliably called upon to accurately plan the future delivery of projects.

Looking further, the availability of data and ability to work collaboratively is vital for certain technology to succeed. The removal of data walls and the decommercialisation of data will be necessary to achieve optimum success. With the sheer scale of growth in the volume and detail of information we are recording, we must ensure that data is managed effectively to protect privacy. Standardisation of data is critical to enabling comparison. Future regulation of the industry, normalising the use of technologies by setting a minimum requirement for their use might be one way to achieve success.

Finally, it is critical that the next generation is taught the skills required to succeed in a construction industry with technology at its forefront. This does not mean introducing a requirement to teach the use of particular software, but a move towards bringing digital communication and collaboration to the forefront of curriculums.

Written by Jack Strickland – Faithful & Gould, G4C Oxford