- Aidan Lewis
Building Better: Technology & The Built World
With significant advancements in technology, how do we harness these benefits to help build better, safer, and smarter? Earlier this month, we were joined by a panel of industry leading experts, as well as senior decision makers to discuss the future of the built world. From current challenges facing the boardroom, to the opportunities that technology presents to the sector. Read on to find out what they had to say...
What is the current mindset in boardrooms and what are the big challenges in getting construction moving forward?
Andy Steele - Strategic Advisor to Beta and former Chief Executive of Osborne
Pure panic! That’s where it starts certainly regarding the digital space - where, what, how. What are we looking at? You get a plethora of ideas with a lot of conflicting advice. Where do you spend your money with material prices going through the roof and struggles with getting labour? Amongst those other boardroom headaches, I would say that the digital discussion doesn’t really end up on the radar as much as it should. We all know the industry has problems, but it does not necessarily jump to digital as a solution in the boardroom unfortunately. The other side of that is many executives have spent money on tech that has failed and have had their fingers burnt, so there is a bit of hesitancy there. Is digital high enough up the agenda? I would still question.
Paul Bamforth - Head of Global Strategic Accounts, Buildots
Right now, you have an industry where the margins are small, you’ve got skills shortages, legislation happening with the safety act, and you’ve got this turbulent economic environment we’re in. So, Andy is right about panic. Not just at board-level but across the sector. So, when you look at technology, this is the time to be brave and take a leap of faith.
When people are ready to do something, they want something instant – the perfect answer straight away. That is also a key challenge for the sector, highlighting the long-term value of digital solutions and managing expectations of ‘overnight success’. Technology is changing the way things have been done for a long time and that brings so many challenges. Of course, companies are going to want to see short-term benefits and results, but those companies that see the bigger picture and are brave enough to explore will be the ones who achieve long-term progress. I do also feel that many companies who are adopting modern technology are now starting to realise that this is more of a step towards where we need to go as an industry.
Rob Norton - UK Team Leader, PlanRadar
I agree with what Andy and Paul are saying, and what we’ve found when people are coming to PlanRadar is that they’re trying to digitalise their operations using the same methodology as they would with pen and paper. I think when you’re going into this digital element it’s time to review some of the processes that you were previously carrying out. ‘Are we using the right language and capturing the right documentation?’ ‘Is it time to change and streamline these processes?’ Chances are the answer is yes.
Too many times have I sat in a room with people who say, “this is exactly what we’re doing, we want to keep it exactly like this just digitalised” Then a couple of months later they’ve said “actually we want to change this, we can streamline it and make this better”. It comes down to the construction companies putting in the extra effort, looking into these processes in their downtime and reviewing it internally before digitalising anything. When you’re going to a digital platform like ourselves or Buildots, it’s important to go into it with a clear goal of what you want to achieve with this product. Really understand what you want to streamline. I think working that part out is one of the biggest challenges facing construction companies.
Do you think that there is a gap between how technology companies explain the benefits of digitalisation and how traditional industry figures are interpreting those benefits?
Yes, absolutely! If you go to any technology company, they will say their solution improves productivity, creates better efficiency, drives productivity – what does that really mean? What does it look like?
Technology companies often use the term ‘interoperability’ to define success, but you have to remember these construction companies have made investments into these digital solutions. They’re going to want more than just interoperability to showcase a worthy investment. Where will it benefit in the other investments they’ve made? How will this advance the company as a whole? As Andy said, it’s about the technology company understanding the client’s environment and what each stakeholder needs to get out of it. It's also about the construction company realising what they want to get out of it. I think improved collaboration from both parties will help to create clear benchmarks for success.
I would also add, there is so much choice out there so what is the problem that we’re actually trying to solve? Some of the technology now is so sophisticated that it’s scary, because it does everything. So, it’s the responsibility of technology companies to educate and explain what the benefit of their solution is to each stakeholder within a company. If everyone in the room has a different role, they will all have a different definition of success. Technology now allows us to have accurate data but the next step for the construction industry is understanding how we use this data and turn it into something useful and insightful. That’s the bit we’re stuck on and something that executives need to address.
How important is technology in improving sector performance?
In the construction industry there are so many different silos, and no one really wants to talk to each other and give them the honest feedback of what’s happening on site. I think when you are implementing a digital platform on site it gives you a glimpse into the executives because there is no more ‘he said this, she said that’. If you’re using these programmes, you have evidence of what is happening on site and the accountability for each person’s actions. It is a huge part of the golden thread that everyone is accountable for the work they’re doing and the documents their inputting. If you’re capturing this at site level all the way up it gives you the big data, allowing you to spot trends that can be effectively communicated across the company.
We still have a fundamental issue now in that people do not know what good data looks like. How can senior people know what data they should have when there is so much? Unless it’s clear what data they should have or should be looking at, how can they know what improvements can be made. Tech companies have not drawn that roadmap yet. I think when we have this, we will see real improvements in sector performance.
Something that we discussed earlier, which really resonates, is that when you approach companies you get people who don’t want to change the way they’ve been working for so long. It’s important for technology companies to respect the industry, because it’s done a lot of good up until now! However, the real value comes from not only empowering them to do what they already know, but to find out what they don’t. It is not about replacing the skills in these organisations or replacing people with tech. It’s just about empowering people to find the value in technology and understanding how they can benefit.
Are there other countries that you’re seeing that are perhaps doing this a bit better? Or are there key learnings we can take from elsewhere that the UK can adopt?
The Dutch and the Germans are doing stuff at the moment that we’re quite far of being able to achieve. They’re documenting everything and making real inroads with data collection. But what are they actually doing with it? While I think we can take learnings from this I do think we need to have the end goal first. Yes, we could improve our abilities for data collection and documenting, but what are we actually going to do with this data? We need to work that out first before implementing anything.
It is quite interesting because I often travel to the US, and I’ve sat in board meetings where they’re saying, “the UK is the place to be for construction tech!”. They think that we are the advanced ones. As Rob says, other parts of Europe are pushing ahead compared to us, but I do not think it’s prolific anywhere in reality. Much more needs to be done across the whole ecosystem.
I would echo exactly that. We are seen as more advanced in this space, but I think we’re actually quite risk adverse as a country. There might be subtleties in different countries but overall, we need to be challenging how things are done across the entire industry.
Where do you feel the attention needs to be to really enable collaboration, and if it’s top down rather than bottom-up what role does government play in really incentivising innovation?
I stepped away from the industry for 9 years and came back in 2010 and the biggest change I noticed was Health and Safety. Government has always been telling us to fix issues and last year they finally decided to step in and help, pulling together the Construction Playbook. The main component to come out of it was that the industry needs to start looking at standardisation. That’s where the attention needs to be going forward, and I think it will be driven by the governments of the world and customers.
I think Andy’s point about standardisation is key. Within the divisions of every single business, it’s so fragmented. Every single division and business are doing things in their own way and using a different language set as well; it’s crazy to see how many different ways people are doing the same thing! Now we are entering this ‘digital era’ it is the perfect time to bring in some form of standardisation. So, if you were to go from site to site you can pick things up and adopt it straight away. If not, there’s a lot of downtime learning a whole new company’s process and language before you even start. Who engages in achieving this? Is it a government thing? I don’t know. But if everyone starts using the same method moving forward it’s an easier cycle.
I think that’s fascinating. There is something in this industry called ‘Customer & Practice’ that we must overcome. One of the problems is we employ people onto sites who are solution people, but the problem is they tend to keep that solution to themselves and just follow whatever practice or process they’ve been asked to for that particular site. Rob is 100% right; every company has its own company practice. It’s bizarre but it’s just the way the industry is so we need to start to educate people on standardisation. Not to dissuade people from innovating on site because they still need to find solutions but encouraging a regulated approach to construction.
What do you see as the key opportunities in the industry right now?
That’s a hard one. I think the key opportunity for businesses definitely sits with construction technology and platforms that improve internal processes. However, there are so many solutions out there that this can actually become a challenge for the sector. Fully flexible and bespoke tech solutions are definitely a significant opportunity for construction firms to drive long-term progression. The old-fashioned way was to take a ready built, ‘off the shelf’ product which you could not customise or do much with. We’re now moving towards bespoke, customisable products that can integrate across all company structures.
The big opportunity is around removing waste from a project and technology has matured to be able to support this goal. Construction technology is giving people the data to highlight opportunities for streamlining their processes. Technology is now challenging the way people have always done things and presenting an opportunity to drive productivity, efficiency, and collaboration.
I completely agree with the point about waste, the industry is notorious for it. Improving both material and time waste is the real opportunity presented by technology. Driving efficiency and productivity. If you look out across the city, how many tower cranes can you see? There is now the technology out there for those tower cranes to not have a driver in them. It’s safer and 20% more efficient but who’s using it? There are companies out there at the moment that still require loads of paper enquiries for bidding on work. Well, the technology exists to digitalise that and send it all to the right supply chain in minutes. There are so many great established solutions already in the market, it’s just a matter of finding and implementing them.