How Will Digital Disruption, Brexit, and the Pandemic Impact the Construction Industry?
Our Lead Consultant in the Construction Sector, Bola Abisogun OBE gives us his insight on the current position of the construction sector, the impact of digital disruption, and why the time for innovation and digital transformation is now!
How prepared is the construction sector to adopt technology?
The opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of many has never been greater. With the dual impact of pandemic restrictions, coupled with the post-Brexit landscape, business as usual for many in the construction sector has literally changed for good. Whilst all things digital have been expedited by a number of years (due principally to the Covid-19 challenge), the one thing that will struggle to change in any meaningful way, certainly nowhere near as fast, is the culture of the industry.
Despite obvious challenges, technology will provide the route to a dynamic and integrated asset management solution. Clients, consultant advisors, and wider supply chains alike have a growing need to better understand their individual and collaborative role(s) in this new landscape of digitised construction. However, the outlook is not all positive. The elephant in the room remains the digital maturity of the sector, and the industry’s longstanding and continued inability to recognise that strategic alignment to the wider influences and capabilities of the tech sector is an inevitable outcome.
How will data play a part in the digital transformation of the sector?
Data is sure to play a central role in any innovation or digitisation. At the core of what we do (as members of the various Supply Chain(s)), is share data but the quality, provenance and potential uses of said data will require scrutiny. How structured is the data? How can it be improved? And how can data lead to better information management and better project outcomes?
Without a solid and connected basis of data to work from, defining any form of ‘desired outcome’ or, dare I say it, ‘informed predictability’ – at least at a project level – during and/or beyond the construction process has become something of an art form rather than a science. This ‘finger in the air’ type approach is simply unacceptable in the 21st Century. Akin to the longstanding challenge with construction cost management, any attempt to predict and realise base-level outcomes still seems like an impossible ask. Data ontologies, improved transparency, and the provenance and chronology of data will go some way to facilitating the sea change required across the sector. This will help to ensure that the outline and detailed business case for a project can be realised and further capitalised on, during and beyond the design and construction stages.
A better understanding of the optimal performance of a built asset has become mission critical for the sector. Perpetual substandard performance to date has demonstrated the need for a ‘black box’ in asset management. Historically associated with manufacturing and airline sectors, the ‘black box’ serves to tell the story of both challenge and disaster. The detail and data often captured by such devices is now being sought, without success, by those conducting the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. Along with the tragic loss of life, a part of the construction industry also died in that totally unnecessary tragedy. Many have said that the moral compass of the industry has gone for good, never to return. Yet if it is to return, will the stealth application of new (and more rigorous) legislation such as the Building Safety Bill be enough to ensure that we never have to suffer the outcome of another disaster like Grenfell, or prior to that, Lakanal House?
Application of this ‘black box’ concept would offer a significant advancement to the construction industry, allowing for consistent reviews of processes and practices and, in worst case scenarios and process failures, offer the means to conduct an autopsy. But the question remains: when and how can this be realised? My suggestion to clients, consultant advisors and wider supply chains alike, is to take a look at the National Digital Twin project being delivered by the CDBB (a partnership between the University of Cambridge and BEIS) where the role of the Digital Twin has been engaged, interrogated and established to deliver public good.
How has regulation helped (or hindered) innovation?
The introduction in December 2020 of the Construction Playbook is an attempt by the UK Government to galvanise many of its ideas into a single reference point, in pursuit of many of the principles that have existed since I graduated in July 1994. Back then, commissioned by the Government and called ‘Constructing the Team’, the Latham Report was a joint and committed attempt, widely supported by the industry. It spoke of a complete review of procurement and contractual arrangements to tackle and extinguish adversarial practices and introduce more collaborative, efficient and transparent ways of working. Of the 53 recommendations, many have not even been discussed or considered, let alone embraced into organisational culture(s). However, the COVID pandemic has questioned this.
The Egan Report followed in 1998, with a focus on technological innovation, again in an attempt to foster greater use of digital and collaborative ways of working. Now, some 27 years later, the Construction Playbook is extolling a similar narrative. However, the critical defence at this juncture is that the world has undergone a paradigm shift, essentially led by the working-from-home requirement, again driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Construction Playbook reinforces the role of BIM and digital requirements specifically for the public sector, the associated design teams, and contractor supply chains. Such a move will not only foster the use of new leaner business models, but also engender a new industry culture dictated by a ‘digital first’ approach. Covering the entire lifecycle of a construction project, ‘the Playbook’ actively and unashamedly promotes the UK BIM Framework in an attempt to standardise the industry’s approach to generating and classifying data, data security, and data exchange. The wider and more strategic aspiration is to support and adopt the CDBB authored Information Management Framework, which remains the cornerstone of the National Digital Twin project.
To better understand the failure of the 2016 government-mandated BIM Agenda Level 2, it is necessary to contextualise it within the wider landscape of sustained market failures. Fortunately, the UK BIM Framework has for some time now established trusted process maps that support public sector clients in particular. These process maps provide guidance for implementing BIM in the UK whilst using the international framework for managing information provided by the ISO 19650 series. This ‘new normal’ and a move away from the previous BIM Levels, helps to standardise language and avoid procedural challenges during implementation, as identified across the world.
So, how should businesses in the sector think about approaching innovation and transformation?
It is vitally important that we start to see an incremental and sustainable increase in efficiencies, and the creation and maintenance of sustainable solutions which are ultimately scaled through greater adoption. Indeed, this is crucial even if looking simply from the perspective of the UK government. As demands on public assets and the public estate increases, intrinsically related to the circa £600bn pipeline of construction slated during the life of the current parliament, this shift is inevitable not least in the interests of protecting the public purse. Incremental change of this manner will help drive the industry towards a more digital state, capable of unlocking the untapped potential of data-driven asset management solutions.
The fight against climate change, and the Net-Zero 2050 target allowed for, under the Green Homes, also shows that we cannot wait any longer for the market to ‘catch-up’. The technology sector is primed and ready to unleash their toolbox of dynamic tools, with a view to positively disrupting and revolutionising the built environment through greater and more informed use of data-driven AI, IoT and Digital Twin solutions.
Now is the time to dare to improve the well documented, dysfunctional, and for the most part adversarial, analogue service delivery. This approach does nothing but detract from the available value proposition. If the UK construction sector is to leverage the full gamut of value, we simply need to enquire and remain inquisitive about a ‘better way’ to deliver the client’s brief. This has never been more critical than at the current moment, in a post-Brexit, pandemic recovery environ. Particularly when seen alongside a steadily diminishing labour resource, an ageing workforce and an increasingly crippling project level cost base – all of which are constantly eroding already pitifully low levels of profitability.
It is now is the time to consider the integral role of Digital Twin solutions (founded in BIM), at both an organisational and project level. To present the structured data environment as the inevitable foundation layer, is essential for the industry’s necessary commitment to the National Digital Twin.