THE FUTURE OF CONSTRUCTION
I recently joined an interesting panel. Organised by RICS/Matrics and hosted at AECOM in London, ‘The Future of Construction’ developed some of the themes and spirit of @Mark Farman’s influential ‘Modernise or Die’ report, which was published following the UK Government’s request for the Construction Leadership Council to "identify actions to reduce the industry's structural vulnerability to skills shortages". Farman himself, founder of Cast consultancy, was there to moderate and got the best out of us.
@ChrisChoa @JohnLewis @@UlrikBranner @AshPatel
@Ash Patel, project director at Laing O’Rourke, showcased innovative solutions and processes developed by his company, and highlighted how DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) is making possible extraordinary reductions in labour and construction time requirements. @Ulrik Branner, CEO and Partner of GenieBelt (think GoogleDocs for the construction industry) promised real-time communication and collaboration on construction projects, with correlated gains in productivity. @John Lewis, my AECOM colleague and Head of Commercial, focused on digital initiatives and AECOM’s proprietary modular production that allows complex projects to be designed in 3D and go straight into manufacturing; like some other DfMA initiatives, this volumetric approach can radically reduce time and labour requirements by an astonishing 90%. I was on the panel to outline the broader view; I highlighted how megatrends that are defining cities and regions - urban agglomeration, shifting demographics, predictive technology, and climate challenges – are shaping the construction industry.
That evening, everyone was focusing on how construction innovation promised greater efficiencies and workforce reductions – altogether understandable and commendable from a commercial perspective and especially when confronted with a skills shortage. But I also started to wonder: in our white-hot quest for a certain kind of innovation, were we perhaps developing a blind spot? I remembered a conversation from when I was a university student travelling in China just after the end of the Cultural Revolution. It was winter in Shanghai, and I was standing at the edge of a very large plaza in front of a factory. Over two hundred workers were on their knees, chipping away at the concrete surface with hand axes; they were hacking out a non-slip texture and had been at it for days. I asked the construction foreman why he didn’t just have a couple of workers drag some stiff wide brooms when the screed was still fresh? They could have completed the whole task in a few hours? He looked at me balefully for a moment before replying: ‘We are a state-owned construction company; my job is to keep as many people employed as possible.’
In an age when large portions of society are questioning the social contract - the reciprocal obligations that industry, labour, and government have for each other – are we thinking about enabling technology in the right way? We are on a tireless search for efficiency that enables workforce reduction, but to what end? Perhaps we will use digitalisation to increase efficiency while also considering new kinds of social engagement that will evolve in parallel to our transformation of work.