The state of the union on digitalisation

Prakash Senghani, CEO and Co-Founder of Navatech Group, provides an in-depth assessment of how the construction sector is doing with its digital revolution

The construction sector is a major contributor to global and regional GDP, and acts as an incubator for innovation and advancements, the problem is that it is not seen nor appreciated as such. As the world faces uncertain times, history tells us that turning to construction will help sustain jobs, drive growth, and allow economies to come out of the other side with enhanced infrastructure. Therefore, the significance and impact of the global construction industry cannot be understated.

Meeting the new challenges as well as overcoming the old will not be possible without embracing digitalisation. The needs of populations are evolving as influences left over from the pandemic and rising awareness of climate change impact public consciousness, politics, and economics; all of which have technological solutions which are proving to be invaluable.

First let us consider the ‘old’ problems, the principle one being the productivity gap – it has been widely reported that construction productivity has either been stagnant or in decline since the early 1970s. There are numerous issues with trying to measure productivity in the industry, as sometimes the statistics can be hard to get or to validate. However, the scale of the gap with other industries cannot be explained away by mere mismeasurement. The industries that have accelerated their productivity growth have at least one thing in common; they have all digitalised.

If we subscribe to the causal relationship between digitalisation and productivity growth then construction businesses could have been considered lagging, however the most cited data comes from reports produced by management consultants almost half a decade ago.

Since those reports, the world has changed; the industry has become more self-aware, digital transformation programmes are common, digital natives have entered leadership positions and the pandemic forced us to adopt digital tools. Those reports also implied that as an industry, we were purposefully being resistant to change, but recent events have proved this not to be the case. Costs and accessibility were a barrier to digitalisation for the construction industry, both of which are no longer the case, with the prices of both hardware and software declining and internet connectivity becoming more ubiquitous.

A strong argument can be made that construction is one of the most traditional industries and thus it has been facing issues in adapting to digitalisation, however manufacturing is equally as traditional, yet they are often used as a comparator for productivity growth. It is no coincidence then that construction is borrowing techniques from manufacturing to industrialise production of building elements, with the ever-wider utilisation of modular and prefabricated methods of construction; great examples can be found on residential projects in Dubai (I live in a house which was built using precast slabs, walls, columns, and beams) and on hospitality giga projects in KSA.

Another advancement that we have seen over the past five years is the use of common data environments (CDEs) as a centralised repository for all project related information across the entire lifecycle. CDEs have expanded their reach and capabilities in sync with the proliferation of cloud computing which, usually, for construction has kept pace with adoption in other industries. CDEs allow for a single source of truth and make data accessible to all project stakeholders in a controlled manner, helping to remove inefficiencies and potential errors, all helping to improve productivity.

The widespread use of CDEs mean that the industry is digital data rich, much of this data is structured and easily accessible, this has led to a revolution in the way that decisions are made, using business intelligence tools to visualise data instead of thick wordy reports. This allows insights to be gleaned much more effectively and accurately.

Apart from these there are many digital tools and technologies being explored, the difference to five years ago is that these are being more readily piloted, which speaks to the change in attitudes to researching and adopting new technology, I have seen robots, 3D printers, drones and various levels of AI being deployed across the industry. I am convinced that this openness to looking at new technology is a lasting consequence of the pandemic, when we were forced to adapt and found that it wasn’t all that bad.

The ’new’ problems which the industry faces are partly because of having a larger digital footprint and partly due to its oversized carbon footprint. The issues associated with the former come in the form of cyber security threats, navigating data sovereignty (which is often geo-political) and skills shortages. These are being addressed through better education and training as well as employing people from diverse and non- traditional talent pools such as video game developers and data scientists.

The issue of climate change and our industry’s contribution to it is one that will inevitably involve technological solutions; from using IoT devices to measure baselines and track improvements, to utilising AI to design more efficient buildings and building elements. The maturity of BIM and the availability of data is allowing asset owners to visualise their assets in greater detail than ever before; these digital twins can be utilised to understand how an asset is performing and make decisions how it can be optimised.

Although we still have a way to go and the journey to transform digitally may never truly end, we are much further along than five years ago where we were being derided for being only marginally more digitised than agriculture and farming. Challenges still exists, but they are starting to be less about accepting change and more about how to make that change stick. These challenges stem from trying to use traditional techniques and processes to procure, evaluate and manage the new ways of working.

Despite these challenges we should be proud of what we have achieved and celebrate the successes. Instead of allowing management consultants with vested interests to tell us how far we are behind, we must remind them that it is us that will be at the forefront of providing solutions for the challenges to come.

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