This is the second of several articles in which I’m exploring in the current state of technology in the construction industry, and making predictions on the role technology will play in the future, and detail the different factors that will determine what that looks like. You can read the first article here.
The future is potentially bright but it’s clear that more buy-in is required—both financially and culturally—from those within the industry, and from the technology companies developing the solutions, to ensure the best possible future for the industry. With that in mind, let’s consider the potential barriers to progress, and what we can do to tackle them.
1. Understanding of BIM must and will shift
In terms of making predictions for the future of technology in design and construction, it makes sense to consider building information modelling (BIM) first. With better understanding and wider compliance, the emphasis in BIM will shift to Information, and away from Modelling. This is because the availability, use and management of information is fundamental to asset design, construction and operation.
I think that we’ll also increasingly see technology being used to enable design and construction teams to better understand issues like regulatory compliance, as well as bringing about a mindset shift in those teams.
2. Better predictions through data
In the near future, we’ll see more strategy-led information management requirements, incorporating technology with functionality to help drive the production and use of information. This approach will mean that built assets don’t just become more predictable in terms of when they will become available and how much they are going to cost, but their functionality will be optimised as well.
3. Increased customer-centricity
It’s on this last point where clients, operators and occupiers can have a fundamental influence through their active engagement. Construction will mirror the trend in parallel industries of increasing customer-centricity, through the lens of ‘what’s the function of this asset we’re creating?’, and therefore ‘how can we test that functionality and optimise it?’
4. New modes of collaboration
Collaboration is a huge part of that: understanding who does what, and what the drivers are for their activities, are insights for progress. How we collaborate with each other in secure environments will become increasingly important, alongside how we share information efficiently so it doesn’t reside in many different places. There will also be an increasing focus on how we generate data to support the design, construction and operation of the asset.
Design and construction teams will rethink how they undertake certain activities and how they develop their competencies so that they can incorporate technology, or at least make use of the emerging benefits of technology. We’ll need to get the right information into facilities management, and in order to do that, we need to make sure that the information is relevant, correct and complete.
5. Digital twins for assets
If we can start to create digital twins in construction, as is already the norm in other industries, it will allow us to be more strategic in how we handle and operate assets, which in turn means their operation is optimised (i.e. less downtime), and you can address problems before they become real problems. These represent massive wins for owners and occupiers of massive infrastructure and property estates.
The notion that you could have a data rich representation of a built asset that is both accessible and useful in helping to effectively manage that asset—meaning it represents a real-time reality that’s available to the people that need it at the moment they need it—is a strong vision.
6. A more connected industry
This digital transformation will make for a more connected industry—the joining up of the operation of an asset, with the creation and delivery of it. We’ll see greater integration of operations and facilities management, with the design and construction process. In this way, they’ll understand the asset that they’re getting. They’ll be able to better prepare to receive the asset so that it’s up and running much quicker than it would be without their involvement.
Fighting against ‘business as usual’ - the barriers to digital transformation in construction
There are numerous cultural barriers in the industry that can hinder our progress to this imagined future. With this in mind, it’s necessary to create cultural openings for the technology that appears. This is not a problem unique to construction of course, the profile of people embedded in the industry is similar to that of many others: there will be segments who are incredibly enthusiastic about the potential for technology to help them do their job better, there will be those who are more skeptical, and there will be those who don’t want to buy into it at all.
Part of the reason for this skepticism is understandable: in construction we have to work hard to make a profit, so as an industry the people championing greater take-up need to be able to clearly demonstrate how technology—and the requisite supporting behaviour—can positively impact the bottom line. This is the powerful message needed to persuade people who are reluctant to embrace technology and change their ways of working, to give it a go.
One of the challenges on gaining buy-in for technology is that it can require a lot of time and effort to learn both how the technology works and to learn how to get it to really work for you. Because of this, there needs to be more support to help people in the industry to work well with the technology.
For some people (and I include myself in this) there perhaps needs to be a hand-holding process so that people feel supported, but they’re able to explore, and gradually the support is dialled back as they become more confident and capable with these new technological tools. Just saying to people, ‘you must use this particular software or package’, is not helpful.
In the mind of the recipient, it represents more work in an environment where participants are universally extremely busy and giving it their all. Along with the crucial role of support, there needs to be a clear articulation of the benefits of take-up—ongoing reminders of the vision of what the benefits of working in a different way with some of those benefits being realised quickly, so that participants remain enthusiastic and motivated to continue in their learning, and start to work slightly differently.
The language gap
It can be a problem if when you suggest to a client that they’ve got to lead BIM, they are lost. If instead you encourage them to lead on an information management strategy for the project, then that’s much more palatable for them. Furthermore, if you were to tell organisations that if they collaborate with one another, that when they generate information and use it in a shared way, that will help them address the risks associated with design and construction. They know this risk exists, so if you confront it and build your case on that, you’re more likely to get buy-in.
Telling a subcontractor that they ‘must use BIM’ as if it’s a technology and not a methodology, could easily result in push back. When contextualised purely as a technology solution, the subcontractor might struggle to understand the relevance or really see the point. If instead you can get them to take more information-focussed approach, then this will make more sense to them.
To understand the problem: imagine you were to take a small piece of information authored by an architect, or someone involved in the design process, and simply track its progress through a project: How it’s used, how it’s virtually recreated, how it then has to be supplemented, and how it starts to mutate as it changes hands through the supply chain. The information you started with at the beginning can end up bearing little or no resemblance to what you end up with at the other end. Every point where that piece of information is changed represents an inefficiency.
How did we get here, and where to next
In the coming weeks, over three articles I’ll elaborate on what exactly we mean by ‘information’ in construction; what ‘risk’ is in construction and how is it best understood in a modern context; and look at Information flow, and the client’s involvement in it. We’ll see how each can be a catalyst for positive change, or an agent of stagnation, depending on how they are approached.
Sarah Davidson is an academic working at the University of Nottingham, following a hands-on career in construction and consultancy. She is also a member of the UK BIM Alliance Executive Team and works with various industry bodies and organisations looking at digital transformation activities.