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Last edited 23 Jan 2021
An interoperable construction industry
To celebrate the 10,000th article on Designing Buildings Wiki, Director and co-founder Gregor Harvie takes a look at the events that have shaped the construction industry in the last eight years, and makes some predictions about an interoperable future that will disrupt business as usual.
A victory for technology over policy
When Designing Buildings Wiki launched in 2012, there was a coalition government and the country was still suffering the full effects of a disjointed response to the 2007 credit crunch. Our State of the UK construction industry published in 2012 revealed that when the government was talking about austerity between 2008 and 2010, it had actually been discretely investing in construction and infrastructure. Then in 2011, when it began to talk publicly about investment again, the government quietly reigned in its spending. This sounds depressingly familiar now as we hear the post-COVID recovery proclamation of ‘build, build, build’ with calls for shovel-ready projects, when in reality the government has simply re-announced existing spending plans to give the impression of investment.
2012 was also the year of the London Olympics, which despite an enormous overspend and an unplanned legacy, was universally reported as an industry success. It apparently came in £528m under budget, even though the original budget submitted as part of the 2005 bid was £2bn and the final cost was £9bn.
In the past eight years, the industry has suffered the Grenfell Tower fire, the Edinburgh schools defects, two Glasgow School of Art fires, the Notre Dame fire, the Genoa bridge collapse and the failure of Carillion. These traumas have been exacerbated first by Brexit and now Coronavirus, leaving an industry in shock, contemplating reform and handing out redundancies.
The industry has also struggled with blacklisting and modern slavery and has made numerous attempts to tackle late payment and reform the planning process. The climate emergency has remained an unanswered problem, with an aimless shift in policy from ‘avoid’ to ‘cope'. And the government has grappled with indecision and a failure to fully commit, or not, to high profile projects such as the expansion of Heathrow (or Gatwick), HS2 and even the Garden Bridge.
On the plus side, the introduction of BIM has put the UK at the forefront of the global drive to digitise construction. This has been accompanied by the development of drones, the internet of things, big data, 3D printing, smart everything, artificial intelligence, mobile and wearable technology, and most recently, Digital Built Britain and digital twins.
In 2016 Mark Farmer set out a welcome vision for a modernised industry, saying: “If you buy a new car, you expect it to have been built in a factory to exacting standards, to be delivered on time, to an agreed price and to a predetermined quality. This needs to happen more in construction, so that the investors, developers or building owners hiring construction firms increasingly dictate the use of modern methods of delivery and invest appropriately in the skills agenda to grow this part of the industry.”
So what does all this tell us?
It would be too easy to say we are standing at the edge of some great change. Authors always foresee revolution, mistakenly assuming their particular preoccupation is about to undergo some world-changing transformation. However, it does seem there is quiet and steady disruption going on, and it is driven by technology.
We have seen examples of the potential impact of technology in other sectors, with the emergence of Netflix disrupting the TV and film industries, Spotify changing a generation’s music buying habits, Airbnb creating a whole new sector in short and mid-term renting, and Uber giving easy access to transport using an algorithm developed by neuroscientists.
Construction may be a tougher nut to crack. It is more physical, you have to dig holes in the mud, and every project is different. But nonetheless it seems emerging construction technologies are delivering change that has long eluded policy makers.
BIM kicked off the process by standardising the way information is prepared so it can be easily exchanged and fully exploited. The internet of things, smart buildings, mobile and wearable technology and analytics have continued the trend, opening up the use of real-time data to automate processes and inform decision making. The national digital twin project will allow that data to be exploited in ways its originators could never have imagined.
These technological developments are creating interfaces and interdependencies where previously there were barriers.
Designing Buildings Wiki and our work with the Construction Knowledge Task Group will extend this new ‘interoperability’ to knowledge. The current project involves standardising the way industry-wide knowledge is prepared and published so that it can be easily found, managed, curated, manipulated, compiled and collaborated on, no matter what its source. Knowledge will be available to practitioners within their project environment, they won’t have to go looking or it. Critical knowledge will be pushed to practitioners at the point of need, answering the fundamental problem, ‘how do you know there’s something you don’t know?’ It will be possible to track a golden thread of knowledge through the project supply chain and project lifecycle so we can be certain design intent and regulatory requirements are understood by everyone.
In his article ‘Towards an Internet of Construction’ Tom Bartley sets out a vision for a fully connected and integrated industry, facilitated by automated micro-services defined by their inputs, outputs and outcomes and interacting with design processes, construction machinery, digital twins and digital manufacturing. Bartley suggests: “BIM has been a fantastic stepping stone on the route to digitalisation of the construction industry, but we need to reconceive collaboration and prioritise interoperability.”
This is a grass roots, bottom-up transformation, breaking down the small barriers one bit of code at a time. It is about thinking, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could do this’ and then using technology to make it happen. If enough of the small barriers are breached, some of the bigger barriers the industry has grappled with for decades may fall by themselves. In this new era, decisions will be a matter of fact, not opinion, policy will be driven by modelling rather than politics, and outcomes will be known in advance. The days of budgeting £2bn for a project that actually costs £9bn and calling that a success will be rightly consigned to history.
And the best part about grass roots change is it doesn't rely on policy or leadership - it happens all by itself.
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