Construction sector: too traditional, lacks innovation, doesn't collaborate. Discuss

Are perceptions of the construction sector fair and if they are, what do we need to do about it?

Author Teodoro Alvarez-Fadon will be speaking at ICE's Shaping a Digital World conference in October
Author Teodoro Alvarez-Fadon will be speaking at ICE's Shaping a Digital World conference in October
  • Updated: 06 September, 2017
  • Author: Teodoro Alvarez-Fadon, Global Head of Innovation, Ferrovial Agroman

At forums, seminars and conferences I keep hearing that the construction industry is light years away from the aerospace and automotive sectors in terms of innovation – and this is often backed up with figures and graphs.

Innovation

Why is it we are unable to convey all the innovation ‘buried’ in every motorway, bridge, tunnel or airport that is built? Innovation that has been generated, day after day, for centuries and that is a faithful reflection of the engineering involved in designing, developing new materials and defining new processes.

Collaboration

The second criticism of the sector focuses on collaboration. Considering the time taken to carry out a construction project we are one of the most agile sectors when it comes to not only mobilising a work force but also redistributing its members to the next project in record time.

We set up joint ventures according to market needs and the expertise each firm can contribute. We are able to work for six or seven years with common procedures as if we were one single firm, which we then dissolve in a quasi-magical way.

We have a chain of sub-contractors that enter and leave our projects with millimetre precision and that we share without reservations among the firms within the sector. So why is it we are still labelled as a poorly collaborative industry compared to other sectors?

Traditional

I could go on adding the accusations pointed at the construction sector and which on many occasions can be summed up in one word: ‘traditional’.

We do not want to be complacent or justify ourselves. We must improve and continue innovating, collaborating and strengthening our work. Although not the only one, one of our pending challenges is the use of new technologies and digitalisation.

I believe that the true and consistent adoption of building information modelling (BIM) – which is more than just about 3D models – is a catalyst for the adoption of new technologies and, in particular, for the efficient management of information.

It is a great leap forward but, still, there are more questions than answers as to why we are unable to change our image in terms of innovation and collaboration.

Questions needing answers

  • Do software, hardware and technology manufacturers offer what our industry needs or is their intention for us to adapt to their products?
  • Are new processes and procedures robust, valid and applied consistently?
  • Do we value sufficiently the digital capabilities of our work force?
  • Are we close enough to the end user to understand their demands and are we capable of providing better infrastructure service through technology?
  • Is interoperability the missing link that would solve all our internal problems of communication/ collaboration?
  • Can technology guarantee durability and accessibility of information for physical infrastructure?
  • Can we define our own innovation or are we only reacting to the innovation defined by other sectors (e.g. autonomous vehicles, drones, new forms of energy etc.)?
  • Do we pay enough attention to communicating, advertising and presenting our sector’s innovation inside and outside of our industry?
  • Does the legal and contractual environment favour collaboration and innovation?
  • Have we fully identified threats from potential ‘technical construction firms’?

I regret I don’t have the answers. This is precisely my intention: to generate concern, to avoid conformism, to question whether "what has always been so" is the best. Ultimately, to revive innovation - not just the digital type - and make it visible.

With all these questions in mind, I wonder if we will succeed in changing the image of the traditional construction industry? I am convinced that, with time, we will.

Teodoro is chairing a session on collaboration at the Shaping A Digital World conference on 13 October to explore these questions and push industry to act.

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