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Engineering the future Academic guru Roger Flanagan claims British construction is lagging behind in the approaching technology revolution. Richard Thompson reports.

The pie is getting bigger and a cultural revolution is required if we are not to be left with crumbs. To compete with hungry rivals in a fast changing, technology driven, global market, British construction companies must change their ways and invest in new technology. But few are showing the appetite to do so.

These are the views of leading industry academic and Reading professor of civil engnieering, Roger Flanagan. Speaking at the Institution of Civil Engineers last week, Flanagan's message was that speed of change is the issue in today's industry and companies need to be quick if they are to be at the leading edge.

'The problem is the future is not what it used to be,' he said. 'The next wave of economic growth is going to come from the application of technology to construction products and processes. The industry needs to focus on how this technology can be used to gain competitive advantage.'

Big shifts in the industry, plus longer and more extreme economic cycles, are making it more difficult to survive. 'The competitive organisation of the future will be the one with the ability to adapt and react quickly to global and local changes,' explained Flanagan.

He believes that global competition and technological advances, such as self-guiding plant and intelligent materials, will reshape the industry.

'This technology has no respect for international boundaries and can be traded across the world, increasing competition for existing players.

'Leading companies talk of being 'one in ten by 2010', reflecting the view that there will only be 10 global industry giants by that year. Investing in new technology is the only way to ensure a place in the industry's top flight.'

Flanagan predicts that technological advances will make companies return to their core areas and lead to integration of design and production.

'We will also see technology clustering geographically. This will lead to countries marketing themselves in the same way as companies.'

This is already happening today, he claimed. Japan for example is the leading country for robot technology and for converting good ideas into money. The US is winning in the commercialisation of computer aided systems. The good news is that Flanagan believes Britain produces the best designers.

But the British construction industry is not ready, he asserted. Compared to other industries it is slow to adopt new developments. Lack of investment means civil engineering technology has a longer working life than technologies in other industries. The resultant reliance on 'old' systems reduces competitiveness and stunts productivity advance.

Flanagan identifies a number of reasons for this sluggishness and believes only a cultural revolution will put it right.

Firstly, he prescribes a change of mindset in the UK. Just as success stories sell, criticism harms business.

'When I'm abroad people ask me what is wrong with our industry. They have seen so many negative reports that they believe we are in crisis. The truth is, we are very good. We have got to start believing this and stop knocking ourselves. Constant criticism creates the wrong impression and could become self fulfilling.

'We have fabulous engineers- the best in the world - but we are also the best at criticising. You simply would not find that in other countries.'

He thinks it essential for construction companies to be more receptive to new, even wacky ideas and to encourage lateral thinking. 'A good example is to imagine we are digging a hole. Thinking logically allows us to improve the hole we are digging - to make it bigger, deeper and rounder. The client may be impressed by our hole but it does not necessarily satisfy his needs.

'Thinking laterally we will see that we should actually be digging somewhere else or even that a hole is not really what we want at all.'

He would also like to see a more cosmopolitan, if sneaky, attitude. 'We need to broaden our horizons. Instead of the 'little England' attitude of looking down on foreign ideas and practices we should get involved in 'creative swiping'. Japanese companies employ technology brokers who actively search for interesting ideas around the world. Why don't we?'

Secondly, a culture of co-operation rather than competition would make the UK more competitive, he said. 'Integration of design with production is essential.'

The professor cited US construction giant Bechtel which, driven by the need to stay ahead in the industry, is involved heavily in this kind of work.

Thirdly, a change in investment culture is required. Flanagan believes the technology is already out there. The competitive advantage will only come from its application.

'Sometimes we have the technology but not the money or the willpower to make things happen. Nobody wants to pay for the development of new technology, but for every £1 invested in research there needs to be £5 spent on development and application. A few of the industry's giants need to have the guts to develop the new technology for construction.'

However he accepted that there are problems endemic in the current system that make such cultural changes difficult.

'Construction is a project based industry. Innovations are frequently evaluated on an individual project basis. It is often difficult for construction organisations to justify investments which do not provide a return within the short term.'

Risk averse financial institutions and clients do not want to invest money in something that is untried and whose potential benefits are difficult to quantify, argued the professor.

For this reason Flanagan believes that privatisation of research is a bad thing for technological innovation. 'Historically, most new technology has been used in the public sector. The privatisation of research in the UK will make a difference to UK plc as research will no longer be in the public domain.'

'These companies are driven by the short term demands of shareholders and the bottom line' he said. 'They want a comfort zone, not exposure to risk.'

'Application of an innovative technology by one firm may have more far reaching consequences for other organisations in the supply chain,' he concluded. 'Fragmentation within the industry means that these benefits are not always embraced within the evaluation process.'

This view is strongly supported by Laing Technology Group managing director Dave Curtis 'The major problem is not knowing what research has been done.'

Currently Curtis believes it is the academics that let the industry down by not participating actively enough in the current set up.

'John Laing would like to see a more high profile system for recording research across the country. Such a system should be paid for jointly by public and industry funding.'

Unsurprisingly, Curtis does not agree with Flanagan's criticism of Britain's construction giants. 'The big players are very actively involved in new technology and innovation through bodies such as construction research organisation CIRIA.

'It is the smaller companies which do not invest in research. Unfortunately we operate in a large industry where small and middle sized groups outnumber the large companies.'

Curtis points out that Laing spent £2M on research and innovation last year.

'We are heavily involved in developing a partnership approach to our work. For example we are developing ways of merging our computer systems with those of the client and suppliers.'

'Laing is always trying to improve its competitiveness by looking at ways of making processes more efficient. It constantly reviews new technologies and gets involved early in their development,' says Curtis.

In response to Flanagan's call for a cultural revolution, Curtis explains that partnering is changing the project based nature of the industry. 'Working together with the same client and suppliers on similar projects allows you to invest time and money in developing the most efficient systems possible.'

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