New Civil Engineer unites the brightest minds in the industry to discuss how technology might shape the industry in 2017 and for the next five years.
Cloistered in the goldfish bowl that was New Civil Engineer’s Future Tech Forum were clients, designers, contractors, technology disruptors and software providers. So who better to examine how technology might shape the industry in 2017 and beyond?
Tasked with presenting the group’s findings at the end of the day was Mott MacDonald global water sector leader Mark Enzer. Enzer is a leading thinker in how technology is set to change the industry, as freely available data makes possible a fundamental rethink of who does what and how they get paid for it.
So why embrace change? What’s wrong with the current industry? Surely it can survive another five years just the way it is?
There are plenty of reasons for change. Those outside the industry – the government, the public, young people – see the construction industry as unattractive, unsafe, dirty and inefficient.
Then there is the stark fact that infrastructure deliverers are entirely separated from those using it, with no sharing of information in any meaningful way. Zipabout technical director Daniel Chick said the rail industry was cited as an outstanding example of this, where timetables are drawn up every six months in complete isolation of data on where people live and where they want to go. “I find it amazing,” he says.
Reasons to change
But what is the key reason why change is so necessary?
“I guess if you narrow it down to the key need for change, it is investment constraint, population concentration and resource limitation – whether that’s physical or human resources,” Enzer explains. “And in the context of that, we’ve got to get more out of what we’ve got.”
Changes the group had in mind were broad-brush but also not incremental. A digital revolution is needed, many argued. This sort of handwringing and upheaval has already happened to other industries, it was felt; it is just a question of finding out what works.
The working group said that, in this context, the best option might be for a different definition of “value”, and benchmarking this towards the ultimate customer.
“So rather than defining value as ‘output per pound’, we wanted to define it as outcome for the ultimate customer per whole-life pound,” says Enzer.
“It’s a whole-life plan so you get proper decisions made, rather than just panicked decisions.”
And it is worth bearing in mind that a lot of these decisions in the future could involve not much construction whatsoever. After all, much of the country’s infrastructure is already constructed and must be retrofitted with digital gadgetry. So will it still be right to call it the construction industry?
Bigger than just construction
“We thought the term ‘construction industry’ was too small a thing; it makes it sound like all our solutions are based on building out problems, when that’s not necessarily the best solution,” notes Enzer.
“When it comes to digital solutions and integrated cyber-physical solutions, then it’s not necessarily just ‘building’,” he adds.
Perhaps the biggest and most radical idea from the group was to completely dismantle the structure of the industry, as a consequence of new players entering and working in different ways.
“We saw that the industry needed a different structure,” notes Enzer. That is a move away from the current structure, with clients supplied by tier one contractors paid per volume of work done and tier one consultants paid for hours worked, with the rest of the supply chain feeding into that. The current approach, it was argued, has created a “schism” between roles.
It has also created a situation where the industry has “commoditised itself”, leaving little room for sustainable returns and investment in innovation and skills. Consultants, in particular are paid for putting “bums on seats” rather than providing ideas.
Instead, the concept of the tier one “orchestrator” was mooted, paid on whole life, customer-focused outcomes and drawing on the specific design and delivery skills of the supply chain with risk and reward shared. This utopic vision would see the industry aligned from top to bottom, with leadership needed, especially from government.
Bring on the integrators
It is a fledgling idea that has been gathering some momentum at Transport for London, with the “integrator” role advertised on Official Journal of the European Union and conversations had with potential bidders.
The move had the support of the Infrastructure Client Group, and fellow client Nirmal Kotecha, director of capital programme and procurement at UK Power Networks, explains the motivation.
“We are sounding a warning signal on the tier 1 community. What are they bringing?” he asks. “So we are testing the concept of the integrator,” he explains. “We know there is a lot [of innovation] hiding in the tier 2 supply chain. We need incentivisation of the outputs to get it.”
Government will have a big role to play here.
“It’s not just about government, but government has an important role to play, both as a legislator – to convince people into doing the right thing, such as to do with the environment,” says Enzer. “But also, government as a procurer, and the government has some strong levers to pull. It’s a key part of the enabler.”
Will this happen quite soon, quite quickly? Or will it be more of a “marginal gains” approach, dividing the task into sections, trials, prototypes? While the changes are radical, can they really be achieved in one fell swoop? Building on successes with alliancing will be good place to start.
And what role does technology have in all this? Quite simply, it is central to everything – to getting the feedback loop going with the customer and to measuring the success of outcomes that the entire supply chain can then be rewarded for delivering.
“We are not just gathering data, but using it to incentivise behaviour,” as one think tank panellist put it.
With building information modelling (BIM), a lot of this type of talk is already in practice. But Enzer says the “redefinition of value” will take more time, although, as the economy becomes more information based it, might be here sooner than we think.
“This whole concept of integration is vastly facilitated by an information economy. It’s information that glues this all together; it’s information that allows us to get from one step to the next step, it’s information that allows us to get from design to construction.
“It’s seeing information as a resource, and seeing construction as a service, and changing those things around.
“If you go to the essential definition of information, it’s something that reduces uncertainty. Having better shared information and better managed information, reduces our risk. Slicing things up and putting them in separate boxes is not the right future: rather it’s integration, facilitated by shared information.”
And if this radical future can be achieved, Enzer suggests it would be crazy not to brand this movement, calling it as the UK’s own’, and leverage our international kudos.
“If we’re looking at something more holistic, more integrated, that is actually going to change the structure of the industry and bring a new idea of value, opening up all these digital and cyber-physical systems – why wouldn’t we ‘brand’ that?” he asks.
“The distance from being good at BIM to being good at smart infrastructure is actually a small jump. So why don’t we make something of this, go and knock on somebody’s door and say ‘this is a good idea in a post-Brexit world?” challenges Enzer.