Gareth Parkes, knowledge manager at Sir Robert McAlpine, discusses the urgent need for the construction industry to improve how it uses data
As our lives become increasingly digitised, it seems as though everything we do can now be collected, stored and processed as data. The world of business is no exception; as companies invent new ways to gather and use information, they are finding productivity gains and new ways of working altogether.
But it’s hard to keep up with this proliferation: information is being gathered more quickly than we or even our computers can sift through it. For certain sectors, including construction, the value trapped within mountains of data remains in sight, but out of reach.
How do we access this potential?
95% of data generated on construction sites goes unused, according to an FMI whitepaper, so finding new ways of processing information is clearly important. But it is only part of the solution. For the construction sector, it’s not just our relationship with data that needs to improve, but the relationships between stakeholders.
The most successful projects can only be completed when each party works together: the refurbishment of Wimbledon’s No.1 court during the tournament, for example, was only possible because the whole project team – from engineers through to subcontractors and suppliers – collaborated and cooperated.
For an industry that relies on collaboration between contractors, engineers and architects – to name but a few – we are markedly uncollaborative when it comes to data. For starters, fragmentation in the supply chain means that three different companies will often gather and process the same set of data from the same project individually – a waste of time that is not only unproductive but anti-productive.
The problems with fragmentation don’t stop there since it often goes hand in hand with project-level thinking and a deep-rooted lack of trust between companies. We end up in a situation where each party is satisfied with ticking boxes from their contract, rather than opening up channels of communication that will actually help the sector as a whole make progress. Think of the prisoner’s dilemma, where two individuals act in their own self-interest but end up with an outcome that is not beneficial for either of them. Replace ‘individuals’ with ‘companies’ involved in a construction project, and you get a picture of how the industry treats data.
A collaborative approach to data
When the solutions to issues such as sustainability, which we surely have a moral obligation to find, are buried within this data, the option of collaborating no longer seems optional. And once companies start to see that sharing data effectively can solve the sector’s most pressing concerns, it seems natural that this new collaborative mindset will snowball and roll us into the next era of data sharing.
These are not empty words – we are already seeing the seeds of this new paradigm being sown. During Project:Hack events, for example, teams are set challenges, given data and asked to come up with innovative solutions that are needed to maximise productivity.
During a recent event, one team developed an AI tool that determines whether a construction site uses steel reinforcement with 92% accuracy – the first step towards automated material recognition tools. This solution came from a small group who’d not met before and had 24 hours to develop it. Such tools have the potential to free up significant amounts of time, showing how a more collaborative approach to data can improve productivity. Attitudes to technology overall are changing too. The industry has been quick to embrace BIM, and with good reason: research by PwC shows that it can save the Government £400m a year.
Don’t get lost in data technology
Both Project:Hack and BIM are clearly promising steps in the right direction, but the path forward is not as direct as it may first seem. If data and the glitzy technologies that interpret it continue to proliferate in dozens of different directions, one of the obstacles we risk running into is death by a thousand dashboards.
People working at construction sites don’t need interface after interface – what they need are integrated solutions that they know how to use. If we chase ‘the next BIM’ instead of thinking about how to use technology and what makes it useful, we can lose sight of the fundamentals such as site attendance and delivery times. Excitement about technology is good, but we need to remember that it needs to work in a practical and complex environment.
This means that collaboration cannot end within the industry itself. It also has to happen between sectors. On the one hand, technology companies need to understand how their products will be used on the ground, and that however ingenious their products may be, they risk being thrown aside if they cannot assimilate into existing tools or ways of working. On the other hand, construction companies can help by being more honest and constructive about what they need to gain from technology. After all, how else will programmers and developers know how their innovations will fit into the wider picture?
While there will always be those who don’t want to stray from tradition, we are already seeing the benefits of innovation. As these benefits continue to multiply, we need to start thinking about new ways of working together and how insights from data will be used. Reevaluating how data is shared and how systems are integrated will give us the foundation we need to meet the government’s productivity targets, therefore bringing construction into the new digital age.
Company knowledge manager
Sir Robert McAlpine