Predicting the future is difficult. Many have tried. Many have failed. Yet if you look in the right places, we can get an idea of what our digital enabled world may look like and the technologies that will support it. The industry’s reliance on digital technology is set to become more important than ever if we are to address the global challenges and demands of economic expansion, population growth and urbanisation. The construction industry is facing low levels of productivity, skill shortages, low profit margins. Add to the mix, the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be more important than ever to understand the next emerging technologies that will help us tackle these pressing issues.
Before we look for clues, we must firstly understand the rate of change. Things move fast. We cannot simply look back 5 years to assess where we will be in 5 years’ time from now as the rate of technological change is rapid. From the industrial revolution to the moon landing through to the birth of the internet, the time frame between these major milestones gets smaller each time. (However social, business and political change is not usually as fast). Increases in computing power and storage capability have paved the way for new technologies to magnify the generation, sharing and consumption of data and paved the way for data to go digital from analogue as we begin to discover new ways in which to derive value from data. We are seeing it as a new ingredient in which we can harness and create new forms of economic value in surprising ways, which will only get better as interoperability and open standards.
Looking for clues
Knowing what the ‘next big thing’ will be is often difficult to predict and many have got it wrong, however, that’s not to say it is impossible and there are many places we can turn to for clues. History books are a good starting point as the provide us with clues about how future technologies and processes may evolve over time. They tell us of the social and cultural impacts of technology where we usually learn that most problems are usually down to human nature, and the fear that they may bring. History doesn’t always repeat it’s self exactly so we must look for more clues such at the present which can offer interesting insights.
The technology that we think of in the future is often here today. It just might not be fully matured or evenly distributed. In some cases, certain innovations and technology just doesn’t capture people’s imaginations. They fail to gain commercial traction and inevitably die young (anyone remember Laserdisc’s?) However, we do know that the technology that does take off, doesn’t usually do so overnight, rather it evolves, going through a long period of underground use. Restricted to a subpopulation. Diehard trial blazers. Trend setters.
We can gain an insight to what a futuristic vision may look like within films, books and comics. Artificial intelligence. Robotics. Flying cars. Si-fi depicts a world in which man lives alongside machine. Admittedly these are often depicted as a dystopian world, one that can be frightening, full of violence equality and poverty. Science fiction is not predictive, instead it inspires us to invent the next big thing, nicely demonstrated by the popular flip phones that dominated the 1990s (inspired by Captain Kirk in the 60’s) and head up visor displays seen from the likes of Robocop in the 1980s, are now appearing on construction sites.
We can also look towards other industries. Formula One, arguably the most advanced, high-tech sport in the world shows us how the management and extraction of data from the cutting-edge technology in the cars can send a car across the finishing line. Digital twins have been used for some time, especially in the manufacturing industry. The same technology can create a winner on the Formula One circuit.
Black Swan Events
Life is full of surprises and uncertainty and often things happen which we weren’t expecting. Sometimes these are good, other times they are less favourable. One factor that makes predicting the future difficult is the ‘the black swan effect’, a metaphor which describes an event that comes as a surprise but is then often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight (the term is said to be based on an ancient saying which presumed black swans did not exist, until one day black swans were discovered in the wild.) From world wars, global financial crashes through to the impact of the spread of the internet, ‘Black Swan events’ can make predicting our future challenging. Many consider the current global coronavirus pandemic a Black Swann event, greatly impacting our health and global economies. While the threat of a virus was known, the unpreparedness of governments around the world suggest that there was a low possibility it could happen.
On the upside, many scientific or technological breakthroughs and discoveries are not always planned but are discovered by accident or as a result of a Black Swan event. In fact many technologies have developed during difficult times. For example World War II saw the birth of computing, radar, jet aircraft and nuclear power while the cold war brought us the silicon chip, lasers and the space programme. These discoveries are usually made as a result of aggressive trial and error rather than extensive design and planning. The impact of the global pandemic has and will continue to fact track technology development and adoption as we begin to embrace the new ‘normal’ of design and construction.
It is important to investigate and understand emerging technologies and disruptors within the construction industry so that industry can continue to upskill and create an agile environment that that respond to future digital change. While predicting the future is difficult, there are a number of trends which point towards a direction of travel. NBS BIM Report (NBS, 2020) suggest that the technologies used by most people now relate to cloud computing and immersive technologies, such as VR and AR. This trajectory is set to increase as computing power, storage and connectivity get faster, cheaper and more secure and as we adopt new ways of collaborating and communicating virtually. This will be further accelerated through the roll out of 5G as more people begin to work remotely.
Whatever our future technologies bring, they will need to respond to the new demand of our buildings as we see more emphasis on adequate housing and less on offices and retail space.
One – We will see rapid adoption of technology. There is no doubt that the global COVID-19 pandemic has artificially accelerated technology investment and adoption especially around how we communicate and collaborate. This will continue to be the case as the construction industry settles into what is being called the ‘new normal’. Undoubtably the workplace will start to look very different as more people begin to work remotely and in more outdoor areas.
Two – Better interoperability. We will begin to see better interoperability and better use of open standards that will allow us to transfer data and use it for different things. Currently construction technology companies are largely split between traditional large software venders or small start-ups (broadly speaking). Over the last few years many larger construction technology providers are getting larger via mergers and acquisitions – often incorporating a new start-up before the start-up has had any opportunity to add any competition to the marketplace or innovation into the market place. Lots of investment are being made into the big technology companies but the industry has yet to witness many breakout disruptors emerge. Perhaps this is due to the industries reliance on a small number of companies for our digital tools which has resulted in different software that do not communicate well with one another. With the development of Open Standards, we will have the ability to better transfer information between venders without losing data and wasting time.
Three – Move towards singular integrated systems and platforms. Organisations are starting to procure their technology stacks and constellations of technologies as opposed to one-off software solutions. This has perhaps been fuelled and supported by vendors moving to cloud based software (Software as a service). I see the construction industry continue its transformation from one that is highly complex and fragmented, and project based to one that is more standardize, consolidated and integrated. Traditional construction technologies are usually aimed at a particular stage in the project life cycle and are point solutions rather than an integrated one. Essentially, we have lots of different solutions to solve many different problems and we do not have an over arching platform or technologies that really cut across all the different stages in a project.
We will see this idea of buying into ecosystems (Apple being a simple analogy – the iphone, ipad, icloud, iwatch, apple TV and apple music all working together). These platforms are attractive because of their ability to increase customer ‘stickiness’ – in that consumers get locked into an ecosystem of solutions. The more features and interfaces offered the higher the likelihood that a platform will become a critical part of an organisations day to day operation. For larger technology companies this means operating at scale to remain competitive, while for small technology companies (offering point solutions) will need to consider how they integrate with these broader ecosystems.
Four – Low code Apps. We will see more ‘Low code applications’ develop that do not require much in the way or previous or in-depth coding experience in order build or developed processes. We will see project and construction managers begin to interact with mobile applications that then feed into desktop applications.
Author: Stefan Mordue, director of the Master’s in Global BIM Management of Zigurat