Rapid population growth, climate change, political unrest and fast evolving technology are challenging construction. The future is bleak if the sector does not change and adapt in the coming years.
This was the argument from a panel comprising Melissa Sterry (Bionic City), Dan Hughes (Alpha Property Insight), Amanda Clack (CBRE) and Mark Farmer (Cast Consultancy), who presented at the University College of Estate Management’s (UCEM) 100th anniversary event last week.
Here’s a quick overview of the evening’s talks.
Nature has a role within the built environment
Melissa Sterry discussed the history of Futurism. Cities were viewed as machines, designed upon principles of movement, speed, technology, height, function and order. Dense metropolises were central to the vision, with skyscrapers the perfect embodiment of what Futurism aimed to achieve.
Futurist designers sought to bend the environment to their will, in contrast to how development was planned pre-1900. Now, architects and planners are once more attempting to balance urban development with the environment.
Futurism today focuses on technological innovations. Her caution was that this leads to people focusing on ‘the new’ because it is exciting and challenging. She cited examples such as urban forests, floating cities, and alternative rapid transport solutions (such as the hyperloop). Each has problems and limitations, including resilience, safety and cost, she said.
Her challenge was for designers to utilise natural materials. Instead of glass and steel, which suffer from shortages and price volatility, why not look at timber, mycelium (made from fungi), or other materials yet to be tested?
Construction must adapt to technology
Dan Hughes outlined six areas where technology is changing construction:
- Product to service – speed of delivery is increasing, companies are looking more holistically at solutions
- Impact on jobs – some estimates claim that 44% of roles will disappear due to technology. People need to adapt skills
- Changes to business models – investors seeking fast growth and innovation over short-term profits
- Blurring sectors – more crossover between roles as technology assists
- Standards and regulation – as new technologies are introduced, legislation and guidance changes in parallel
- New entrants – large technology companies are looking at construction sector, e.g. homes by Facebook, cities by Google; smaller tech companies are looking at solving issues; new companies underpinned by tech influencing property (e.g. WeWork, AirBnb)
He added that job roles fit into four broad categories: collecting data, analysing data, communication and using human judgement. Technology is most useful at the data collection and analysis stages – which has huge benefits for real estate throughout projects and an asset’s lifecycle. Combining this technology with a human element will help turn the data into something useful.
The role of cities
As urbanisation increases, the pressure on cities and the environment grows. The speed of development needs to be fast to cope with demand, particularly in Asia, but there are huge resource gaps. In her talk, Amanda Clack asked whether the skills and materials are available at the right time and in the right places?
She argued that cities are the engines of global growth, not countries, and that they are all competing for resources. The most successful cities will be those that focus on innovation, strong governance and maintaining and enhancing their culture. These will be the attraction factors for new talent.
Heritage and development must be balanced, explained Amanda, particularly in situations where increasing density will be the solution to meeting demand. Creativity is needed to adapt existing assets when they are no longer needed, such as turning road networks into new urban parks as technology moves people to more sustainable forms of transport.
For construction professionals, this means that they must demonstrate “adaptability and creativity in a tech enabled world”, and deliver “more, better, faster”.
The construction sector must change
To round off the evening, Mark Farmer explained that the structural resilience of the construction sector is declining. People do not see it as an attractive place to work and there is poor visibility among consumers. One of the reasons for this was a recruitment focus on increasing headcount at the delivery end (site-based labour), rather than looking at the wider talent the sector needs to attract, for example on the professional services side.
He argued that the workforce needs the following skills (based on the T-shaped worker, via McKinsey and Co):
- Commercial acumen
- Empathy and emotional intelligence
- Passion for knowledge and innovation
- Powerful communication
- Problem solving and outcome thinking
These must be underpinned by technical excellence and an understanding of technology.
He added that the sector also needs to be more creative in the way it works and promotes itself. This includes the way that value is defined, how problems are approached (using new tools, methods and structures), and how organisations collaborate and share knowledge with each other.
When it comes to selling the benefits of careers in construction and positioning the industry to young people, he suggested going beyond offering site visits and taking mascots into schools, which too often seems to be the default position. Instead, for the next generation to view construction as an important and diverse sector, we must promote a multitude of career paths and focus on the culture and characteristics of the people we want to attract.
This complements two recent pieces of our own research:
- How young people access construction industry news and the kinds of content they are exposed to
- What sources young people use to find out about career opportunities in construction and the built environment
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