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Digital Transformation

Construction: safer, cleaner and greener ex machina?

Rather than replacing jobs, automated technologies have the potential to "superpower" the construction labour force

Amie Silverwood
4 December 2019

In October, senior leaders in North American construction and real estate convened to discuss the state of the industry. Jointly hosted by RICS and Columbia University, a primary area of focus for attendees of the inaugural Construction Symposium was the acceleration of tech adoption across the sector. The narrative around this issue has tended to focus on the apparent threat to jobs, with lower skilled roles often considered to be most precarious.

Yet, over the course of the day, a consensus formed that, far from being a zero-sum game of people versus machines, reliance on technology positively correlates with reliance on human input and expertise.

High-tech is already allowing us to better understand project complexity. Traditional approaches to works involving multiple partners have been blighted by the tendency to produce poorly collated and unshared datasets, which undermine planning and monitoring, and cause trust to break down between stakeholders. The right technology, well implemented, can help clarify lingering opacity, but not without clear direction from leaders and the support of their teams.

“Not everything should be automated, we need a human connection to make sure it works”, says Raffi Holzer, CEO of Avvir. Robert Kipp, General Superintendent and Director of Field Operations for Satterfield and Pontikes takes up the theme: “You have to get buy-in from folks and figure out a way to make their jobs easier. Figure out ways to engage them.”

data-person coding-unsplash
The right technology has the capacity to supercharge the construction industry - bringing benefits to stakeholders, simplifying project tracking and creating efficiency through automation

It's clear that technology can bring benefits to managers and supervisors. Smart tools can report back to the cloud to ensure everyone is reading from one shared source of truth, simplify the task of tracking projects, monitor worker safety and keep on top of progress, but will it make jobs easier?

The right technology can help the sector achieve more with existing resources, but not all technology is the right technology. "It's either extremely useable and provides value to everyone, or it doesn't have the right to exist," says Meirav Oren, CEO and Co-founder of Versatile Natures.

Decisions must be strategic and add long-term value. How will new tools perform in wet, cold or unclean conditions and what kind of impact will successful and unsuccessful adoption have on those working in the field? Such questions can only be answered with input from all levels of the skills chain. A solely "top-down" adoption process will likely miss the perspectives of those who have most experience in the conditions that will test the value of the tools; there's a vast distance between the showroom and the site.

Tessa Lau, CEO of Dusty Robotics, takes this logic a step further. For her, smart adoption of technologies will not only drive efficiencies but save lives through the deployment of robotics in dull, dirty or dangerous environments. Workers trained to operate robots from a safe distance will not be disempowered but in possession of "superpowers." And this is not an idea without precedent.

"Technology is either extremely usable and provides value to everyone, or it doesn't have the right to exist"

Meirav Oren
CEO and Co-Founder, Versatile Natures

In 2016, Elon Musk made headlines when he stated that anybody owning a smartphone has "more power than the President of the United States had 20 years ago." Two years prior to that, Forbes published a piece on the same theme, provocatively titled "Don't Worry, We're All Cyborgs." The notion that ease of access to information has led to the "augmentation" of innate human capabilities is emerging as one of the animating concerns of 21st century philosophy.

The construction sector is often said to have fallen behind the curve of modernisation as the fourth industrial revolution has matured. Nonetheless, a hybridised construction and property industry, made safer and more efficient through automation, and more adventurous through human ingenuity and experience is more than just a utopian ideal. It is a plausible, achievable near-future.