Opinion

Coronavirus ‘wartime scenario’ will push the digital agenda

24 March 2020

‘The leaders are showing the way after stress-testing remote working arrangements. The rest will follow faster than they otherwise would have, pushing tech adoption down the supply chain.’ Richard Saxon, chairman of JCT Ltd

Productivity will have improved, flexible working will have become normal, whole-life thinking will have advanced. If we can get through this crisis it will bring about long-term changes, says Richard Saxon.

The Covid-19 crisis is looking very like a war scenario. President Trump has already characterised himself as a War President and promised “total victory”. At the same time, organisations in all forms of business are sending out messages saying how they will be able to continue to play their part through staff working from home. It’s Keep Calm and Carry On again.

Technology has always developed rapidly in wartime. World War II saw the birth of computing, radar, jet aircraft and nuclear power. The Cold War brought us the silicon chip, lasers and the space programme. Robotics emerged on the battlefields of the Middle East.

Now we have a design and construction industry in lockdown, starting to rely on tools which only a few firms have used so far. Consultants with multiple offices or overseas projects have long been able to share work down the line with colleagues and associate firms. Now cloud-based teamwork applications allow staff to work from home or on the move with full access to their firm’s common data environment.

The leaders are showing the way after stress-testing remote working arrangements. The rest will follow faster than they otherwise would have, pushing tech adoption down the supply chain. The pressure to roll out superfast broadband and 5G will be immense.

The need for human connection is not being ignored either. Social media apps allow for virtual co-working, so that you can see your colleagues and they you, but on mute until you break for interaction at intervals. Online meetings are well supported now and soon we will use virtual site visit technology as normal.

Assuming that we get on top of testing for the virus, site work should continue, incorporating social distancing into the health and safety regime. Augmented reality headsets and BIM Caves will support better briefing and error-free execution. Offsite construction will also advance as it can provide safer working conditions. Facility managers will become interested in the digital twin idea, enabling them to manage a building remotely and to optimise its use for a mobile population.

By the time a vaccine is available, a year or more of forced advance in technology use is likely to have passed. News of what others are doing will spread through networks and webinars. Things will not then go back to where they were before Covid-19. Productivity will have improved; flexible working will have become normal; whole-life thinking will have advanced. And demand for buildings will have shifted, with more emphasis on adequate housing and less on offices and retail space.

It will be lovely to go to a restaurant again, but for now it’s take-out, home cooking and Digging for Victory.

Richard Saxon CBE is chairman of JCT Ltd and a client adviser on the use of digital technology at Deploi BIM Strategies. He was formerly chair of BDP