Opinion

Why collaboration will be key to the next data revolution

20 May 2021

Projects have for many years followed a rigid style of management: by doing so, we deny a whole myriad of benefits. Grant Findlay, Sir Robert McAlpine

Grant Findlay calls for the industry to see data as a friend rather than a foe.

No sector has been immune to the covid-19 pandemic. But, for all the disruption wrought at the start of 2020, one positive development we have seen is the consequent acceleration of what might be called ‘digital construction’.

Of course, the proliferation of cutting-edge construction technology on site was underway even before the pandemic struck: a McKinsey report found that in 2019, for instance, investment in construction technology was 15 times greater than investment in the wider sector. Huge strides had already been made in the application of BIM, while the imminent arrival of robots on site has been predicted for some time.

What covid-19 did, then, in obliging businesses to change standard operating procedures, was underscore the benefits of deploying technology to support construction: highlighting the potential for greater efficiencies and shorter project times; improved communications and coordination; and opportunities in using manufacturing techniques presented by technologies like BIM. In fact, 66% of construction companies rolled out new technologies to tackle covid-19, according to a recent survey.

This is not the end of the road, however, and there is still some way to go before digital construction has truly taken root. This is particularly true when it comes to data where 95% of that generated on site goes unused, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Again, however, the experience of the pandemic could help spur the sea-change.

After all, the slow uptake of technologies pre-pandemic can arguably be attributed to construction’s traditionally conservative, siloed approach to project delivery. As one of the UK’s oldest industries, projects have for many years followed a rigid style of management: a linear ‘waterfall’ process where strict plans and resources are fixed at the outset and competitive organisations have evinced an unwillingness to collaborate. This, of course, diminishes the potential application, not to mention power, of data.

But by doing so, we deny a whole myriad of benefits. Research has shown that applying and pooling advanced data analytics and AI can facilitate a ten-fold improvement in project delivery performance. In practice, this means lower and better understanding of risk, more sustainable outcomes (with less waste), improved health and safety on site and greater productivity – not to mention the consequential commercial benefits.

If we are to encourage more firms to embed data and AI into their strategies, collaborative data pooling for community level use will be critical. A small company, for instance, will find little value in analysing just their own data, but can take meaningful lessons from analysing datasets at scale and can apply these to hone their own business practices. This was the rationale behind the Construction Data Trust, where businesses and groups collaborate and share project data for mutual industry benefit. And if the last year has taught us anything, it is the power of collaboration, to which the Nightingale Hospitals stand as a testament.

As we look forwards, key to determining our success in ‘Building Back Better’ will be our ability to see data as a friend, rather than a foe. While the UK is already regarded as a world-leader in sharing project data analytics, with only 5% of projects currently actively using data, to unlock its true power – both for the good of the sector, and for UK plc as a whole – the urgent need to connect experts and facilitate knowledge-sharing remains.  

Grant Findlay is director of strategy at Sir Robert McAlpine.