Opinion

Stepping up our tech transformation

Mark Norton, ISG
Can R&D partnerships help the industry overcome its technical lag? Mark Norton thinks so.

When we think about the adoption of technology in the construction industry, it’s very easy to perpetuate the arguments that the composition of the workforce and its general intransigence to change are key factors in why we compare so unfavourably to the car industry, for example.

However, I believe there are more fundamental root causes to greater and faster adoption of technology that can lead to game-changing operational efficiencies. These are deep-seated cultural and economic factors. It’s centred on the highly competitive nature of our industry and how this has driven behaviours that are often non-collaborative and financially unsustainable.

This situation is, thankfully, changing and we can see a clear direction of travel from our sector’s largest client towards greater collaboration and fairness through the government’s Construction Playbook. But the area I’m specifically focusing on here centres around research and development (R&D) partnerships. Historically, our sector has struggled with its low margin reality, and our collective ability to invest resource in R&D has for many been strictly limited at best or more likely non-existent. 

Transformation via R&D

“How do you crack a new market when the ability of that sector to work collaboratively with you to develop, test and refine new technology solutions is seriously diminished by lack of investment and capacity to engage?”

Interestingly, when you do commit to a different investment approach on R&D, there is a corresponding transformation in your corporate culture – at least that’s what has happened at ISG. For too long, our industry was poorly serviced by technology vendors, because the economics and historical drag of the sector meant that we were not viewed as a volume market. For those pioneering providers, mainly in the digitisation arena, they were adopting solutions created for other sectors and trying to make them fit our world.

But how do you crack a new market when the ability of that sector to work collaboratively with you to develop, test and refine new technology solutions is seriously diminished by lack of investment and capacity to engage? I’d venture that a fundamental limiting factor on our technological advancement has been our inability to work seamlessly with technology companies to drive forward the solutions that we actually need.

One observer recently said to me that our industry has been far too passive – expecting the solutions to come to us in a ready-made form, and then being surprised when they don’t quite do what we need. I’m not sure I entirely agree with this, especially as for many this has not been an active choice, but a necessity driven by the economics of our sector: however, I do think there is a lot of truth in the overall message.

The good news is that this is not an irreversible situation. The perception of construction and our integral role in society will hopefully perpetuate longer than the coronavirus, and there is growing momentum behind the view that our industry needs to be both environmentally and financially sustainable. This will enable more organisations to invest in R&D and those groundbreaking collaborations that we know, from our direct experience, help to shape the future for pioneering technology solutions to drive productivity, safety and quality outcomes.

The most important thing to consider is that we all benefit from both individual and wider collaborations and partnerships. When technology solutions improve, our wider sector gets better at delivering for our stakeholders, and ultimately that’s something that’s surely worth investing in. 

Mark Norton is group BIM director at ISG.

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