Innovation event’s first foray up north sees enthusiasm among attendees, but frustration at those refusing to get involved


Source: Daniel Gayne

Martin Paver, chief executive of Projecting Success, at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester

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“We should have people queueing up to be in there and solving these problems,” says Martin Paver, gesturing with exasperation at the roomful of coders, quantity surveyors and students busily at work in the corporate space at the top of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. 

Around 250 people have turned out to Project:Hack19, a two-day event which sees attendees from across construction and engineering compete and collaborate to find innovative solutions to improve project delivery. 

By most accounts, it is not a bad turnout for the first of these ‘hackathons’ to be held outside London since they first started in 2018. But Paver, chief executive of the event’s organiser, Projecting Success, nonetheless seems frustrated. 

For years there has been a great deal of talk about the potential benefits of data sharing across the industry and the importance of working collaboratively to improve the industry’s productivity, sustainability and safety. 

But according to Paver, too few companies are walking the talk on these issues, and he says he has noticed a particular trend of bigger, listed companies shying away from engaging in collaborative projects in an effort to gain a comparative advantage. 

“If you are a FTSE company and you have got a lot of shareholders, you are not here. Because it is all about getting a commercial advantage,” he says. “It tends to be the family businesses [who get involved] because they are in it for the long-term”. 

Ultimately, Paver says, these refusenik listed companies will lose out because of the nature of how benefits are reaped from big data. 

“You can hoard all your data and you might have a big dataset, but if someone has got all the data across every single construction project ever, they are going to outperform you who has only 60 projects worth of data,” he says. 

“You are going to win for a certain time until that collegiate approach begins to take it. Once government start to put it into contracts, that is when the balance begins to tip.” 

Built environment firms have always been a dominant presence at the hacks – Gleeds and Sisk and Sons sponsored this one and I am told there are Rider Levett Bucknall staff around somewhere – but it is not the only sector involved. 

Engineers KBR and BAE Systems were both sponsored, and a range of other businesses were represented among the hackers, including Virgin, Rolls Royce, Environment Agency. Several construction businesses that have previously participated – including Kier, Mace and Balfour Beatty, I am told – were not in attendance at this one. 

Gleeds, this event’s headline sponsor, have been attending since the tenth hack and have previously won gold, silver and bronze at previous hackathons. Among the firm’s medal-winning hackers is global head of data and intelligence James Garner, who is enthusiastic about the potential for collaboration to fix the current situation in which the “exhaust plume of data” emitted by projects mostly “evaporates into thin air”. 

>> Also read: “Collaboration is key”, say Building the Future commissioners

“There’s no risk, is there?” he says. “It is allowing people some space to innovate and what is the worst that is going to happen? No one is going to lose any money, no one is going to get sued”. 

Anybody can put forward a challenge for the hack and there are 11 at this event, though the number can vary. At the beginning of the two days, the challenges will be pitched by their sponsors before a period of team-forming, with some “jiggery-pokery”, in Garner’s words, from organisers to ensure groups are well balanced.  

For companies that want to keep their hackers together, there is the option of entering the so-called pro tournament, but by refusing to join in the collaboration, they rule themselves out of prizes. 


Source: Projecting Success

Multi-company teams work on varied project management problems at Project:Hack19

But for Garner, throwing your lot in with other firms is the whole point.

“I think that is the beauty of it – I will sit with a contractor, with a client, with a developer, solving the challenge between us without any worry about fees. It is totally around trying to innovate,” he says, introducing Building to teams of hackers busily tapping away. 

One group is creating an augmented reality step tracking tool with built-in carbon saving calculations that firms can use towards their ESG targets, while another used blockchain to try to develop workable smart contracts.

The teams until the end of the second day to complete their solution, with some hackers working through the night to get theirs done. 

After delivering a presentation, their ideas will be appraised by a judging panel and winners selected weeks later. 

For Garner, engagement in events like this – and in the broader project of industry-wide co-operation – is an existential issue for the sector. 

“If we are not careful, if we do not work together, then the big software companies will come onto our patch,” he says.  

“We have seen it in other industries, we have seen what happened to other industry, we have seen it happen to blockbuster.”  

The winners of Project:Hack19 were announced a few weeks after the event, with Team 9A taking the gold medal.

This group – called ‘Images?? Not a Problem’ and composed of hackers from KBR and Gleeds – was challenged with creating an automated system to convert images of tables and graphs into text that can be read by large language models.

Project:Hack 20 will take place at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on October 4 alongside a leadership summit and conference run by organisers Projecting Success. 

Join us at the Building the Future Commission Conference

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You can join the Building the Future Commission Conference  in Westminster on 27 September to hear from leading figures across the construction industry and find out more about the work of the commission.

The day will include panel debates on net zero, digital transformation and building safety as well as talks from high-profile keynote speakers on future trends and ideas that could transform the sector.

There will also be the chance to feed in your ideas to the commission and to network with other industry professionals keen to share knowledge. 

You can follow our progress using #BuildingTheFuture on social media.

About the commission

The Building the Future Commission is a 12-month project looking at radical and challenging ideas that could help transform the built environment.

The campaign aims to tap into innovative ideas, amplify them and be an agent for change.

The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of major figures who have signed up to help shape the commission’s work culminating in a report published at the end of the year.

The commissioners include figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal. See the full list here.

The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:

>> Editor’s view: And now for something completely positive - our Building the Future Commission

>> Click here for more about the project and the commissioners

Building the Future is also undertaking a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. There is also a young person’s advisory panel.

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