This creeping anti-trade rhetoric threatens years of growing connectivity and collaboration - construction’s future relies on a healthy and global exchange of ideas

Iain Parker

Back in the 1990s there was much excitement about the seemingly new concept called globalisation. It was touted as an economic panacea, bringing access to skills and markets - and lower costs.

A certain developer once said to me, many years ago: “I used to unpick Levis jeans to understand where all the parts came from - the denim, studs, zips and stitching. It taught me how to buy each piece at the best possible price, so why can’t you do the same for a building? Why can’t I source a lot more of my materials and components from China?”

It wasn’t that simple, of course: there were questions about quality, reliability, deliverability, warranties and other issues. The team had enough good answers to make the status quo convincing, but we knew he had a point, and things would change - though slowly, this being the construction industry.

There has been progress, with Chinese facades and Chinese steel being used in not insignificant quantities on some high-profile London buildings. Yet other sectors continue to pave the way, such as retail, where brands successfully source the make-up of their products in lower-cost locations, adding their final touches (and marketing) to ensure decent margins.

Whilst this debate edges forward, perhaps the greatest positive impact of globalisation for our industry has been the international movement of money, foreign investment enabling the majority of commercial projects in the capital, and some large infrastructure and other schemes around the country.

But no longer is knowledge power; the sharing of knowledge is far more powerful

At a time when the UK’s national debt ranks among the highest of advanced economies and its construction industry grapples with a chronic shortage of skills, the movement of money and people across borders has been a bit of a saviour. And so it is not only worrying how Brexit might change these trends but also how, around the world, the creeping of anti-trade rhetoric of protectionism and nationalism threatens to reverse the years of increasing connectivity and collaboration.

However, this feels more than just cold economic metrics of trade and investment. It seems that there’s something more basic, more cultural at stake - an inherent outlook and attitude. I’m talking about sharing, proper sharing - in a way that doesn’t say “look at me, I have strong opinions and I know it all”, but rather offers insight whilst inviting comment and suggestions for improvement. 

But here’s the rub: globalisation is partly to blame for a proliferation of the former attitude. The internet and social media have bred a generation who are ready and waiting to issue instant proclamations about everything and anything - often in a rage, without consideration and usually in the form of an extreme statement that doesn’t countenance alternative views.

Many cognitive scientists (yes, there are such things) are worried. Each of us is a sort of expert in our chosen field, but that field is bounded by the mark of others, which we could not undertake ourselves. This is particularly true of property and construction. No project would stand a chance of succeeding without the team working together, exchanging ideas and iteratively delivering a solution.

People who think they know more than they do tend to have strong opinions, which are hard to shake. But no longer is knowledge power; the sharing of knowledge is far more powerful.

The moment any of us think we totally understand, then progress will grind to a halt. Construction must find a way of being more effective, more efficient, more intelligent. This will require a combination of marginal gains and genuine step-changes, whether that be through modularisation, robotics, materials technology or something else, but it will be dependent upon the sharing of information and collaborative research that takes us forward.

That shouldn’t preclude healthy competition. A well-known engineer once said of a leading (and competing) firm of engineers that he wished they would up their game. He wanted them to ‘retrieve their mojo’ to prompt his own organisation to raise its game, for the wider good of the industry, and he meant it.

Globalisation can mean many things in business, but for me they are largely good.

Iain Parker is a founding partner of Alinea Consulting