Is construction stuck in an industrial lock in? Paul Mullet on why it can be difficult to implement digital change

Where is the new paradigm for construction? What makes the construction industry different to other industries where technological advancements are embraced quickly with rapid rewards?

In Jaron Lanier’s book ‘You are not a Gadget’ he explains the concept of lock-in as it applies specifically to programming and the design of computational systems. The concept is that it can often be difficult to implement change, even when technology can provide a far better solution, simply because of the prevalence of the current system.

On this basis the construction industry has more lock-in than Alcatraz. So what is the key factor to lock-in?

  • The construction industry builds unique products every time therefore the research phase of the product development cycle is non-existent.
  • The design and delivery cycle of a construction project is typically divided by procurement models that aim to pass on risk and limit reward.
  • Economic drivers simply do not encourage innovation.
  • Clients continue to equate value with lowest cost.
  • Standards and regulations always favour those that play safe and follow the status quo.

Long-standing constraints to research and development continue to hold the industry back. An example is the relatively recent and promising application of additive manufacturing (3D printing) to the construction industry which has not yet been met with an adequate level of investment and interest.

Whilst there is some innovative thought out there, the fact that the industry has failed to grasp the opportunities with both hands demonstrates a lack of holistic innovative thought. The lock-in is systematic and self-fulfilling.

Time for a change

The industry must turn its attention away from giving individual clients what they want and focus on developing innovative solutions for the needs of society. Clients will ultimately want what we can provide for society as it will make overriding commercial sense to provide it.

So how do we do it?…

  • More collaboration and less barriers encouraged by industry-led mechanisms and initiatives.
  • More ambition, strength and persuasive vision to drive innovation from within.
  • More learning from, and engagement with, other industries.
  • More original, collaborative research in materials and construction methods.
  • More understanding of the potential risks and opportunities that technology presents, and strategies to manage its impact.

The world needs smarter construction solutions. I trust we are smart enough and determined enough to provide them from within the construction industry. But we must look to the future soon or someone, or something, will take the future out of our hands.