It is clear from events like Building Live’s “Digitising Construction” that our industry is hungry for the benefits of digital and technological progress. 

It is clear from events like Building Live’s “Digitising Construction” that our industry is hungry for the benefits of digital and technological progress. With envy our industry has watched innovation (and profit!) spilling out of Silicon Valley and we all, no doubt, wonder who the next Uber or Amazon of construction will be. We need houses and we need them now – why isn’t there an app for that? One might also wonder why, despite the enthusiasm and passion of the speakers at this event for digital disruption, changes appear to be anecdotal rather than the norm. When will digital disruption catch on more widely, rather than appearing in small pockets of excellence?

There is clearly desire, with the government putting its money where its mouth is by committing to a new £170m sector deal for innovation in the construction industry, aiming to improve its embarrassingly low productivity. There is also clearly ability, with great examples from design consultancies such as presenter Bryden Wood, who shared how they compressed the time it took to design a road from 18 months to a single day by leveraging data and digital tools. This resonates with my own experience at Ramboll, where experimenting with radical new digital approaches to design has offered exponential gains in productivity.

I believe the key reason that we are yet to see the transformational gains from digitalisation across the industry is that digitalisation is still largely seen as an issue to be dealt with by “the technical people”, while management go and sort out the “strategic stuff”. This was to some extent reflected by the audience at the conference of BIM managers and technical leads. The digital is the strategic. Fundamental questions on how we manage and structure our data must sit at the heart of C-Suite strategic thinking. Successful firms are those where the CEO herself takes on the role of Chief Innovation Officer, challenging the incumbent consulting business model in light of digital disruption. For example, man-hour pricing models may become increasingly irrelevant in a world where a digitally automated design routine can replace an army of graduates designing columns and beams. You want your highest level of decision makers responding to this reality.

Ultimately the firms that deliver on the promise of digital disruption will be the most agile. And our industry is hamstrung by cumbersome fragmentation and procurement routes that do little to deliver value or manage risk. True digital disruption in our industry will start with defragmenting the supply chain by making product parameters digitally transparent, and bringing downstream information into earlier scheme design considerations. This will underpin the disruption to design consulting and deliver our much needed productivity. The new wave of designers will have grown up creating virtual worlds on platforms like Minecraft and will see nothing radical in assembling “digital Legos” from preperfected components. Our industry leadership needs to be ready to receive them and create the environment for them build the world they will live in.