Opinion: Who’s afraid of data?

04 December 2019

Gareth Parkes

Gareth Parkes, company knowledge manager with Sir Robert McAlpine

In agriculture, AI and data analytics is set to save €225 billion globally, by informing famers of the best time to plant, fertilise or harvest crops.

How does the construction industry compare? Though the sector has been accused of being highly suspicious of cutting-edge technology, because of the risks that walking on untrodden ground could bring, it isn’t fair to say that attitudes to innovation are negative overall.

The rise of BIM in recent years shows the opposite: the latest NBS BIM Report suggests that 69% of construction professionals are currently using BIM, and 96% think they’ll be using it in five years’ time. It’s obvious that many construction professionals are open and ready to embrace change, especially when its advantages are as tangible as BIM’s.

However, warm feelings towards technology are not enough. If we are to make the most of what the digital age has to offer, we need to think about what’s stopping us from being as innovative as possible.

It’s particularly important not to overlook the significance of data analytics, which has the potential to bring the construction sector’s productivity to the same level as the rest of the wider economy, when it has been lagging behind by 21% since 1997.

But the solution to our productivity problem is not for one company or organisation to gather and analyse endless data indefinitely. They’d be biting off more than they could chew. Instead, we need to address the lack of data collaboration within the sector and think about how to work together to access the insights in data we already have.

Less isn’t necessarily more, but quality definitely trumps quantity, and organisations such as the Open Data Institute are already campaigning for more collaboration across different sectors.

It is the sector’s approach towards collaboration, rather than towards technology, that is stopping us from innovating. Fragmentation in the supply chain means that when we do process data, each party analyses the same set of information individually.

A focus on specific projects rather than the bigger picture adds to the inefficiency, since each party involved is necessarily satisfied with working to their contract, rather than working together to find the solutions the entire sector could benefit from.

When the issue is a mindset, solutions aren’t straightforward. We know that data is important in the path to productivity, but the path itself is not clear or obvious. To embed a collaborative approach and build trust between everyone involved in a construction project, we can follow the initiatives that are already paving the way.

Project:Hack, which brings together project managers and data analysts to find data-driven solutions to practical problems, is a good example. At these events, teams meet for the first time before developing proof-of-concept tools that have the potential to save critical amounts of time for people planning or working on construction sites.

Of course, once we’ve found solutions, we also need to put them into practice. Technology companies can often forget that their products, however inventive, will be used by people on the ground who already have a set of tools at their disposal.

Good technology finds itself back on the shelf when managers don’t understand its practical applications or how it integrates with the rest of the system.

How do we bridge this gap between every day, practical challenges and the new, exciting world of technology and innovation? By better communicating between different sectors, and not limiting collaboration to the construction industry itself.

Technology companies need to be more open to understanding where their products will fit in the wider picture, and construction companies need to respond by being more honest about their needs and expectations.

Rather than chasing the next BIM, we need solutions that work together to flag where a particular project is falling behind, then use this data to prevent the same problem from happening next time.

Learning to trust others involved in the fundamentally collaborative process of designing, constructing and running a building is not just crucial to productivity, but essential for solving some of the most pressing challenges modern society has faced.

When it comes to topics like sustainability, the case for greater collaboration is a moral issue as well as a business one. 77% of respondents to the NBS BIM report already said that concerns about sustainability will mean radically changing how we design buildings.

To find these solutions and put sustainability into practice, we need to process data as efficiently as possible. If we don’t, we risk missing out on insights into how to build the future – and that’s a risk we can’t afford.

This article first appeared in the November issue of Construction Europe magazine

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