What Did the RICS Conference Mean for Construction’s Future? 1

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) provided a great forum for researchers and academics from around the world to present their work amongst peers in Sydney.

Its not intentional, but by and large this event is away from the gaze of the industry. There were no contractors, no project managers, no designers, no one from government and no one reporting for any mainstream media. The presenters were well-intended and BIM was clearly the centre of interest for academics looking for PhD subject matter. COBRA + AUBEA did not tackle our changing world.

RICS’ social media stream ran hot on Twitter and Facebook. There were pictures of the sort of stuff you see on this media these days: selfies from the harbour cruise and a few flashes of faces and stages of the proceedings. But there was no serious commentary about what was presented and why it was at all important. This, despite the amount of effort that went into organising the event, credentialing the presenters and publishing their findings. There were some pretty interesting delegates and there were some interesting papers. But who would know? It all seemed about “this is academia 2015,” which was a pity.

RICS did its bit in the lead-up to the conference. The RICS Futures team presented several years of investigations and the insights of respected industry and academia. Their report Our Changing World was instructive and thought provoking. I would urge readers to have a read of this report as it provides a pretty good context for the future of our industry. RICS painted the big themes as the Futures team saw them:

  • Winning the war for talent
  • Having ethics at the heart of what we do
  • Embracing technology and data
  • Creating successful and sustainable cities
  • Helping the surveying profession to take advantage of new opportunities
  • Developing stronger leadership

The missing leg in all of this for RICS is this: how will the future of construction be implemented? What will the key measures of success be? How will future academic endeavour and research feed into this? Our Changing World puts a future scenario out there but I am not sure RICS is exerting the influence its has in this space to help drive the changes that are needed to prepare clients, RICS members, policy makers and constructors for what lays ahead. It was certainly not evident in the focus of papers presented at this conference.

I sat through over 20 presentations over the three days of the conference. A flavour of papers included Exploring BIM based education environments, Assessment in Virtual Design and Construction education, Nano-second procurement and BIM – exploration of contractual implications for built environment projects and an Investigation into the legal issues relating to BIM. Publications about BIM and the Value Dimension and Utilisation of BIM in Construction Cost and Project Management Practices in North America, China and the UK were presented. The full conference agenda can be downloaded from RICS.

Much of the work presented seemed drawn from very small data sample sizes and often qualitative inputs. There were some interesting observations, but some who heard these presentations were moved to question the veracity of conclusions reached. Presenters were able to attest to their attempts to capture bigger data sets but industry seemed uninterested or too busy to respond. Industry engagement was the lament of most presenters. Often interviews with the larger industry players became the basis for the most authoritative views. Some conclusions were drawn for researching company web sites.

Academics and researchers I have spoken recently have portrayed a pretty dismal setting for their work. Universities are under pressure to make budgets, to compete with each other in competition for students, to compete amongst themselves for minimal research funding from industry, and feeling pressure to maintain a flow of published research to underpin their institutional standing. Questions about what’s preferred to be known as opposed to what needs to be known dominate. BIM promoting research is an example where one assumes funding sources abound. RICS must be acknowledged for the creation of a research funding pipeline through the RICS Research Trust. Without this, the research pickings would be leaner.

But its perhaps time to challenge RICS to unpack Our Changing World and shift the focus from interesting entertainment to implementation. The interesting entertainment theme at the conference was enlivened by a very thoughtful presentation from Laing O’Rourke’s technology lead director Andrew Harris. He is a chemical engineer and is part of Laing O’Rourke’s Engineering Excellence Group. There is little doubt that Laing O’Rourke are out there pioneering on all fronts of construction’s future. Harris spoke of amazing applications they are working on around a theme of Risk v Innovation in Major Project Delivery.

Harris preferred not to describe the digitisation of construction projects as being BIM driven. Laing O’Rourke are in the project delivery business so they need to be in the design meets manufacturing and assembly on projects space. Harris emphasised the DfMA side of digital modelling as he then walked delegates through present day examples of constructing better, safer and faster. One could see how the use of technology such as drones in winning the $4.3 billion delivery partner role for the final leg of the NSW Pacific Highway upgrade helps.

Harris spoke of Laing O’Rourke’s investment into safety technologies on construction sites such as smart hats which are essentially wearable computers, and of new exoskeleton technologies which could help reduce construction worker strains and injury. He gave an example of how these new technologies can help workers to live better off the work site by giving them feedback on their general health. One worker trialling the technology in the UK was diagnosed with an immanent heart failure and had life saving surgery as a result. While Harris stepped around the barriers to trialling this technology in Australia, one sensed that union push back is just another example of how unions have yet to embrace the future.

But the lingering questions remains, what impact will RICS have in facilitating the future of smarter, better, safer, faster and cheaper construction projects in the future? RICS is an organisation grounded in measuring and valuing things for their clients. “If you don’t measure it you can’t manage it” has long been this fraternity’s reason for being. The future of construction and the professions which serve the industry must be about getting a better deal for customers. I was invited to give the keynote address at the opening of this conference. Here are a few extracts from what I put to the delegates:

  • I presented the case for embracing modern methods of construction and the roles that modern construction enterprises will need to make in a digital, industrialised and global construction future. This is a future where measurably better, smarter, safer, faster and cheaper would be fundamental, and I examined how this will need to parallel similar transformative journeys made in other industries over the last 40 years
  • I drew on the UK’s Sir John Egan’s findings that ‘the industry as a whole is under-achieving’ and his call for ‘dramatic improvements.’ He proposed that this would be possible if “we focus all our efforts on delivering the value that our customers need, and if we are prepared to challenge the waste and poor quality arising from our existing structures and working practice.” He said, we are not inviting UK construction to look at what it does already and do it better; we are asking the industry and Government to join with major clients to do it entirely differently.”
  • I pointed to the UK’s network rail chief, and former Lend Lease CEO Sir David Higgins’ 2013 review of progress in implementing Egan’s proposals. He recommended to the Government that it adopt a new Industry Strategy – Construction 2025. He concluded that “Prior recommendations have been consistently poorly implemented.”

Higgins proposed that the industry should embrace the following reform metrics:

  • A 33 per cent reduction in the initial cost of construction and the whole-life costs of built assets
  • A 50 per cent reduction in the overall time, from inception to completion, for new build and refurbished assets
  • A 50 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment
  • A 50 per cent reduction in the trade gap between total exports and total imports for construction products and materials.

The challenges as I see them remain in the implementation – the difficulties inherent in starting a different journey. I put it to delegates that:

  • Construction must unburden its historical structural and cultural baggage. The demarcations between the professions, contractors, the trades and suppliers that have enshrined inefficient construction for to long in our developed economies.
  • These demarcations are further enshrined in our universities and trade colleges. They must now be displaced by a convergence of modern construction practices all measurably pointed in a common direction.
  • The starting point for modern methods of construction must involve the entire value chain. This includes designers, surveyors, project managers, contractors and suppliers. The inputs of the collective value chain must be measured collectively. There is no value in one part of the chain asserting individual achievement if that achievement cannot be reflected in the sum of the parts.
  • I challenged delegates with my observations of recent graduates coming from their institutions. I can find no game changers, no recent graduates that anyone can hold out as the ones to watch, the ones who get the need for change, the ones coded with construction in their DNA, the ones with the leadership and insights that will help define modern construction. I will keep looking.
  • I proposed the establishment of a multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdiction modern methods of construction network. To establish a knowledge platform with the purpose of gathering important insights about what will make the most difference, faster and sharing these through an Asia Pacific collaboration to better enable future constructors for what lays ahead in Our Changing World.

I can report that there was positive interest in these initiatives. A number of younger delegates at the conference expressed their concerns about the difficulty of modernising today’s academic and research setting. But I was also brought back to reality about the inertia and jealousies that exist in the university space. To be fair, that inertia and defensiveness is a product of how our governments and industry under invest in education at all levels. As a result, these institutions see survival as being above breaking out into uncharted waters. There is little reward for pioneering and biting any hand that feeds or rocking the status quo.

However, the positives from the RICS COBRA 2015 Conference outweigh the negatives. A modern construction agenda will evolve sooner than later. We owe it to the next generation of constructors to bring this on sooner. For RICS, the future must be about measurable implementation of delivering a better deal to construction’s customers and the economies in which they operate. Projects must be delivered measurably better and there will be no place for the laggards who still feel immune from change.

I estimate that there are approximately 1 million new constructors starting their careers each year around the Asia Pacific Rim. I estimate that up to 100,000 new construction enterprises start-up in these markets. My sense is that they will all be unsentimental about being the construction disruptors of tomorrow. Our challenge will be a choice of being on the field competitively playing or sitting in high priced seats in the grandstand observing.

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  1. Robert Hunt

    I agree with your comments David. Additionally I should flag our concern that unlike all previous AUBEA conferences, this one excluded all Australian based professional built environment groups. Hence there was little or no interaction with local industry. What had been for many years a terrific forum for local industry to interact with academia was unfortunately managed by an international group that you rightly point out "measures things" and is not that representative of local issues. A real pity and I can only hope that the 2016 AUBEA will return to the model that's worked well for so many years. Robert Hunt CEO Australian Institute of Building