Product non-conformance is a first-world industrial disease.

It is a widespread issue in the built environment, poses real and immediate risks to body and property and degrades the value of assets.

The problem is complex however a significant gap exists between current regulations and effective policing and between manufactured product and construction activity. The global marketplace and digital supply chains are challenging our traditional regulatory framework. Dangerous, or at best, poor quality goods enter the supply chain and are then used by unsuspecting consumers.

There is an Australian Senate inquiry into non-conforming product, which is due to report on the 16th March. Over 70 submissions and a number of public hearings paint a grim picture of the implementation of existing regulation.

When I look around, every thing I see is a manufactured product. These products are parts of the built environment that is the roads and transport systems and office towers and churches, houses, schools and hospitals we use everyday. This is where we live and work, all built from manufactured products.  In Australia almost 90% of us live in urban areas. That figure is over 80% in North America.

The regulatory framework for buildings is a fragmented network of three levels of government, domestic and international standards, codes of practice, third party certifications and industry associations, represented widely across both manufacturing and construction industries, all contributing to make up the framework that the construction industry operates under. All of these bodies have a role and some level of responsibility in addressing the complicated problem of discrepant product, which does not meet intended purpose or is put to use incorrectly.

Duplication and gaps occur with so many organisations and interested stakeholders; this creates confusion in the system, and so deprives public trust.

Those businesses and organisations wishing to conform and deliver good product are penalised through costs of compliance, testing and competing in an uneven market place. This in turn leads to job losses, loss of skills and undermining of responsible business practice.

The consumer, the public, all of us assumes that the regulatory systems work and we rely upon them for our wellbeing.

As consumers, we are ultimately the ones who pay. We don’t know what is in these products and we are currently powerless to find out or to influence supply.

We place trust in our governments and trust in the businesses that manufacture and build.

Product non-conformance is a symptom of failure of governance and a failure of regulation to be enforced in the market and it weakness urban systems, which are critical to sustainable development. We can expect it to become more prevalent in the Australian and North American built environments as global trade accelerates through traditional channels, free trade agreements and digitally enhanced supply chains.

Something different needs to be done.

Legislation and regulation adapt to change slowly, and are modelled on the presumption that they will be enforced. We assume that the market will be responsive to the law and a level of self-regulation.

As competition grows more intense it becomes the inclination to push boundaries and cut costs and supply product that may not have the designed properties or quality that is specified and expected by the customer.

We need to feel safe in our homes and the buildings and infrastructure that support us. Our investments must last and retain value and the risk minimised to body and asset. A repeat of the Infinity cable saga, where tens of thousands of homes and residents are at risk of electrical and fire harm. We need not see high-rise fires like Lacrosse where external cladding fuelled the fire and owners were ordered to foot the bill of tens of thousands of dollars each through no fault of their own.

Additional regulation may serve only to add more complexity, more administrative burden and more confusion.
A remedy to this industrial disease calls loudly for clarity in product disclosure.

Technology and systems that facilitate the use of existing regulations and restores trust, safety and security in the market, should be explored.

Can market mechanisms replace enforcement regimes to bridge gaps between product and construct and use?

Can we innovate systems that supplement the existing tools of control and provide agility and balance in this changing market place?

Will governments have the courage and foresight in policy and practice to create the opportunity for suppliers to compete on transparent and level footings?

Will commercial, public and private consumers demand and respond to greater clarity in selection and choice in procurement as has recently been implemented through government supported food labelling, energy supply and financial services?

By providing firm boundaries and benchmarks of minimum disclosure, can governments encourage market responses that are faster, more agile and efficient than drafting barriers to technology or adding regulatory burden?

Raising public awareness and increasing scrutiny of product claims, may provide a more efficient barrier to the delivery of products that are not fit for purpose. If consumers are empowered, the market for non-conforming product will falter.

It is part of the new economy paradigm where a carpet weaver in Africa can deliver into a lounge room in Toronto or Melbourne or Boston and bypass regulatory control. This is a feature of digitised globalised supply chains, supply-side efficiency and consumer choice.

It is at this interface of manufactured product entering the places we live and work, the interface of international supply and local law, of traditional command and control regulation and the new economy where innovation, new business models and enlightened consumers disrupt what does not serve. Where regulation and codes of practice fail, technology has a role in linking, cross-referencing and closing the opportunity for discrepant product entering the market and so offering clarity to the consumer.

Addressing non-conformance and supporting good design will retain skills, jobs and raise productivity along the way.

Government is best positioned to lead responsible procurement as it spends upward of 20% of GDP in Australia and North America.  It is hoped the Australian government recommendations later this month seek innovative solutions that address past discrepancies, restore trust and encourage disclosure.

Our buildings, transport systems and infrastructure need to outlast us.  We need secure investments with distant horizons that other generations can use and enjoy. And we need to minimise the immediate risks to people and the environment.

Perhaps we do not need more bandages and bitter pills to cure this industrial disease.

We need light and clear air.