Technology and the Future of Our Built Environment

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Wednesday, March 30th, 2016
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Our built environment is constantly changing, and it is essential that we understand where it is heading so we can take action to prepare for our future.

As a nation, we are running into a number of financial challenges, largely due to the fact that we have been overly reliant on mining and exporting raw materials for generating income. The current global downturn in commodity prices is having a significant negative impact, particularly on the economies of WA and Queensland, and this is affecting the national economy. We need greater strength and resilience to shape a new community as a fundamental base for our economic futures.

As a whole, Australia is a tech savvy nation, and among the world leaders when it comes to embracing new technology. With increasingly rapid digitisation of the industrial environment; the advancement of technology and the ability for faster processing, cheaper memory (ability to store lots of data); the ability to readily access affordable computing power globally; and the growth in analytics, we are well placed to create opportunities for cross-matching datasets that give us new insights into our world (natural and created).

Technology is also improving our industry by increasing efficiencies and opportunities across the life-cycle of facilities, such as those created by systems such as building information modelling (BIM). This is particularly important when we examine procurement/purchasing models/behaviours of clients (especially public clients). The current models have been developed from a traditional perspective whereby the divisions between design, construction and asset management have traditionally been siloed. We are potentially losing the business advantages of digital integration as industry is often using outdated purchasing structures and policies and outdated procurement models that short-change and diminish the achievement and opportunity for maximising the benefits of digital integration.

Increasingly we also need new skills for life. The world is constantly changing and being reshaped, and multiple skills are needed, as opposed to only needing a skill package for a specific job. Our children are learning new technology-driven skills, but many older people do not understand the impact of technology in a changing world. It is widely accepted that technology is fundamentally transforming how we communicate, with more people in the world having access to a mobile phone than a toothbrush.

Recent research suggests that one of the biggest challenges facing the built environment sector is sourcing personnel with appropriate skills. This challenge is compounded given the combination of technological change and the growing trend for people to relocate larger urban centres for work and lifestyle. Currently, more than half the world’s population (54 per cent) lives in urban areas, but the UN predicts that by 2050 the urban population will rise to 66 per cent, as outlined in its 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report.

At the industry or national level, governments around the world have demonstrated leadership through the development of national strategies to adopt digital technologies and transform the construction industry in their country. Industry-wide collaboration is needed across complex supply chains to achieve this through the development of:

  • a case for industry-wide uptake
  • appropriate work process and plans
  • national standards and procurement models
  • a skills and training agenda which attracts a new wave of technical expertise to the industry

We need to look at skills for a new generation, with key aspects being adaptability, better connectivity, and the global uptake of mobile technology.

One of the biggest challenges we face is that of connectivity. There is no point having multiple modes of communication if people can’t actually use them to communicate. Global infrastructure standards have been adopted to enable massive roll-out of supporting devices and software through means such as WiFi access. However, there is a significant disparity between connectivity in urban versus rural and regional Australia. The sporadic access to the internet in much of Australia is a serious issue that needs to be addressed in order to create better equity of access to digital services, the ability to run businesses, and social communication.

While Australia is well placed with our tech savvy skills, we need to continue to seek out new opportunities, build our life-long education base and march forward optimistically.

This article was co-authored with Paul Hodgson Project Steering Group Chair for SBEnrc Project 2.46
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