The future is unknown. Nobody can be sure what tomorrow holds, yet we constantly hear that the construction industry is in a period of disruption. So, what is happening, and how will this impact the industry incumbents?
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld about the future, there are known knowns; there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. That is to say that the future is unknowable, but some things are certain, others can be inferred, and only the balance is unknown.
Some known knowns are that humans will continue to use the buildings and infrastructure that we create. These humans will require sustenance, they will create waste, and they will need to sleep. We know these things, but the rest of what they do is a matter of choice.
External influences that are known knowns are gravity, buoyancy, and weather. These things will continue to influence the solutions we create. After that, the physical influences are also a matter of choice.
In the known unknown category, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how connected humans are globally. And it has given us a window into how climate change will influence the future of humanity.
Known knowns are that sea levels will rise; rainfall patterns will change and, in turn, will influence food and water availability. The shelters we have made to live, work and play, will need to respond to this change. Quite how and when the impact of climate change will impact us is a known unknown.
Another known unknown is that technology will impact the work that the construction industry performs. We know algorithms will replace routine work, unskilled labor will be replaced by autonomous machines, and artificial intelligence will enable machines to learn and improve the work that humans have historically undertaken. What is unknown is the pace of change and the impact on the workers.
These are surprises that we cannot reasonably foresee. An example could be cities being abandoned due to water scarcity. We do not know if this will happen, and we also do not know what this will mean for everyone else on the planet.
The COVID-19 pandemic was an unknown unknown. It was a pandemic that was predicted in theory with an impact that depended on the virus, its transmissivity, and the consequential mortality rate.
How Do We Assess The Impact Of These Things?
Strategic planning is how we prepare for the future. Strategic planning addresses these three categories of knowledge using a technique known as scenario planning. Scenarios are plausible futures that require us to consider possibilities and adjust to prepare for them within the sphere of control we can apply.
An example of what not to do is to dismiss known possibilities. Brigadier General Billy Mitchell proposed that airplanes might sink battleships by dropping bombs on them, but U.S. Secretary of War Newton Baker remarked, “That idea is so damned nonsensical and impossible that I’m willing to stand on the bridge of a battleship while that nitwit tries to hit it from the air.”
In recent years taxi cabs have been disrupted by Uber, hotel chains by Airbnb and retailers by Amazon. In each case known unknowns create dramatic change. The lessons from Kodak and Blockbuster in ignoring technological disruption are stark warnings to those who do not consider the impact of change and react to it. It’s the known unknowns that do the damage.
Technology And The Construction Industry
Technological advancements disrupting the construction industry are not new. The Egyptians built pyramids using technological advances and quickly abandoned outdated construction methods over a couple of hundred years. The Romans adopted infrastructure planning and created cities using drainage systems, aqueducts, and bridges using a new material called concrete. Cities rose high into the air just 150 years ago because of air-conditioning, glass technology, and elevators becoming ubiquitous.
We are now on the cusp of Construction 4.0. In 2021 the technologies that will disrupt the construction industry fall into ten categories:
- Offsite construction
- New building materials
- 3D printing
- Autonomous equipment
- Augmented reality
- Data and predictive analytics
- Wireless monitoring
- Cloud-based real-time collaboration
- 3D scanning
- Building information modeling
We know that these ten things are coming, but they are known unknowns. We do not know the rate of penetration or the implications of technological adoption on the people, companies, and processes in the construction industry today. Yet, the known knowns are that people will eat, drink and sleep, and gravity, buoyancy, and weather will continue to apply in all we create. The combination of these known unknowns and known knowns creates the boundary conditions for scenario planning.
We scenario plan in our own lives; we call it a 401k plan. In this plan, we fix our investment level based on what we can afford and place it at a risk level we feel comfortable with at an unknown return based on an unknown life expectancy. The scenario we hope to achieve is that the outcome will be a desired standard of living at the end of the investment term.
Scenario planning is a 401k plan for your business. Many firms naturally undertake some form of scenario planning to prepare for changes in their business. Examples might be things like segmenting the addressable market into the parts that value brand over function. Rolls Royce, Gucci, and Rolex are examples of doing this, and their choices result in a strategy with limited scale potential but high margins. The construction equivalent could be focusing on specialist expertise such as rammed earth structures where there is a limited market in which expertise carries a premium price.
Another example of planning for known unknowns in the architectural and engineering professional services space is to segment commodity services and offshore them to reduce costs. This is an intermediate step towards automating part of the process as the scenario is that commodity work will ultimately be replaced by data-driven algorithms.
On construction sites, known unknown scenarios could ponder how long it will be before tower cranes don’t have a person sitting at the top. This is one example of how the revolution of autonomous machinery will disrupt the site-based workforce.
Climate change is one overarching known unknown that will contribute to all these scenarios as the combination of many of the technologies listed allows infrastructure to transform from inanimate to responsive. Geologically, we are now in the Anthropocene era in which human activity has had a significant impact on the planet’s ecosystem. This is the problem technology will seek to provide us with the ability to control the impact of continued human existence on this planet. Our buildings and infrastructure will be sensor-enabled, and the data gathered will be utilized via predictive analytics to drive a response ahead of the impact. Moves towards a lower carbon future will continue to gather pace until it is no longer an option to ignore it. Cement and aviation fuel are examples of commodities that will be impacted by carbon reduction regulation.
Data will begin to drive decision-making, and the principles of a circular economy that is ever present in nature will become applied to horizontal and vertical infrastructure. We will need to rethink everything. All businesses will change; that is known. The only unknown is when.
Known Unknowns And Human Beings
Let me conclude with a couple of examples that bring this into personal focus.
Humans must sleep, those with shelters sleep in bedrooms. Bedrooms almost always have windows, so the construction industry has delivered bedrooms with windows for 5,000 years. Yet only in the last 200 years did we have the lightbulb, which allows humans to no longer set their sleep pattern by sunlight. However, the design of the bedrooms did not change.
Today we know about the impact of the light spectrum on sleep, and we know that we cannot taste or smell when asleep, but we can hear, which is why alarms make noise, and so we know noise disrupts sleep. So how will technology change how people sleep? Lighting and acoustics impact the quality of sleep and this knowledge will impact how we design and create sleeping spaces, this is a known unknown, and we can control how we respond to this information, but we have not done so yet.
Another example is entertainment. We have had fixed screens in homes for 100 years now, and they worked well within the dimensional constraints of living rooms that previously housed coal fires for heat. When screens came into the home, the room dimensions did not change. Soon we will no longer consume visual entertainment in 2D, and that will require a complete rethink for planning the spaces we occupy in our homes. But how?
With known unknowns, the solution is to provide flexibility, and that means envisaging buildings as a series of components that can be de-coupled and relocated. It also means active systems in the skin of buildings, recyclable construction materials, and components that demand a system of dimensional and tolerance control we have largely ignored since the 17th century used wax, chalk, and bitumen to fill joints.
Finally, the boundaries between the entities that deliver construction solutions will undergo disruption too. There will be new incumbents entering the market. We see Amazon, Google, Tesla, and Ikea exploring their entry points into the construction industry. Today’s fragmented processes will change as consolidation and unification reconnect design, manufacturing, and construction. This will bring new competition, products, and processes that will seem alien to incumbents.
The future of the construction industry is mostly a known unknown, which is why it is the most exciting time in history to be in the industry and an important time to create a plan and act on it.
Steve Burrows, CBE, PE, CEng, FICE, FASCE, MIStructE, LEED-AP, is a principal consultant at Cameron MacAllister Group. Steve has more than 30 years of industry experience leading national and international engineering design firms in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. If you are interested in learning more about this or how Steve can help your firm, contact him directly at 415-302-3120 or via email.