01 December 2014

One of the more interesting publications to be issued over the last few months in relation to BIM is Built Environment 2050: a report on our digital future (.pdf, 8.68Mb).

This is a report by the BIM 2050 group, which comprises 18 young construction professionals from all areas of the industry. The group was formed in September 2012 by the Construction Industry Council to work in partnership with the BIM Task Group. As its name suggests, the group looks ahead to the construction industry of the future. The group has been asked to research and report on to what an interdisciplinary scope of work might look like as construction technology develops to BIM Level 3 and beyond towards 2050. The report comprises a number of essays written by the BIM 2050 work stream leads, and it focuses on three key areas: education and skills, technology and process and the culture of integration. The intention of the report is to be challenging and, some might say, polemical and is intended to spark debate in the construction community. As such, it is well worth a look.

... those not familiar with the ‘internet of things’ proposed by Ashton or the intricacies of Bayesian statistical modelling might find themselves having recourse to Wikipedia on a fairly regular basis. 

As an initial observation, not in any way a criticism, the report is fairly jargon-heavy, which may make it appeal most to those already converted to future-speak rather than the rest of us dinosaurs who are still trying to catch up. Consequently, those not familiar with the “internet of things” proposed by Ashton or the intricacies of Bayesian statistical modelling (I’m afraid the little diagram in the corner of page 15 doesn’t help there) might find themselves having recourse to Wikipedia on a fairly regular basis.

Quite rightly, the report is optimistic about the capacity for the industry to rise to the challenges presented by the digital revolution, of which BIM is only one small part. Hidden away in the text, however, are some fairly bleak messages: more than one essay refers to the anticipated decline in the requirement for skilled labour by 50% by 2050 and whilst there is the suggestion that there will be a concomitant rise in information management and computational design roles over this period, I doubt whether these roles will be filled by those no longer able to find a job in the skilled labour sector. Indeed, the need for fundamental educational reform is very forcefully made in the essay dealing with education and skills. There is also the spectre of what is referred to as “jobless growth”: a growth in output without a corresponding growth in employment. This is a phenomenon already being experienced in the US and, I suggest, likely to be felt increasingly across the world as developments in technology result in greater automation and increased efficiency in processes which were formally the province of skilled, manual labour.

Having said all this, there is no doubt that BIM and the other technological developments examined in the report will fundamentally alter the construction sector and, if approached in the right spirit, will alter it for the better. This report is therefore recommended reading for anyone who wants to see how the industry might develop over the next few decades.

From a legal perspective, there is obviously a need for the development of new forms of contract that will be required to replace the “claims-based culture” of the existing industrial approach. The challenges posed by Level 3 BIM to the legal and insurance sectors are a foretaste of what is to come in that regard. In addition, an integrated horizontal and vertical business model and supply chains that transact in real time (known as nano-second procurement) will require a significant change in the way the contracts are structured. Presumably the paper-based, static obligations that we are used to in existing contracts, which were originally developed after the Second World War, will have to be replaced with something that mirrors far more closely the largely virtual transactions that go on in much of the consumer market already.

The report’s recommendations cover cyber security, interoperability for smart cities, behaviour and intelligence management, nano-second procurement of performance, biological complexity, lifelong learning, consumer access, sector-skill migration, robotics and business in the future. The report calls for a more sustained effort to break down barriers between industry sectors as well allowing the sector to be more integrated with academia. The development of material sciences should also take advantage of developments in psychology and behavioural economics. The “hard skills” such as engineering will remain a core construction activity but it is suggested that the construction sector’s inefficiency arises from a lack of soft skills and poor cultural integration of education and skills such as interdisciplinary teams and emotional intelligence. Organisations looking into the future will need to think about securing themselves against cyber-attack, about how integrated infrastructure will work, about constructing the right teams to address these issues and about developments such as lifelong learning in a more flexible, modular educational environment, consumer access to the supply chain, sector skill migration and the notion of human capital (that is, talent) and how this will be managed.

You may not agree with some (or even all) of the report’s conclusions, but it puts forward a strong case for starting to think now about how to cope with and plan for the inevitable changes that the digital revolution will bring so that the construction sector in UK plc emerges as a world leader and is not left lagging behind its more nimble competitors.

Related reading

Built Environment 2050: a report on our digital future