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Is necessity still the mother of invention?

It’s become fashionable to knock construction’s lack of innovation. 

From Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report to any number of recent conversations I’ve had with senior industry figures, there’s an air in some quarters of stagnation, rather than a refreshing wind of change.

In the tech space in particular, the industry has come under withering fire. It was a theme at COMIT’s Mobilising Digital Assets event last week that featured a keynote entitled The tier one contractor – the end is nigh?

COMIT isn’t an organisation with a commercial agenda. The not-for-profit group seeks to explore, develop and implement mobile computing and communication technologies within the industry, supporting the industry’s aim to be progressive and efficient.

That didn’t stop speakers lining up to constructively criticise the state of play.

Crossrail head of technical information Malcolm Taylor took the stand and said he’d recently searched the web for innovation in rail. Of the multitude of search returns that mainly covered advances in rolling stock and the passenger experience, innovation in infrastructure was barely noticeable, left behind in a plume of coal smoke.

“My little station at New Malden is of the kind that Queen Victoria stopped at, took a look around, and got back in. Nothing has changed since then,” he said.

MWH operations director and chair of BIM4Water Andrew Cowell believes something as seemingly critical as email (which should be banned, he said, to a cheering audience) was holding the industry back. “When you book with Easyjet, you don’t email the CEO and say you’d like a flight – there’s a user interface. So why are we still emailing drawings to each other?”

IFS global industry director Kenny Ingram went a step further, telling me at the event that Excel is even worse, with firms deconstructing information from active project sites and putting it in into a spreadsheet that they trust. “Ninety-five per cent of the contractors I talk to don’t really know what’s possible. They are so used to this [data systems] mess that they think this is normal,” he said.

“No one knows what’s on site. Something gets delivered and someone signs for it and puts the paper in their pocket. [Whereas] a logistics business would know exactly where its assets are. The biggest companies are some of the worst offenders because of the bureaucracy.”

It’s easy to criticise, but Mr Ingram suggests a way forward for businesses that are prepared to evolve in a changing marketplace in which traditional models are coming under pressure.

“If you accept the fact that technology will disrupt your business, then you need to accept that you need to be manufacturing as well and also become a service provider and maintaining assets. Or you may not be able to survive.”

So while necessity is still the mother of invention, there are contractors out there still ignorant of how necessary invention has become.

The wind of change is there sure enough. Businesses might consider rigging up new sails to catch it, or risk being left behind by those that do.

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