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Construction's knowledge gap can no longer be ignored

Daniel Kemp

Passing on knowledge and innovation is not one of the construction industry’s great strengths: that was one of the conclusions reached by Mark Farmer’s report, Modernise or Die, released almost a year ago.

Now, new data from online platform Designing Buildings Wiki appears to back up Mr Farmer’s conclusion.

Designing Buildings Wiki is a free, cross-discipline platform where people can publish or read articles on a range of topics on design and construction. It recently published analysis of its readers’ habits, titled Fit for Purpose?

The organisation cross-referenced its 5,000 articles with six million data points, looking at the connections between subjects, how popular each subject is, the number and duration of views, and the age, gender and location of its readers.

The study produced some fascinating results. It showed that there is a fundamental disconnect between what people want to read and what people are writing (ie what they deem worth sharing).

This suggests a knowledge gap, in that the information and best practice advice being published on DBW – and perhaps, by extension, across the industry more generally – isn’t what the industry actually wants or needs to read.

These findings dovetail neatly with some of Mr Farmer’s arguments last year, with the DBW team concluding that “the industry is lacking the strategic leadership necessary to co-ordinate the preparation of knowledge, ensuring appropriate funding is available, filling gaps and avoiding duplication of effort”.

It also argues that the proliferation of construction trade associations and institutions is a factor in this, arguing that knowledge “buried in long documents or locked behind paywalls will not be used – even if it is critically important”.

Knowledge creators are focusing on what DBW co-founder Gregor Harvie called “academic” topics, writing in an academic style on topics like design, products, history, research and innovation.

Readers, however, want more “practical” subjects, such as construction management, contracts, payment and appointments.

Launching the report on the 14th floor of the Leadenhall Building last week, in the offices of Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners, Dr Harvie cited recent events to highlight the danger of such knowledge gaps in our industry: “In the wake of the Edinburgh schools defects and the fallout from the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the report suggests the industry needs to get organised and stop leaving the dissemination of knowledge to chance – or more mistakes will be made.”

It’s a potent argument and one that is sure to grab the attention of many.

As the report from DBW also states: “The industry is good at making the best better; it is less good at improving the rest.”

The DBW dataset is, of course, not perfect, with subjective questions around the quality of differing articles, as well as the quantity produced on a given topic, not really reflected in these results.

But the findings are certainly intriguing, and should give everyone in the industry pause to think about how they pass on innovation so that is not forgotten and the industry can continue to make itself better.

This week in tech:

  • Our special report on rail focuses on innovation, including the use of drones to survey railways, what is holding back modular construction in rail, and a look at Network Rail’s Digital Railways programme.
  • The Institution of Civil Engineers launched its Project 13 initiative last week – our infrastructure reporter Jack Simpson looks at what it could mean.
  • Bullitt is releasing a new model of its Cat-branded smartphones, targeted at the construction market. The latest is the S41, with a 44-day battery life. We took a look at the S60, with its built-in thermal imaging camera, last year.
  • This is the last week to enter the Construction News Specialists Awards, and there is a category for Technology Supplier of the Year. Entry is free, so don’t miss your chance.

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