A Danish technology firm is bringing its transformative platform to the UK having demonstrated its potential to reduce waste, boost communication and improve project delivery on home soil.
Ulrik Branner can best be described as a critical friend of the construction industry.
The Danish entrepreneur clearly has a lot of affection for the people who work in the sector, as well as a passion for urban environments and the processes that go into creating them. But he is also scathing about what he sees as construction’s inefficiency and lack of transparency.
As a result, Mr Branner and his team at tech firm GenieBelt have developed a bespoke global software platform for the industry that he believes will go a long way to increasing efficiency and making construction more accountable.
So what are the problems that he is seeking to solve and how does he believe GenieBelt can help?
Mr Branner points out that construction is a $10tn industry and represents around 10 per cent of global GDP – and that rapid urbanisation means the figure is likely to rise. At the same time, environmental concerns and increasingly sparse natural resources mean that the delivery of our built environment is under increasing pressure in terms of efficiency.
The problem is that this simply isn’t happening at the required pace.
“Here you have an industry that is contributing 40 per cent of global waste and is working on a 30 per cent efficiency measure, so it’s astoundingly low performing,” Mr Branner says.
“On average, 10 per cent of work has to be redone in the UK. Think about that: 10 per cent of everything that gets built is torn down and done again because of mistakes caused by miscommunication. It’s crazy.”
Mr Branner has some other crucial statistics up his sleeve to make his point. “Construction is the industry that creates the second highest amount of information in the world, but it throws away 95 per cent of that,” he says. “It’s simply not stored away for future learning. If you think of the banking industry or the automotive industry, this would be simply unthinkable. You can’t build a business that doesn’t learn from its mistakes.”
This, he says, means that mistakes are repeated, often with tragic human costs. “Accountability is something that this industry has really been lacking,” he says. “It’s had some catastrophic consequences around the world. Who made the mistake? Why did they make the mistake? Basically, what this industry needs is transparency, because with that comes accountability.”
Mr Branner is at pains to stress that the problem does not lie with the vast majority of people who work in construction. Rather, it is the system within which they work that is at fault.
“It’s not because of the people,” he says. “We need to understand that millions of people go out to work every day trying to do a very good job, but the fundamental way the construction industry is set up and works is based on miscommunication and distrust and just doesn’t work.”
It is for this reason that four years ago the partner team started building GenieBelt, which he describes as “real-time project management with overview and insights”. The idea is that the platform connects construction sites to offices in real time and allows all decision-makers on a project to understand what they need to do, when and with whom. “It brings trust and transparency to the industry if it’s used correctly,” he says.
GenieBelt isn’t actually all that revolutionary; at the end of the day, it is a tool that simply allows for more efficient communication and makes all the companies involved – in what can be hugely complicated projects – genuinely accountable for the role they play and how they interact with other. But it does have the potential to be transformative.
Ulrik Branner GenieBelt
“It’s not because you need to revolutionise the technology or because you need to find new ways of building,” Mr Branner says. “You just have to build more efficiently.
“And that’s our proposition. We want to make sure that this industry becomes transparent – we want to build the trust. So we are basically saying, ‘If you communicate and collaborate in an open manner you will have massive gains’.”
Indeed, he points out that introducing real-time communication via progress reports and comments around a live construction programme is something that other parts of the economy did a long time ago. “This is something we’ve done in other industries for years,” he says. “But the construction industry has kept on working with emails and texts, rather than having a platform where you can share the information.”
Given that an inherent part of his pitch is that the industry is currently failing to provide a modern service, it is unsurprising that Mr Branner has encountered some hostility – particularly from main contractors.
“10 per cent of everything that gets built is redone due to mistakes. It’s crazy”
Ulrik Branner, GenieBelt
“For the first couple of years when we were developing the prototypes and doing demonstrations, we met a lot of resistance to change,” he says.
“And we are still, because significant parts of this industry are actually earning their money out of distrust – out of mistakes that are made, things that need to be rebuilt, things that have been forgotten. And that just isn’t good for the customer.”
Accordingly, Mr Branner has concentrated his efforts on talking to clients, which – as he points out – very often ultimately means regular taxpayers. “The biggest contributor to construction globally – and the same thing is true in the UK – is the public,” he says. “It’s taxpayers’ money going into building schools, hospitals, railways and so on.”
Whether public or private sector, it is clear that clients have the most to gain from demanding that a project team uses a software system like GenieBelt. It is these that have inevitably driven take-up. “For the first couple of years, everyone was still resistant,” Mr Branner says.
“Then we started seeing the professional developers, the government, the forward-thinking contractors and the municipalities in Denmark stepping in and mandating that when people build, this is how they communicate and collaborate, and we now also see the forward-thinking contractors are changing the way they work and are actively engaging in developing and pushing GenieBelt out to the sites.”
Today, GenieBelt has paying customers in more than 45 countries, but when its free platform is taken into account that figure rises to 120. The projects on which it is being used are highly diverse, but can include schemes with more than 500 people on site and 120 decision-makers using the software on a daily basis. “So, from a Danish platform it has moved out,” he says. “There is real interest in actually changing the way we work.”
GenieBelt launched its big push into the UK four months ago and Mr Branner has already confronted many of the hostile questions he has dealt with in other markets, but his underlying message is clear.
“Whether you’re talking about public clients, contractors or subbies or the private developers, now is the time for them to take that stand and say, ‘We are on the side of accountability and transparency, and we will mandate this throughout our projects’,” he says.
“So in essence, we’re all about changing the way the industry works.”
Go online here to find out more about GenieBelt.
Case study: The Niels Bohr Building, Denmark
Niels Bohr Building Copenhagen GenieBelt
The new 53,000 sq m Niels Bohr Science Park at the University of Copenhagen consists of two separate buildings on either side of one of the busiest roads into the city centre.
As a result, the €350m project was logistically highly problematic and technically very complex to construct.
As part of the development, a passage under the busy Jagtvej road was constructed, with recreational areas on either side, to connect the two buildings. There were around 550 people working on the project at peak and more than 100 decision-makers from dozens of companies on site. The scope for miscommunication and mistakes was vast.
As a result, the Danish government – ultimately the paymasters for the development – mandated that GenieBelt be used. “Here you had the Danish government that said, ‘Let’s try to use GenieBelt; let’s try to open up this gridlock and build in an open and transparent way’,” says GenieBelt CEO Ulrik Branner.
At the same time, the Danish Government’s ‘Market Maturity Fund’ had approved independent research into the benefits – or not – of using GenieBelt, and the Niels Bohr Building was one of the projects researchers at Aalborg University looked into.
At the end of last September, the university published its research paper on the project, as well as two other major projects on which GenieBelt was used.
The research showed that there had been a direct saving on total construction cost of 7 per cent as a result of using the software on the projects.
“That’s a massive saving on a €350m project,” Mr Branner says. “But if you extrapolate that out and start looking at the other benefits, whether it’s GenieBelt or one of the other tools that are being developed, it is a massive opportunity for the industry every single day to change.”