Building for the long term: The construction mega-trend of digital transformation

Author: Ross Sturley CIMCIG

What are the global, long-term impacts on the future of the built environment? This article is written by Paul Swaddle, the key speaker at an upcoming CIMCIG event.
Here’s a question for you, a quick thought-experiment: What is the first product you can think of that you know millions of people will still be buying and consuming in ten years from now? Cars? Smartphones? Coffee? Paint? Fast food? Carpet? Bicycles?
Why do you feel confident that the item or technology you’ve chosen isn’t going anywhere soon?
As a result of previous writing and presentations over the years, I’ve played with the term futurism to describe my work. From the outside, it often looks like futurists fall into two groups: those who think things will get progressively better towards a beautiful utopia, and those who think things will get progressively worse towards apocalyptic dystopia. Based on the futurists I’ve met recently, I actually think they fall into two different groups: those who think much will change in this and the next generation, and those who think very little will change at all. That second group are the ones predicting that many of the products we use today will still be popular in a decade’s time.
The technology historian, Peter Norton says, “If you told the futurists of fifty years ago that much of the world would still be using chalk on a  blackboard every day, they’d give up forecasting.”
I spent a great deal of last year travelling around the UK, speaking with NBS customers and my contacts at various companies across the built environment industries about their processes and the technologies they already use, and that they can’t see changing anytime soon. I’m most interested in these long-term things – whatever can retain its position as the status quo, and how things that were normal in one decade are almost inconceivable today, whilst others continue for generations and even centuries. What is the reason for this? How can we predict and learn from the things that experience disruption and the technologies that maintain stable popularity?
The genesis of my research into the subject began with a quote from Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon: “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next ten years?’ I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next ten years?’ And I submit to you that the second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around things that are stable in time.”

If you know something is not going to change, it’s much easier to invest and focus your strategy and attention in the right place, because it’s not going to change! Bezos goes on to provide an example: “In our retail business, we know that customers want fast delivery; they want vast selection and that’s going to be true ten years from now. It’s impossible to imagine a future ten years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.

And so the effort we put into those things, spinning those things up, we know the energy we put into it today will still be paying off dividends for our customers ten years from now. When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.” 
 
So it’s 2020 already. Years go by quickly. But how far into the future can we realistically think of?
At the start of this article, I asked you to think about the year 2030. What vision springs to mind in your imagination of ten years away? Can you remember what you were doing in 2010? Roy Amara, an American thinker famously said that, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”

Bill Gates put numbers on this, “We always overestimate change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
Would you have been able to predict the work you’ve done in the last decade? That you would be in the place you’re reading this article? Would you have predicted the work you are doing today?
What about 30 years ahead? Do we have any concept of what the world will look like for the next generation? We can suggest that AR might be used on a construction site, that we might have site robots, that we might have more factory-based offsite construction, but what things do we definitely know?
There’s an organisation called the Long Now, and they’re focused on the idea that our concept of time is so narrow, just able to deal with thinking about our recent past and immediate future. They’ve taken this idea to its extreme - so much so that they’re building a deep-earth clock in the middle of the US desert to keep time for 10,000 years. They have proposed that we add a zero to the beginning of the year when we talk about it, to begin considering the full depth of our impact on generations to come.
The year is 02020.
Adding the zero not only helps us to consider 03020, but even 12020.
 
I’m interested in the things we can say will definitely not change over long periods of time. You might know that joke about the rate of change in the construction industry: A time-traveller from Ancient Rome arrives on a modern housebuilding site and he is amazed by the cavity walls, the concrete, the underfloor heating, the towers of scaffolding… “Why, this is exactly what we do too!”
I recently talked about this subject at Digital Construction Week, an event full of buzzwords – from big data to blockchain, from drones to digital twins, from machine learning to modular; and even if you’re aware of all these things, you’re probably not thinking you need to become an expert in them, and you’re not sure how they’ll impact you or your business in the long run.
My suggestion is that it’s because they are just trends. Trends are industry concepts or services which accelerate in popularity or relevance, but only for a certain period of time, before they evolve into something more stable or are overtaken by something more commonplace, often using a different term altogether. These trends are symptomatic of much bigger themes happening over the long term. One term we can use for these themes is megatrends.
Megatrends are the larger considerations which result in and contain many smaller trends. Megatrends tend to be stable over time, like Bezos’ ‘fast delivery and vast selection’ rather than flash in the pan fashions that come and go. Technology is full of fashionable trends, and it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. Megatrends are the forest, growing slowly and over great distances, made up of thousands, millions of tree trends.
 
The development of mobile smartphones is one great example. From public pay phones, cordless phones, satellite phones, car phones, pagers, ‘dumb’ phones for calls and texts, to the iPhone, to social media apps, Whatsapp groups, video calling, – each item is part of a much larger progression over that long term. The megatrend is the same and will continue: people want ubiquitous, portable communication with anyone in the world, that’s reliable and low-cost.
To continue that Peter Norton quote, “Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards but don’t eliminate them.”

The need to write books and reports doesn’t disappear, we just use a different device, but we’re still typing. Photography doesn’t disappear, we just use a different device – preferring the convenience of digital over heavy, film cameras. Listening to music doesn’t disappear, we just use a different device to stream more than we purchase, and so on.
What you might notice is that the activities we have loved for generations don’t change, the methods do, and constantly more methods are being invented and sold, some of which become popular over time and some which never catch on. Technological disruption is less about replacing an existing technology on day one, than proving the latest version can demonstrate a greater efficiency, or that the old way was costly or even dangerous.
Global politics, economic policies, advancing technology, most popular entertainment, most websites, sporting performances, consumer fashions, sellout toy fads, and design trends, these things change constantly and the swings can be exponential – so that the political or technological landscape can look wildly different at the start and the end of a decade. Megatrends on the other hand, tend to be globally consistent, and much more stable in comparison. 
Here’s an easy construction industry example: Digital transformation.
CAD, pdf outputs, e-submittals, BIM process, mobile devices for remote working, and its underlying tools, technologies, standardisation and governance, and the rise of companies like Autodesk, Graphisoft, Trimble, Katerra etc, are all trends that point us to what? That the digitisation of the built environment will continue.
“Thanks, Captain Obvious,” I hear you say. So you can have that one for free in this introduction. But it is curious how long it has taken for the industry to use less paper, and realise the power of computing. The image of the construction worker with a huge, paper blueprint will finally seem as silly and dated as someone using a phone box to make an urgent call. Right?
Collaborative, data-driven processes that engage every level of project stakeholder and encourage very-long-term decision making are essential to the future resilience of urban places; yet experience of the construction industry indicates a tendency for short-term thinking, convenience over value, and only a basic awareness of how megatrends will change our industry.
Hopefully the megatrends I’m writing and speaking about in this series are equivalents of digitisation and the computing revolution, practical themes which will actually affect your business in the long term and remain as stable evolutions, made up of subjects and technologies you have on your radar that will come together to form a much bigger impacts on our industry, maybe for centuries ahead.
Below is a list of the eight megatrends I’ve identified that contain a multitude of other trends within them, appear to dominate many of the social channels and face-to-face conversations I’ve had recently, and most importantly are unlikely to change in the next decade. I’ll write in depth about each megatrend and its related impacts on the built environment.
 
1. Faster, cleaner, more
Housing demand, DFMA, offsite modular, 3D printing, and modern methods of construction
2. Reuse and adaptation
Existing stock refurbishment, repair, conservation, surveying, safety
3. Urban mobility
Infrastructure, smarter cities, multi-modal journeys, density, remote working
4. Global communities
Digital natives, collaboration online, AR/VR/XR, social media, 5G, design and craft
5. Equal opportunity
2050 jobs and skills, democracy, diversity, training, exoskeletons, robotics, innovation
6. Wellbeing by design
Mental health and building psychology, fitness, healthcare needs, ageing populations, nature
7. Climate urgency
Sustainability, electric cars, passivhaus, Greta, XR, renewable energy, existential risk
8. Trusting the data
Digital twins, blockchain, cryptocurrencies, deepfakes, Golden Thread, security, surveillance

 
The article was written by Paul Swaddle, Head of Business Solutions at NBS
See more on the CIMCIG event Paul will be speaking at here.