Dr Oliver G F Jones

Opinion Piece by Dr Oliver Jones

Our sector has played an important role in the response to the pandemic. From the design and delivery of healthcare facilities, to urban interventions designed to accommodate new behaviours and stimulate economic recovery. But we have a much bigger part to play if we are to deliver a greener, healthier more productive recovery. As a sector, we are uniquely placed to drive national economic recovery. The construction sector is a keystone of many economies, in the UK alone it contributes economic output of £413 billion, 8.6% of GDP (2018) and employs 3.1 million people. 

While we will be dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic for some time, I am increasingly hopeful that we will see a lasting positive change sweep our sector, and it’s all down to unintended consequences. Let me explain. One unintended consequence of the lockdown is that it applied the brakes in an unprecedented manner to an industry that was largely antiquated, stubborn to evolve and swept along by its own momentum. UK construction was a veritable steam train of a sector hurtling in the wrong direction and rapidly running out of track.  

At the start of 2020, we were at a crossroads, a wealth of new technologies were poised to disrupt the sector. Global narratives on societal and environmental health were at our doorstep and calls to redefine our sectors collective values, as well as our notions of value, were growing louder by the day. One road led to a bright pioneering new future for our sector, with UK construction leading the way globally. Down the other, lay business as usual with a veneer of progress and a tip of the hat to all those crazy pioneers, environmental activists and public health bodies who dared to dream of a better future. As a sector, we have travelled this latter road many times before. It is comfortable and familiar, and it usually results in the more media-savvy moving quickly to form self-referential groups and sign a few petitions, producing few tangible or lasting results. Then COVID and the lockdown arrived, it put the brakes on and provided us with a window of opportunity to pause for thought and radically reinvent our sector.  

When something huge happens, and the global pandemic is as big as it gets. I often take solace that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A global event this disruptive has offered up unintended consequences of a similar magnitude. Namely, it has forced a rethink and allowed us the opportunity to press reset, to reinvent and rebuild. Slowing down has given us valuable time to take stock, reassess and plan a greener recovery that is focused on delivering lasting social and environmental benefits. This presents a wealth of opportunities for our businesses, but we must evolve quickly with the changing times.

Governments have recognised the opportunity to accelerate digital and environmental agendas as part of the huge stimulus packages they are building to support our industries. In planning for recovery they are building upon the successful mobilisation of public and private bodies and sending a clear signal to industry and investors that our recovery will be greener, more productive and have a greater focus on public health and the breadth of value it can bring to society.

In 2018 we published Reinvention and issued a call to action across the construction sector. To break down silos and work collaboratively to effect radical, sustained, and meaningful change. In short to address the poor performance and failures which dog our industry. We recognised that as a sector, we have largely spent too long tinkering at the edges or ignoring what’s going on around us. We called for total reinvention and the time to deliver this has now arrived.

It is in these windows of opportunity, where research and innovation provide real value and direction; where relevance, need and willingness to change for the better all come together. For a brief moment, everyone in the chain is pulling in the same direction. This is the time when collaborative research and innovation between policymakers, industry and academia thrives. It is when we are at our most innovative and it is when we make the most progress. 

A recent publication by the European Commission on the role of research and innovation (R&I) in Europe’s COVID19 recovery planning recognised that R&I are critical levers to a sustainable recovery, reinforcing economic resilience and to the resilience of our production sectors. The European Commission promotes R&I as the tool to drive, enable and accelerate the digital and ecological transformation of our societies. 

Digital maturity, culture and agility have been deciding factors that have enabled businesses to survive. The businesses that will thrive, are those poised to leverage research and innovation to support their recovery in line with government funding and recovery packages. For these businesses there will be substantial commercial opportunities ahead. Those that double down on business as usual, “the way we have always done it” in times of unprecedented change will likely make up the majority of casualties. 

As the dust settles on the first wave of COVID19 we have seen the UK government make some gloriously ill-considered decisions around extended permitted development rights. Despite its own ministry research report citing these type of dwellings as the “worse quality” homes. But a slew of other government policies in development indicates a much brighter future indeed. 

The UK’s Construction Innovation Hub has recently fast-tracked their delivery programme to align with COVID recovery planning, and released their Introduction to the Value Toolkit. A suite of tools to support faster value-based decision-making across the whole investment life-cycle, which we hope to be demonstrating on our projects soon. We are also actively involved with the Construction Leadership Councils Smart Construction and Innovation working group who have been updating the Smart Construction Dashboard and Metrics tool for housing, due to be released later this year and applied to 1500 new homes by Homes England. In Scotland we have been working with Scottish Futures Trust on the development and delivery of the Scottish Governments Net Zero Carbon in Public Sector Buildings Standard which will quite literally set the standard for achieving a Net Zero Carbon future.

The recurring themes across these projects are a coherent and collaborative drive between government and industry to benchmark and measure value, quality, and performance. In an unprecedented time, we are seeing governments around the world turn their efforts collectively to delivering policies and stimulus packages that accelerate environmental and public health transformation. 

Through several policy changes that are set to dramatically reshape the future of our sector, we will see governments offer further incentives to phase out fossil fuels and focus on renewables, retrofit, mobility, public health and placemaking. Delivering a greener recovery, focused on lasting environmental and societal benefits. Now that sounds like the much-needed total reinvention we have been working towards. 

Lockdown has collectively focused our minds on a better future, it is what we do next that counts.

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