Opinion Piece by John Adams, Head of Product, Glider Technology

25 June 2021

Who really controls the sustainable future of the built environment?

In these changing times it’s not certain what the built environment of the future is going to look like.  What is certain, is that with population increases expected until a predicted peak in 2070 and with an ageing and inefficient stock of built assets, we will continue to develop our planet at an increasing rate for generations to come.  Driving towards carbon-neutral construction processes resulting in carbon-positive buildings, infrastructure, and public places, is one of the great challenges facing not just the construction industry, but the global community. 

With so much to do and a myriad of technologies still to conquer or invent, who really is responsible for the sustainable future of our built environment?

The easy answer is to lay this responsibility at the door of our politicians.  Whilst mandates, targets and incentives will of course impact the pace of change, there is no effective lever of government that can force businesses to implement technologies that are not yet viable or available.  There are also other concerns that governments will have to weigh up when considering how they influence the construction industry because any change which impacts supply chains and procurement would take time to implement in a manner that doesn’t disrupt projects already in progress.  Countries and cities are now, more than ever, in an economic race to secure business, so any legislation which forces London or Liverpool to develop more slowly than Berlin or Dublin would likely struggle to gain support. 

Of course, where the levers of government can be pulled for positive impact such as investment in green industries, there will be competition between the sectors for investment. The construction industry institutions and associations need to make the case for that investment being focussed on our built environment, but there’s little point putting out our hands without a compelling business case for how we’ll provide real value.  Are smog eating facades a better bet than sustainable concrete?  The answers to these questions may lie with our academics…

So can our world-renowned universities and innovation hubs make UK R&D a deciding factor in the decarbonising of the global construction industry? Much like the politicians, the answer is both yes, and no.

We have wonderful institutions at our disposal,  and with time and investment, they will undoubtedly offer vital insight into how we take the right path towards a sustainable future. UK academia is doing world-leading work on smart connected buildings, platforms thinking,  and the national digital twins, but these are drops in the ocean compared to the sheer scale of the challenge.  As valuable as this work is for our global future, and for the UK inc, the journey from a research concept to real-world impact often takes years to realise. 

Although it is fair to say that government and academia have key roles to play, the new actions they take now will not facilitate the seachange needed to create our sustainable future.  This leaves two mega industries at the sharp end of generating the much-needed change.  Construction and technology.

Construction is second only to the finance services in size at an ever-growing $12.5 trillion globally,  so it would be easy to assume that all the skills and resources needed for change are already within the sector.   With domain expertise and well-established processes for delivering projects of all sizes, the construction industry holds a privileged position as the steward of our built future.   However, with a legacy of cost focussed procurement combined with vast and sometimes volatile supply chains,  even this mega-industry often struggles to make room for revolutionary innovation.  Many of the household names of the industry are snared in the innovator’s dilemma; can they afford to risk existing relationships by focussing on future technologies over today’s working solutions.  

Today’s construction industry is a rigid pyramid responsible for 13% of global GDP and around 300mil jobs.  Although the industry must lead the mission to a sustainable future,  it is clear it can’t do it alone without a more agile and responsive partner.  The inescapable truth that construction change is more evolution than revolution has led the tech sector giants to focus their gaze on the opportunities.  However, their impact to date has been a series of false dawns as the scale and complexity of getting things built is almost impossible to overestimate. 

The tech sector is smaller than construction, but this is not predicted to last as the inherent desire for rapid and successful innovation continues to see every aspect of our lives shift towards technology.  Whilst there is little doubt that the formula for revolutionary change in the way we create and live with our built environment lies in technology, the tech sector cannot simply replace the collective knowledge that brings towers, bridges and railways from concept to completion. 

Although there is a thriving construction tech sector,  with great businesses such as Glider making a real impact across the asset lifecycle, there is an enormous and virtually unexploited opportunity to bring these mega industries together in a globally significant way. This will require the kind of relationship which usually emerges from embarking on an ambitious shared journey which neither partner alone can hope to solve; such as decarbonising our built environment.  There is a need to move the relationship between these gargantuan sectors through the gears to create innovative partnerships,  and this is an area where the UK has an enviable record for us to draw upon right back to Isambard Kingdom Brunel and beyond. 

With political encouragement and academic support, we can move the construction industry’s relationship with technology way beyond the ‘faster horses’ model, into a new paradigm of an industry that once again thrives on the adoption of brand new innovation.  Innovation with a green heart.  We have the innovation hubs, the mega projects, the skills and knowledge, and the economic muscle, to support those construction and technology partnerships who are ready to roll up their sleeves to really move the needle towards a sustainable future. 

Read the findings from our round-table discussion on Setting a course for net-zero construction, but who is really responsible for effective delivery? 

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