Words by Steve Burrows
One of the great things about living in San Francisco is that I get to spend my evenings with Silicon Valley start-ups — the closest thing to glimpsing the future. So far, I’ve worked with something like 150, all seeking funding for ideas that aim to revolutionize some aspect of construction.
Silicon Valley is only just waking up to the size of the global construction industry. They’re looking for the next billion-dollar-a-year business. Companies like Apple and Google have been predominantly focused on the consumer market, but now they’ve got to find the next big thing. So they’re branching out into the motor industry with autonomous vehicles, and into healthcare with wearables — and If you look at the top-spending industries in the world, there’s no question that construction is bigger than either retail or motor.
The other reason construction is a target is that it’s barely changed in the last 100 years. It is the only industry in the world in which productivity is lower today than it was at the end of the Second World War. Research shows that between 50% and 90% of labour hours on site add no value at all, while fatality rates are second only to mining. No wonder Silicon Valley thinks it’s ripe for a revolution.
How are they going to do it? First, there are algorithms: anything we do today that is rules-based will be done tomorrow by a machine. This will change the design process, and with it the role of professional advisers. We will be able to run thousands of optimized designs, live, in front of clients, and the trick will be to make decisions when faced with data-rich options. Prefabrication and robotics will see construction taking place in a controlled environment with building information models connecting directly to the tools, in the factory and on site.
“Open source is god in the start-up world. They believe that if you share what you’re doing, you will gain from other people helping you. It’s Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica”
The process will be optimized too, through principles such as LEAN or Advantage Strategy. The boundaries between architect, engineer, constructor and client will blur. There will be far more collaboration between designer and constructor, as contracts converge and modular solutions can be chosen earlier, reducing site labour, increasing speed and assuring quality at significantly lower costs.
The idea of building twice as fast, for half the cost, to last twice as long is not a dream. That’s just the level of change that produces the kind of returns that these start-ups are aiming for. I absolutely believe that it’s possible if we set our minds to it.
Data will be vital in this new world. Learning from one project to another will be expected and knowledge will travel freely around the world via open-source networks. There will inevitably be questions about intellectual property. But the start-ups I work with give their elevator pitch in front of everyone — industry experts, investors, their peers, the competition. They also provide data about how successful their product has been in operation. Open source is god in the start-up world. They believe that if you share what you’re doing, you will gain from other people helping you and giving you free advice. It’s Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica.
For many of these firms, their concepts are proven and their greatest concern is adoption: how to get the industry to accept change. The most striking thing about start-ups is that they have no fear of the status quo. Instead of starting with the legal or technical reasons why something won’t work, they believe every problem can be solved by technology. There’s a solution to everything, and if somebody says no, it’s just one step closer to a “yes”.
Steve Burrows is a former executive vice president at WSP and a visiting lecturer at Stanford University