An incredible journey. This was how Josine Heijmans, Vice President – Construction, dmg events, described The Big 5 Digital Festival, during an exclusive interview with Climate Control Middle East. The flagship annual event in the construction sector migrated online in anticipation of the difficulties surrounding local and international travel owing to COVID-19. However, Heijmans said, the current roadblocks have only served to strengthen the industry’s resolve to work together. “This pandemic has shown more sharply than ever that the unprecedented challenges we are facing cannot be dealt with by single players alone,” she said. “They can only be addressed, and successfully overcome, if the community joins forces. This is exactly the magic that we saw happening at The Big 5 Digital Festival.”
During the event, Heijmans said, thousands of experts and industry professionals tuned in from around the world with the aim of restarting business, building strategic connections, gaining inspiration from powerful ideas and getting a clear vision of what’s next in construction and the economy at large. “It has been exceptional to witness the incredible strength, resilience and engagement of the construction industry,” she said.
“The level of interactivity seen at The Big 5 Digital Festival, and the tone of discussions heard, has really shown us just how important it is to have all construction disciplines come together in order to effectively deliberate and showcase what the future of the industry looks like.” In the course of the festival, a key topic of discussion was the construction sector’s contribution to wider economic recovery. For Simon Rubinsohn, Chief Economist, RICS, public investment in infrastructure and construction is a key aspect to the delivery of the recovery over the next year and beyond. Public investment has an absolutely pivotal role in driving medium-term recovery, he said, because the fiscal multipliers and the knock-on effects of that investment would be stronger than other forms of government intervention. To this end, Rubinsohn highlighted the pivotal role that policymakers play in stimulating the construction and infrastructure sector. Rubinsohn was quick to point out, however, that it is imperative that new developments and construction infrastructure are really built to a different standard and with the intention of meeting high sustainability criteria. “I think we also need to really focus on building the skills to manage the economic transition,” he said.
THE MOVE TOWARDS HEALTHY BUILDINGS
In addition to sustainability, developing the built-environment, keeping in mind the health and wellbeing of occupants, was a key point of discussion during the event. This issue is especially relevant in the time of COVID-19, said Mina Hasman, RIBA, Lead Sustainability and Wellbeing Operations, SKIDMORE, OWINGS & MERRILL (SOM), United Kingdom. “When we think of people’s health, we may not have immediately created a direct link to
architecture before, but I believe the COVID-19 pandemic is changing that perspective,” she explained. “We have a renewed focus on the ways we interact with one another but also with the built-environment. I would even say that it has brought these concepts of architecture and health to the mainstream.” Hasman said that currently, it’s not only professionals in the-built environment, scientists, researchers and medical experts that have a clear grasp on how people’s health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked to the spaces they inhabit and occupy. “It’s in everyone’s conscious and awareness, especially today, where our lives have been confined to rather limited boundaries of the buildings and the spaces that we live in or work,” she said.
Weighing in, Ann Marie Aguilar, Senior Vice President, EMEA, International Well Building Institute, United Kingdom, said that health and wellbeing are increasingly being viewed as staple consideration toward environmental, social and governance criteria (ESG) investment, and that investing in these aspects would be beneficial for businesses. “Companies that have historically prioritised health in past financial crises saw a lower employment burnout, increased productivity and higher job satisfaction, and that allowed them to get through a very typically economic, challenging time,” she said. “We are in the firm belief that ESG is going to be a very strong movement, going forward; many believe that healthy buildings eventually will lead to market differentiation and return, which would obviously include better rents and better tenant retention.” In line with this, Jennie Binchy, Director, Binchy and Binchy, UAE, highlighted the importance of monitoring assets, post-design, to ensure that buildings and real estate are truly promoting health and wellbeing to occupants. “Beyond designing for health and wellbeing, it is crucial to develop processes to monitor developed spaces,” she said. “Sure, you have the right kind of shading, you’re using high-quality materials, you have low VOC and all else that we work to achieve, but is the light quality right for the end-user? Is the water clean? When you begin to monitor, you can actually use that information to see how well your building is actually functioning and how well the inhabitants are functioning inside the space.”
PROMOTING BETTER BUSINESS PRACTICES
While the growing awareness on the importance of better indoor environmental quality continues to have a positive momentum, the discussions during the event also highlighted the need to cultivate better business practices within the industry to move away from cost-centric thinking. Dr Mazen Skaf, Managing Director and Partner, L.E.K., said, “We need to move away from a transactional mindset in the construction industry, where people look for the lowest cost provider.” A commitment to long-term repeated interaction would contribute towards building trust, Dr Skaf said, adding that this is key factor to minimising risk and developing more sustainable relations between construction stakeholders. “No matter how well designed a contract is, if there is no trust between the parties, it’s going to show up in various dynamics that will undermine the quality of the project and the overall delivery of the project,” he added.
Nicky Dobreanu, Business Development Board Member, Chartered Institute of Building, also weighed in to discuss other challenges within the construction industry – cashflow issues and the domino effect of late invoicing, highlighting the role that supply chain finance systems can play in combatting these issues. Through supply chain finance, Dobreanu said, computers can be optimised to analyse data such as payment history and invoice behavior to understand and to predict some patterns. “You can also use that to infer credit and spot fraud,” he said, adding that it would
allow stakeholders to make an informed decision on whether they are willing to do business with a contractor or client with an established pattern of late payments. Despite the potential of such a platform, Dobreanu admitted that the adoption of SCF faces many challenges, including lack of training, differing buyer-supplier objectives, lack of top management commitment, low interest rate from suppliers and the cost of adoption.
‘DATA IS THE NEW CURRENCY’
Although smart solutions continue to face challenges when it comes to adoption, the inevitable march towards digitalisation remains unstoppable, according to stakeholders, such as Dr Jacques Khouri, Head of Digital Transformation and Innovation, Dar Al-Handasah, who emphasised that in construction, data is the new currency. “The more data you have, the better you manipulate it,” he said. “The more knowledge you will have, the less interrupted operations you will have for the facility, and then you will have more customers, more clients and more passengers; whoever is dealing with the building will be happier and more comfortable.”
Following this line of thinking, Yewande Akinola, Innovation Lead, Laing O’Rourke, said while price remains at the heart of the conversation in the construction sector, with many customers fixated on cost, there is a way to leverage technology to provide price fixity that will be beneficial for everyone in the supply chain. In agreement was Marie-Luce Godinot, Executive Vice President – Digital Transformation, IT, Innovation and Sustainable Development, Bouygues Construction, who discussed how digital platforms provide teams with the opportunity to optimise internal processes. “Previously, it was very difficult in our industry to capitalise on ideas and learnings from one project to another project,” she said. “You always had to fill in forms or to make some papers, and people onsite don’t want to do that because at the end of the project, they are already on another project.”
Dr Ozan Koseoglu, Associate Professor – Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences, UOWD, said that when it comes to following a digital roadmap, the first priority for companies should be to disrupt the existing models to see the new business value across the lifecycle. “I think all the companies are going through this journey that is beyond just the technology,” he said, adding that the winning strategy is dependent on the business model and how the smart solutions will be used to reinforce their strategic position in the process. “The last 20 years, we experienced a lot of difficulties and challenges in adoption because of this, but over the next five years, I believe, at least from what I’ve seen, there is going to be a quicker adoption and a steeper curve,” he said.
The importance of integration was also highlighted by Jason Singleton, Vice President, Buildings – Middle East, AECOM. “We’ve got loads of data, but we need to know how to convert that into useful information to inform decisions, inform plans and make better assets in the builtenvironment,” he said. To achieve this, Singleton highlighted the need for the construction industry to strengthen its collaboration with the software industry. “We need people who bring other skills into our industry,” he said. “Data analytics, data information management, and data governance – these are all things that we’re grappling with as an industry.”
Keith Churchill, Corporate Manager – Construction Technology, Bechtel Corporation, was quick to point out that the growing adoption and reliance of such technologies should be tempered with the correct cybersecurity measures. He pointed out that the risk of a cybersecurity breach on the operational technology is something that’s really undervalued by the whole industry, including clients and suppliers. “As we take this next step into wireless cloud-based solutions, we’re opening ourselves up for a safety incident or some kind of an event that could really cause personal harm or to the facility or to the environment,” he said. “We need to protect ourselves, and we need to take measures in order to understand how to do that.”
CPI industry would like to thank dmg events for facilitating the interviews and for sharing inputs from speakers, which went a long way in preparing this report.