The built environment faces a challenging future
Author: Dr Seyed Ghaffar, PhD, CEng, MICE, MICT, FHEA
The ability of the built environment sector to rise to the urgent needs of the 21st Century remains central to guarantee sustained prosperity for society. Global population growth and inflated urbanization is creating a serious shortage of housing, a growing list of aging infrastructure in desperate need for upgrade, and an ongoing climate emergency is causing natural disasters requiring both protection and reconstruction. There is also an urgent need to mitigate and overcome all these issues while also mitigating carbon emissions to reduce the risk of global warming. Additionally, the construction industry is experiencing a shortage of skilled labour. More digitalization can play a significant role in making the construction industry attractive for younger generations and in contributing towards making construction sites a safer working environment.
As one of the major sectors, and a cornerstone for economic competitiveness and the social well-being of citizens, the built environment sector is one of the least digitized and automated . In fact, the built environment sector has been lagging neighbouring sectors for a long time, which might mean that there is a lack of understanding in what is considered innovation in construction, rather than what should happen to transform it. This has led to stagnating productivity , lack of performance optimization in products, long-term health hazards, and a general loss of attractiveness as a career for the next generation of engineers. Although, it is difficult to invest in R&D as the profit margins are tight for the stakeholders in the build environment and breakthrough technologies require high initial capital to be invested for their industrial scale developments.
This is where research institutions, universities and government funding can play a significant role in driving scientific boundaries. A closer harmony and collaboration between businesses and research institutions focused on the implementation of innovation in construction is therefore extremely important. Multidisciplinary research and development efforts with synergy in the fields of digital, software, design, materials engineering, manufacturing and resource management to enhance sustainability, simplicity and scalability of modern methods of construction in the built environment are important. Testing and certification play a significant role, and the relevance of the information that is produced has become more critical than ever before.
Given the crucial need for change, it is not surprising that there is a global trend towards greater digitalization in the built environment using breakthrough technologies supporting technological sovereignty. The built environment requires exemplar projects where stakeholders demonstrate integrated advanced technologies such as additive manufacturing, autonomous vehicles for construction activities, human robot collaboration (Cobots), autonomous maintenance, diagnostics, and monitoring.
What is innovation in the built environment sector?
The built environment is experiencing a major evolution as it embarks on an era of structured information and information exchange. The discipline of design began with pen and ink using drafting boards, then evolved to Computer Aided Design (CAD), and has now progressed to using data-rich digital representations using Building Information Modelling (BIM). As the built environment continues to evolve as part of the 4th industrial revolution, it is essential that the built environment continues to invest, research, vigorously test, interpret data and implement breakthrough technologies to ensure that the sector remains competitive and is ready to address global challenges, such as human overpopulation, resource scarcity, and climate change. Innovation in the built environment sector simply means a paradigm shift, a new era in which a range of emerging technologies are joined together to provide new digitally enabled solutions.
What is missing?
Much has been written and discussed about breakthrough technologies, transformation of the built environment, innovation to drive change, and the digital futures that may emerge . Conversely, there is a lack of practical information about how companies can benefit and implement new technologies in real life projects. However, developments in Building Information Modelling are promising where standards, guidance and tools have made a difference.
Smart manufacturing, smart products, and a smart supply chain are important elements for successful, effective and efficient implementation of innovation in the built environment. The built environment sector is of high strategic importance, but it is overwhelmed with inefficiencies, low productivity, resource wastage, and environmental issues associated with poorly planned developments. Innovations and rapid changes in construction processes due to digitalisation and globalisation showcase the importance of developing emerging skills to future-proof both professional and vocational workforces that pave the way ahead for smart and modern construction.
The call to action and the agenda of the built environment is driven by the need to become more sustainable, safer, and to evolve the way data is used and interpreted in decision-making. It is important for the industry to work even more closely together, and drive the transformation needed to minimise the impact the construction industry has on the environment.
Dr. Ghaffar is an Associate Professor of Civil Engineering. He is a Chartered Civil Engineer, a Member of the Institute of Concrete Technology and a Fellow of Higher Education Academy. He has authored more than 50 peer-reviewed journal papers and recently edited a book titled "Innovation in construction". He has been successful in attracting research grants of circa £6 million on 8 projects funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, British Council and the European Commission.