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Is digitisation of the construction industry such a big challenge? 

Neil Thompson, Digital Transformation - Civil Engineering & Advanced Technology, Atkins & Delivery Manager, Digital Built Britain

I’m part of the millennial generation, so most of my social life has evolved around using technology. I’m part of the first generation to be going into an established workplace with this mindset about how things should work. Even in my first job I was thinking: “Wow. The way that we build things is quite strange. Surely there must be an easier way of doing this.” Since then every job I’ve had has revolved around applying technology to those processes.

I’ve worked for family companies, to large design companies and both small and large contractors. I’ve been quite privileged to have had a high level of exposure to the industry from different parts of the supply chain. With that perspective and my academic background in construction economics and engineering, I have a unique view on how we can bring about change in the construction industry and do things in a far more efficient way. 

Is digitisation in the construction industry such a big challenge?
I used to have a different point of view before the EU referendum. Let me explain…

Regardless of which way voters went, campaigners on both sides of the debate simply didn’t provide enough information to help them make a truly informed decision. It was difficult to convince people either way. This is similar to digitisation because there are a lot of unknowns. Many people simply can’t grasp the need for change, or what that change might look like, because it hasn’t been communicated effectively to them. If we were unable to give a clear argument for why staying in the EU is beneficial, trying to convince people of something that’s not very tangible, like digitising the way we work, is almost impossible. 

A lot of people that I’ve come across don’t seem like they’re open to digitising construction. You say to them, “Hey, we should do things in a different way” and their answer is, “Well, I’ve been doing it this way for 20 years why should I change it?” But if you ask them, “What phone have you got?” nearly all of them have smartphones. If you reframe the question, and ask them how they share digital space in their personal life, they realise actually quite a lot of digitisation has already happened. My career has been about working out the optimum way to make those clear arguments so people understand that digitisation is important

Two approaches to help drive digital transformation
The first, and I think the most important, is leadership. We need strong leadership in all of our disciplines in order to provide people with the inspiration to want to become digital. But leadership is a top-down approach and can only get you so far.

The second approach is providing a platform for grassroots implementation. So, splitting things up into small, achievable tasks. Practitioners on the ground can actually implement things. We also need to take a ‘train the trainers’ approach, so you don’t teach the first set of people just how to use it, you give them the skills so they can teach others. It’s a viral networking approach to getting technology out there.

Neil is speaking at CIRIA's exclusive member event: 'The future of construction: the next 30 years' on 25 September. Register via the CIRIA event page

You can read Neil's series of blogs 'A market for lemons in construction' on LinkedIn

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