Joe Bradbury discusses the fourth industrial revolution which is currently underway and what digitisation and technological advancement might spell for our industry:

We find ourselves on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution. Industrial Revolution, in modern history, can be defined as the process of change from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacturing. This process began in Britain in the 18th century and from there spread to other parts of the world.

What has come to be known by modern historians as the first Industrial Revolution lasted from the mid-18th century to around 1830 and was mostly confined to Britain. The second Industrial Revolution lasted from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century and took place in Britain, continental Europe, North America, and Japan.

The third revolution spread even further still, bringing about the rise of electronics, telecommunications and computers. These new technologies changed our world drastically, opening the doors to space expeditions, digital research, and biotechnology.

In 2017 data finally surpassed oil in value. Welcome to a new age.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is now well underway, and can be described as the coming together of multiple advances within the fields of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, quantum computing, etc.

The term itself describes perfectly the ever-dissolving boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological. As technology and digitalisation gains pace, so too does our newfound dependency upon it; as such many products and services of modern life are quickly becoming indispensable. Where would we be now without GPS, virtual reality, BIM, robotics and social media? Are we hooked on innovation? Will it be the making of us or our undoing? …Only time will tell!

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is definitely paving the way for hugely transformative changes in not only our perception, but also the way we live and work on a day-to-day basis. Change is underway, radically disrupting almost every business sector. The construction industry is of no exception to this, rippling to the shockwaves. How will 4IR affect us?

What 4IR means for construction

Even a quick scan of trade media outlets will show you that the future of the construction industry is a highly debated topic. Will it be offsite? Will it be smart homes? Will it be social housing? Will it be modular? Will it be sustainable? We ask many questions and posit many well-informed answers, but when doing so we are essentially gazing into a crystal ball.

One thing we can agree on is that you simply cannot stay the same in a world that is changing. This is a recipe for disaster. It is widely accepted that the construction sector has been slow to adapt to change in recent history. Indeed, this unwillingness to break from the norm is the very reason why offsite has not been adopted to anywhere near the levels it should be in order to meet modern demand and make a meaningful dent in the current housing crisis, in spite of its huge potential.

Regardless of the latest advancements in technology, cost and schedule over-runs are still considered normal and labour productivity has not kept pace with economic productivity. Of course, there are always many unforeseen challenges that arise when rolling out new technology at scale across a complex supply chain such as the construction industry, but simply soldiering on as we always have done is not the answer. These are challenges that must be overcome.

How to change along with the world

There are numerous technologies around that can greatly assist companies in digitally transforming, with new ones continually coming to the fold. The first stage in making sure we keep up with the rate of change being brought about by the fourth industrial revolution begins in our mind. We must embrace technology, with a positive mindset towards change, and make it work for us. This change of mindset is fundamental to the success of our industry in a modern age.

The push for sustainability

The UK construction industry is currently responsible for 45% of total UK carbon emissions, 32% of all landfill waste and is responsible for more water pollution incidents than any other industry. We are the largest consumer of natural resources in the UK today; a stark point that highlights just how high up on the agenda reconsideration of our building practices should be. The impact of our materials usage on the environment in of itself is staggering; a recent report by Willmott Dixon Group suggested that the construction industry alone is accountable for around 45-50% of global energy usage, nearly 50% of worldwide water usage, and around 60% of the total usage of raw materials.

The good news is that 4IR is bringing about the knowledge, skills and technology to facilitate real change in the world.

Growing demand for environmental solutions is driving innovation within the areas of building operations, site design, maintenance, repair and demolition and recycling. This is a positive thing, leading us to strive for zero energy buildings and sustainable indoor environments through the development of technologies such as renewable heating and smart devices.

Efficiency is becoming a much larger focus, and as such materials need to be cost-effective, durable and low impact on the environment. A challenge, no doubt; but one that we will benefit from greatly in overcoming it.

The need for safety post-Covid

The Covid pandemic will also play a huge role in shaping the world of tomorrow. Empowering the workforce to work remotely, flexibly and more adeptly will be ever more important over the coming years. We cannot afford all of this lockdown nonsense again. Will increased uptake of cloud services drive efficiency and increase productivity? Only if we embrace this change with an open mind!

This area of change will take some getting used to. However, the need for businesses to continue operating throughout this pandemic they have had to adapt quick to their workforce working from home, and out of necessity great innovations have taken place in order to facilitate this. Perhaps in the future AI, bots, and chat options will enable businesses to digitalise and automate the front office… but it cannot replace the need for customer interaction entirely.

We have all felt the frustrations of speaking to a bot on a phone!

In summary

The world seems to be changing so quickly now that the debate on whether or not it is a good thing is becoming irrelevant. In order for industries to survive and thrive, they must be open to change. Our role in this must not be that of a luddite. We must dive into it and ensure we take every step in our power to get it right. If we do this, the rewards and benefits that new technologies can bring to our industry will be huge, justifying the time we must now devote to its adoption.

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