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Conference Spotlight: ConTech 2019

I recently attended the inaugural technology conference, ConTech, put on by Construction News in The Brewery, London. And whilst the food far exceeded standard conference fare, sadly there was no beer on offer!

Visiting the conference with UK Connect, who we started work with earlier this year, I was keen to see what was happening in the sector, and learn a few things about how the industry is starting to embrace digitisation.

The sector is generally lagging in the adoption of digital innovation. Lilly Gallafent of Cast Consultancy opened her address by citing Farmer’s words from his 2016 report, stating the sector must ‘modernise or die’. It was interesting to hear how some companies are starting to make waves here. From Skyports’ flying taxis that will help transport people and cargo around cities, to apps that measure soil movement, and PPE that can track if a contractor has fallen over. The speakers certainly demonstrated how innovation is being used to solve some of the challenges. With a single track, and two round-table sessions that allowed the delegates to network and discuss the topics raised, there was a healthy mix of future-pathfinding innovations and more practical takeaways.

Hailing from the digital product space, one of the most interesting themes for me was the value that data can offer. It’s no secret to any industry that in order to improve the efficiency of your organisation, you first need to understand how it’s operating. One simple way to do this is by recording then analysing data and trends. For the construction industry to maximise productivity, increase margin and improve health and safety, access to data is key, and this is perhaps where they are falling behind. The sector is still heavily reliant on pen, paper and cupboards of files that have to be manually searched, and are often siloed within the site.

Matt Keen, a construction industry strategist at Autodesk, shared his thoughts on the value of allowing people at the top of the chain access to real-time data. Whilst more digital tools are starting to be used on construction sites, one of the hurdles faced is when top-level stakeholders don’t have oversight of the business operations, and access to the project level information. This is often due to interoperability between platforms. 

If this barrier can be removed and access provided to this data at a wholesale level, then it can be used to start driving change and specific business outcomes. The construction market contains a lot of risk, which often equates to lower margins. So, by reducing the risk, through acquisition of data and knowledge, margins can be increased. Simple, right!? You do, however, need to work out what data you need to collect in order to understand how you can use it to improve, which is often the challenge.

The most shocking stat I learnt during the day was how construction has only seen a 6% rise in productivity over the past 100 years, compared to agriculture's 1300% rise.

Adding to this, a common theme was that people are still one of the biggest hurdles preventing construction companies from digitising, whether at site level, or because the senior level sponsorship isn’t there, or, it’s just too much of a change to kickstart. However, companies need to start investing in innovation and investing in the future. The industry is driven by and centred around cost, yet there’s still a lack of understanding around the value data can bring, and the direct result it can have on cost. There needs to be a willingness to pay more to get the data that can ultimately help you save in the long run. Similarly to Keen, David Bray of Highways England delivered the message that ‘having understanding allows you to do something different’ and reinforced the fact that without the knowledge that data can bring, it’s hard to know how to change and innovate. 

The most shocking stat I learnt during the day was how, compared to agriculture which has seen a 1300% growth in productivity over the past 100 years (largely through technological innovation), construction has only seen a 6% rise. And when positioned against the fact that the construction industry output contributes more than 6% of UK GDP, you start to realise the possibility for the industry if it embraces technology head-on. The industry needs to cultivate an environment where technology is adopted by all, and it’s being used effectively and smartly by all levels of the workforce; from site worker to decision maker. 

There’s some exciting tech out there—smart watches, high-vis vests with built in GPS trackers, geofencing—which all offer huge potential and are starting to be adopted. However, this tech also requires the adoption of platforms that can harness the data acquired. The data needs to be available so that it can be analysed and used at a higher level within the business to enable process and operations to be refined. 

Lilly Gallafent spoke about one of the biggest blockers stopping the industry from moving to the digital workplace is the lack of appropriate software. The solutions available are often not designed with construction in mind, which understandably makes adoption harder.  

Our work with UK Connect has led to the development of a new digital platform, OneSite, which is responding directly to this need. By working with Site Workers and Health and Safety Managers in the industry to understand some of the biggest challenges they face, and which data is of most value to operational efficiency, we’re looking to harness technology to modernise process and the availability of data on a construction site. 

Watch this space to hear more about the work we are doing once we’re allowed to talk more about it!

Previous Conference Spotlights from the Kyan team:

Legal Geek & Legal Design Geek 2019 by Kristin Devey
Women of Silicon Roundabout 2019 by Amy Callaghan
Lead Dev London 2019 by Tom Winter
Full Stack London 2018 by Erica Porter
London Fintech Week by Ben Horsley-Summer
Paris.rb by Erica Porter
UX London by Rob Edwards
Bath Ruby by Karen Fielding
Rails Conf 2018 by Stephen Giles