Tech, cities and a new era of collaboration


Those who work to create our built environment, like the architects, consultants, contractors and engineers, imagined that the most we would have to worry about this year would be bemoaning the state of the Brexit negotiations or decrying the latest Chancellor’s budget announcements. 

Covid-19 changed our personal and commercial landscape in days. With lives still being lost at an alarming rate, the UK government and others across the globe have been forced to plunder the vaults as they seek to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep their country’s economies on life support until light appears at the end of this gloomy tunnel, it is to the future that I find myself looking for glimmers of hope.

There is no doubt that, for all those operating to create homes, hospitals, roads and rail projects this virus poses a real threat to both life and livelihood. But perhaps there are opportunities emerging, too.

While physical borders remain closed, countries are working together to identify prevention and control mechanisms, sharing resources and information like never before. By using technology to promote data sharing, and by finding ways to make sure huge swathes of the workforce are able to maintain, and in many cases accelerate, productivity remotely – so it has been possible to mobilise the supply chain from the top down and deliver complex projects at record speed.

Digital tools like Building Information Modelling have really shown their worth – allowing businesses to come together to create plans and technical drawings for new facilities within just a couple of days, while construction and fit-out phases of both these and existing builds have been expedited and co-ordinated in real-time via online platforms to great effect.

Technological advances mean that today teams can meet virtually to discuss digital plans which can be examined in minute detail from every angle, at any time.

One example of enforced change has been the creation of the Nightingale and Rainbow hospitals, not only produced quickly and efficiently by our teams but also employing modern methods of construction like modular assembly whereby chunks of the buildings are developed off site and bolted together en-situ.

This saved around 25 per cent of the time it would normally take to build and reduced the need for risky on-site activity by builders.

I am hopeful that we, as an industry, retain some of the flexibility which has been forced upon us and embrace chances to work together with our clients and even rivals, for mutual gain.

Looking ahead to how the global landscape may yet evolve off the back of this catastrophe, it seems inevitable that the demand for smart cities will grow further still. If we consider South Korea, for example, we can see how tech has been instrumental in limiting the human cost of covid-19 and it is likely that other nations will seek to install this kind of infrastructure in tomorrow’s cities.

Personally, I would like to think that businesses and politicians alike will not only learn from the mistakes made during these unprecedented times, but also consider what has been achieved and acknowledge the very real benefits of encouraging continued co-operation in the long-term.

Historically, the construction industry has not been one in which a culture of collaboration has been fostered, but perhaps our joined-up response to this pandemic will be a catalyst for change here, too.

I certainly hope so.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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