Welcome to the future. It probably isn’t shaping up the way it was expected. We haven’t perfected technology in the way so many movies had predicted. If the movie “Back to the Future” held any amount of truth, the world would have been travelling around in style with flying cars back in 2015. Oftentimes the future is synonymous with change; one always following the other. Arguably, the global pandemic taught us a great deal as change appeared to happen almost overnight.
COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our society and many businesses have adopted technology at a faster rate due to necessity. Prior to the pandemic, touchless technology was just starting to gain market share, but arguably skyrocketed in terms of interest as people hunkered down in their homes, which also became the office for a lot of Canadians.
Another example would be the introduction of online-based systems across the construction sector. For the commercial industry, it was no different. Although, some of these technological innovations had already begun prior to the pandemic, explains David Bowcott, global director of growth, innovation and insight for the Global Construction and Infrastructure Group and Aon. “I see as a whole, the industry has been slow to adopt. It’s not a secret that globally the construction industry is one of the slower in adopting technology, but in the last five years it has picked up pace quite a bit.”
Back in 2019, Bowcott spoke at the Mechanical Contractors Association of Canada’s (MCAC) Innovation Conference, which was held at the Beanfield Centre at the Exhibition Place in Toronto. “The status quo is not an option. What made companies relevant in the past won’t necessarily work today. The industry needs to evolve with the times,” explained Bowcott, when he spoke at the Innovation Conference in 2019.
During his presentation, he listed trends that were expected to be part of the future of commercial construction. This included prefabrication and modular builds, advanced building materials, 3D printing, autonomous construction, artificial al intelligence, big data, wireless monitoring, cloud and real-time, 3D scanning, and building information modelling (BIM). “BIM, the cloud, internet of things (IoT) and 3D digital scanning are currently the biggest players, but there is a potential for machine learning to be a real game-changer in the industry,” explained Bowcott when asked to look back at the conference three years ago. “The cloud is pretty stable, and you can actually hook up IoT devices. The fact you’ve got these nerves effectively in the asset that can tell you whether there’s dampness or tilting of structure. IoT plays a massive role.”
When it comes to the labour shortage, its expected by those in the industry that prefabrication and modular construction will play a key role. “Prefabrication and modular construction is one of the means by which you may see a skilled labour challenge addressed because if there are fewer workers on the job, you can now focus on work in a closed, controlled environment for prefabrication and modular construction and bring that to the job site,” explains Ken Lancastle, chief operating officer with MCAC.
While the industry has made good strides in this facet, there still is more work to be done. “I think as a whole, the industry is making some good strides with respect to adopting new technologies and new innovations, but I think there’s certainly a recognition that the industry can do more and that there’s room to adopt new technologies and innovations,” said Lancastle.
The adoption process for many of these new technologies can sometimes be slowed down due to red tape. Sometimes this can mean quite a few additional hurdles, “I think number one, the owner and design community aren’t really educating themselves around the technology as much as they should be. Second, contractors and the industry as a whole have thin margins so for them to take a risk and try different technologies, it could be a pretty costly risk. Lastly, the complexity of things means there’s so many different technologies and it can be confusing to learn them all,” explains Bowcott.
The industry appears to recognize this red tape and has found solutions to some of its problems. “Procurement can be a challenge with respect to technology adoption but as we see a move to more collaborative procurement and contracting methods, I think you’ll start to see more innovation occurring in the industry,” said Lancastle. “Having a more collaborative contracting methodology will allow contractors, consultants, and owners to work together to create more innovation in construction and on a project could even be brought in earlier on in the procurement to allow for innovations to occur earlier in the construction process.”
This is also where BIM shines. “It is a significant component in allowing mechanical contractors to take advantage of the productivity improvements that can occur as a result of BIM being involved,” said Lancastle.
According to Bowcott’s presentation back in 2019, commercial construction is into its fourth industrial revolution and the connectivity of all things is at the forefront of this innovation. Looking back on this stance, Bowcott still sees the commercial construction sector in the beginning stage of a fourth industrial revolution and that it has been coming since the assets in the built environment are becoming more aware of potential problems. “Hopefully this leads to us experiencing less unexpected events in the assets,” he explains.
Unexpected global events, like the pandemic and climate change, has hindered the progress that was happening within the industry. According to Bowcott, “Without a doubt we are entering a new phase of economy which is when the built environment becomes more aware even predictive, and this should lead to less friction overall.”
There has been a lot of progress in the industry since the conference was held back in 2019, reports Lancastle. “I think what’s really going to be the game-changer with respect to the connectivity of all things is the advent of 5G.” This should allow for faster networks and seamless integration. The adoption of cloud and real-time technology, big data, and wireless monitoring are just some examples from Bowcott’s list of technologies that will be directly impacted by 5G.
“As a collective whole, we sit on a lot of data and there are tons of data that happens on every single project. The ability to understand that data and to harness it is important and 5G can be a game-changer because it will allow for that real-time data to occur without lag,” explains Lancastle.
New buildings will have to embrace more energy-conscious technology moving forward as Canada moves closer to its commitment of being net-zero by 2040. The industry understands the important role it will play in making these net-zero requirements, explains Lancastle. “We know the important role that construction plays with respect to meeting the net-zero requirements both in terms of new construction but also, more importantly, existing buildings and retrofitting buildings to net zero.”
Bowcott is calling on our industry to come together and figure out how we can work towards our goal because the tools are there — “It’s just a matter of figuring out how to make them work.”