Let’s make construction more ‘social’

[This is a re-post of a blog article I wrote for Building Sustainable Design, which launched this week.]

I have spent more than half my career in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) and property industry looking at issues relating to collaboration, and since 2000 have been focused on how to use internet-based technologies to support collaboration. ‘Support’ is the operative word: people collaborate, not systems. Successful collaboration is only 20% technology, the other 80% is all about people and processes (the balance may even be more extreme: 10/90, perhaps).

So with this focus on ‘people’ it was perhaps inevitable that I got involved with ‘social media’ or ‘Web 2.0’. Broadly speaking, this relates to the use of web technologies and design to enhance creativity, information sharing, and, most notably, collaboration among users. Tools range from blogs, RSS feeds, iGoogle and social tagging to extranets, wikis and Second Life, to name but a few, running on PCs and, increasingly, mobile devices.

But what does all this have to do with creating a more sustainable built environment? For me and a growing number of others, quite a lot.

The climate change agenda is forcing major changes upon our industry. And it’s not just about more efficient energy use, reducing waste or safeguarding habitats. It’s about the ‘three Ps’; truly sustainable approaches strike a balance between environmental, social and economic factors, between Planet, People and Profit. As an industry we need to be thinking more holistically about how we can deliver a better, more sustainable built environment, from planning and design, through construction, to facilities management and beyond. Collaboration is the key.

Conventional, often insular and adversarial approaches to delivering building projects have proved very wasteful. More integrated, collaborative approaches hold out the possibility of creating long-term efficiencies gained by working together, in teams, through supply chains and across sectors, and by sharing information, ideas and experiences. Web 2.0 will help support such collaboration.

The Be2camp project

During the summer of 2008, a small group of construction bloggers and other enthusiasts organised a not-for-profit conference about Web 2.0 and the built environment. Held at the Building Centre in London in October, Be2camp featured live presentations alongside contributions from speakers in Australia and the USA, plus, most importantly, lots of debate and discussion – both face-to-face and online (in the spirit of open collaboration, the presentations, event recordings and some of the online discussions before, during and after Be2camp 2008 are all viewable here).

Public data, mapping, email overload, community networks, charrettes, carbon footprints, real-time building energy use, architecture in Second Life, and cloud computing all featured as topics – often with strong sustainability 3Ps messages.

Is construction anti-‘social’?

Since the event, the Be2camp website has supported an online network of AEC people interested in using Web 2.0 more widely. However, while that community continues to grow, there remains relatively little take-up of Web 2.0 among the wider construction industry. Compared to other sectors, there aren’t many construction blogs; few AEC professionals use Twitter; many remain ignorant of RSS feeds; and online discussion forums can end up dominated by cranks. Why such under-use?

  • First, while innovative in its use of some technologies, I think the industry is still quite conservative when it comes to new ICT tools.
  • Second, it is an age thing: according to surveys, the take-up of social networking tools is high among early career professionals but older age groups are less inclined to use them.
  • Third,  collaborative attitudes are often passively or even actively discouraged within construction businesses and project teams. In 2009 – the 15th anniversary of the Latham Report advocating ‘partnering’ – only a minority of projects (possibly less than a quarter) are created by integrated teams working collaboratively.

How do we change things?

  • Well, first, some change is inevitable. Blogging is increasingly common (Twitter even featured on the BBC news), many websites now feature RSS feeds; learning materials (eg: Pam Broviak’s guide) are starting to appear; and some AEC institutions are experimenting – the Institution of Civil Engineers is building networks using Ning and the RIBA has a wiki, for example.
  • Second, notwithstanding the current downturn, the industry still faces a skills shortage and web-savvy youngsters will be recruited and bring their collaborative attitudes and behaviours into the workplace. As when email became mainstream, managers and organisations will need to learn and to adapt their processes to meet the challenges and opportunities.
  • Finally, industry organisations such as Constructing Excellence, the Strategic Forum for Construction and professional bodies should be promoting collaboration – and Web 2.0 as part of its support mechanism – as a key component of truly environmentally, socially and economically sustainable construction.

Technology on its own won’t help us build a more sustainable construction industry, but it may offer 10% of the answer.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2009/02/lets-make-construction-more-social/