Innovation in construction — the good and the necessary

Construction Scotland recently published its industry strategy for 2019 to 2022, identifying innovation as a key priority for the industry.

The organisation is set to — essentially — identify and promote the adoption of good ideas throughout the sector.

I fear they may be missing a trick.

In my experience, take up of new things in construction rarely, if ever, happens widely simply because they are “a good idea”.

Innovative products or practices are generally only universally adopted out of necessity.

Necessity the mother of invention?

When I started in the construction industry as a trainee construction lawyer in the late 90s, partnering was to be the way forward for the sector.

Stakeholders were to move away from their adversarial positions and come together for the greater good of the project.

Partnering is, of course, a “good” idea. But, it went against the grain of how the industry had worked before and crucially, despite all the clear benefits such an approach would bring to the sector and the downsides of not adopting it, partnering wasn’t (and isn’t) absolutely necessary.

Around the same time, a serious drive to improve health and safety on construction sites grew in momentum.

Unlike partnering, however, the government introduced the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations (commonly referred to within the industry as the CDM Regs) to make adoption of better health and safety practices a statutory necessity.

There were massive teething problems but, generally, health and safety in construction is in a much better place than it was 20 or so years ago.

Why the inertia?

When a new idea comes along there are often many who will point to reasons why it won’t work, or argue we’ve got along fine without it for years.

Such negative input, together with the fact change takes effort, generally leads to complete inertia in the adoption of innovation in all but the most forward-thinking of businesses.

And then when those businesses or groundbreaking projects fail, the naysayers can say, “well, I told you that would happen” and the failure gets added to the pile of ammunition that can be used in arguments against future innovation.

My view is that if we want the construction industry, as a whole, to properly innovate (rather than just have a few folk come up with really good ideas) we need to get much better at recognising what is truly necessary.

And if something is truly necessary it will get adopted regardless of any practical issues that need to be ironed out, or habits that have been built up over years.

What is “necessary”?

So how do we identify what’s “necessary”?

Governmental mandate is probably not the definitive answer.

The Scottish and UK Governments have both mandated the use of BIM Level 2, essentially an approach to the digitisation of design and construction information, on public sector projects, but actual adoption of BIM Level 2 has not been good.

Equally, identifying approaching cliff edges from patterns in statistics is probably too theoretical to be of practical benefit: they don’t deal with the here and now.

To me, something is “necessary” if it solves an existing or imminent issue. And, incidentally, we might not see something as being a problem until an alternative paradigm becomes apparent — think accessing websites before tablets and smartphones came along.

Getting to better

Looking at what others are doing — or have others look at what you are doing — with a view to getting feedback is probably the easiest way of identifying what you could do better, more efficiently, or at lower cost.

Forums where case studies are presented and interrogated are, therefore, probably as good a starting point as any.

I chaired a session on innovation in construction at the Build It Property and Construction Conference in Aberdeen towards the end of last year where that’s exactly what happened. Bringing together construction professionals for a similar event in the Highlands is something we’re keen to see soon — watch this space.

This article previously appeared in the Press and Journal's Leader publication.

Jennifer Young

Jennifer Young was elected to be the Chairman of Ledingham Chalmers in January 2012, after 20 years working as a construction lawyer with the firm.

Posted, 19 February 2019 by Jennifer Young
Categories: Construction

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