London Expo 2022 Recap: Implementing construction technology the right way

London Build Expo panel recap

London Build Expo is the leading UK construction and design trade conference, hosting over 500 speakers and more than 350 exhibitors; it covers nearly every aspect of construction. The 2022 edition of the event took place on 16 and 17 November at the Olympia London and featured 8 stages, each one devoted to a relevant contemporary theme in construction.

From left to right: Peter Gow (HS2), Derek Hefferman (Hines), Tony Lonergan (Canary Wharf), Matthew Price (Multiplex) and forum moderator Will Synnott (Disperse)

This year, Disperse was proud to host its own expert panel discussion at the Future of Construction Stage. Tony Lonergan, Head of Construction Planning at Canary Wharf Contractors, took to the podium, alongside Derek Hefferman, Director of Construction at Hines and Matthew Price, Project Manager for Multiplex. The panel was rounded out by Peter Gow, Senior Project Manager for High Speed 2 (HS2), a planned high-speed railway line in the north of the UK.

Will Synnot, Construction Technology Consultant and Director of Strategic Accounts for Disperse, acted as the forum's moderator. The theme of the discussion was how digital technology could help construction move forward, and it focussed particularly on how to adopt technology in the first place. 

Trying out new technologies 

The construction industry finds itself in a productivity rut. And everybody knows that the only way out is to keep trying out new technologies that might eventually help to turn things around. 

But even if new tech shows promise, starting to use it daily on your project is quite another matter. To approach this topic, we asked our panel how they decide which technologies to use and how they go about trialling them.

Derek Hefferman said that his company, Hines, has invested in a special innovation group to guide the implementation of new technologies. 

"The group identifies and selects startups that seem promising. Then we go on a journey with them. When we find something good, we don't just keep it for ourselves. We're always looking for ways to open source and help improve the industry."

"At Canary Wharf, we are all about value," said Tony Lonergan. "So when we invest in something, we try to prove that the product works. 

"We try to give products a serious chance. So rather than having someone come over and demo something for two weeks, we want to try it out over a period of 6 to 12 months.

"Then we evaluate. Not just from the standpoint of: does the product work? But also: will we use it? What can we do for this to be useful for us? Will we use it on the next project?"  

Peter Gow, speaking from a public sector perspective, stressed the role that large governmental organisations can play in trialling new technologies to help the industry along.   

"In construction, there is a massive 'Why me first?' culture," he said. "We tend to stick with things that are tried and true because we don't want any nasty surprises on-site. 

"But this attitude tends to drive behaviour around technology as well. And I think that's unfortunate. It's a dangerous stance. Because if you don't try out new things, you are already 10 years behind.  

"With HS2, we have a unique scale and unique long-term perspective. Because of that scale, we can try out things that contractors normally don't get around to testing because it's risky to try it out on a single small project.

"HS2 provides funding to the contractor through a scheme specifically designed to take, like Tony said, innovations through a 6 or 12-month trial period to see if they can bring any value. 

"And we need to do more of that as an industry. Accept that things might fail and improve them as we go."

London Build Expo 2022

Who takes responsibility?

If construction technology fails to deliver the value promised, it may, of course, be due to the software itself. But the panellists pointed out that construction companies could also do more to support the new technologies, particularly in terms of who takes responsibility.  

"We have seen an awful lot of innovations and clever ideas," said Tony Lonergan. "But they run out of traction very quickly.

"What typically happens is that initiatives are adopted with a lot of energy. And people look around to find a champion to carry the torch. That's often the youngest person in the room, usually a graduate.

"They will take to the task enthusiastically. And everybody else then walks away, thinking it's been taken care of. The graduate keeps at it for two, three months. And then starts to reflect on the situation. 

"By this time, they are the only one keeping the flame alive. And they realise that when the company took them on, it wasn't so they could become the company's software driver, but on the promise that they could grow and develop as a human being and in their chosen profession. And now that isn't really happening. 

"One day, the graduate goes on holiday. Nobody picks up the technology while they are away. The graduate decides during the holiday that they want to leave the company. And that's how the initiative dies."

The other panellists concurred. "There needs to be senior ownership," said Derek Hefferman.

The panel agreed that even though there is a lot of room for decisions about which tools to use at the project level — and how crucial it is secure buy-in at that level — there needs to be a definite and sustained push from the organisation's top.

Peter Gow: "The senior sponsor is fundamental. Nothing will work unless there is higher level support within the organisation.  

"And you've got to accept that it's going to be a bit funky, that it's going to sometimes not work, but you also need to recognise that there are great benefits to be had."

Engagement and continuity

If it’s futile to burden a single new employee with the responsibility for innovation, what are better ways to introduce and support new technologies at the project level? 

"You have got to engage everybody and continually revisit it," said Tony Lonergan. 

Derek Hefferman: "We know that when we bring in new technology, we are going to get different benefits for different people at different stages of the project."

"And typically, it's not explained to everybody. And unless everyone is taken on board, and a continuous effort is made, the story will always be the same: The tech will get introduced and then left behind.

"Projects might go on for years and people come and go. So we must continue to support the tech and the adoption and ingrain it into the budget if we want to see success."

Matt Price pointed out how his company, Multiplex, has been trying to ensure continuity by creating dashboards that monitor the effectiveness of innovations across all of its projects. 

"We have tried to standardise from the main office; to create standard operating procedures. Every project is different, but at least this way we are able to transfer skills and knowledge between projects."

Working with tech startups: the importance of feedback

In addition to making the whole organisation able to carry the new tech, the panellists indicated another factor for success: recognising that software, unlike buildings for example, seldom comes out fully formed. That there is a real need, and an opportunity too, for partnering with tech suppliers to help them improve their product iterations through constructive criticism.

“Technology companies are great at selling ideas," said Tony Lonergan. "But they need information to improve those ideas.

"We have found the most success with technology where we took an active role in criticising, applauding and challenging what the technology is doing for us. 

"And it's great to work with small startups because they can be flexible. It tends to be more difficult with bigger tech suppliers. 

"When we have found success with tech, it was always because we were setting the agenda.”

And:

"You have to have people that are willing to talk to people. And with all due respect to tech people, they often don't seem that interested in talking to other people." 

Derek Hefferman: "That's what sets Disperse apart, though. You actually engage with us. And we are busy, that's true. So it's hard for us to pause and give constructive criticism. But we also find that if we engage, ultimately we get a better product."

A single source of truth and a single, adaptable, plan

The panel said that the most pressing issue on any project is knowing where you are and where you are going, plus the ability to communicate that to everyone. And how helpful technology that makes this possible can be.  

If you don't have a single source of truth, they said, in terms of where the project stands, and no clear communication about the ever-changing plan everybody should follow, it virtually guarantees costly delays. 

"The biggest risk is people going off on their own tangent and creating inefficiencies,” said Matt Price. "But since construction is always changing, tech can assist us in navigating these changes. Much like in Formula 1 racing and retail, adaptability to changing circumstances is key. We should strive for that same level of adaptability in construction as well." 

Peter Gow: "It's knowing where you are and where you are going. A single source of truth is indispensable for that. In addition to that: what are the critical milestones coming up in a year? In two years? That's really valuable!" 

Derek Hefferman: "Having that information, that single source of truth, it puts it on the agenda. It removes the arguments. Because everybody sits down and can see the percentages complete, so it's front and centre. 

"And we start to see how we are tracking against our targets, whether we are hitting our timelines, if we are heading towards completion. It's a single focus and a single roadmap that determines our success."

Attracting the workforce of tomorrow

The panellists proceeded to take a broad view of the state of construction today and where they saw it headed.

Several panellists agreed that the industry needs to make itself more attractive for young people to work in, also because those digital natives are going to be the ablest carriers of the new technologies. 

"Thirty years ago, this was an attractive industry to work in," one of them said. "Now, not so much."

The influx of younger people and sustained support for innovation will be critical to construction's future success.

The future of tech

When asked about which innovations they would be excited to see happen in the near term, the panellists pointed to several nascent technologies.

Tony Lonergan said that he would love to see technologies that can talk to each other more.

Derek Hefferman expanded on that, and spoke about how buildings themselves will start to talk to us through advanced sensor technology. And that he would be interested to see how engineers and architects will adapt to that new context.

Peter Gow was excited about technology enabling designers to play around with the project in the early phases, making swift modelling adjustments with AI. 

But he also said he hoped that future tech could solve some of the thorny challenges looming large over the industry today.  

He pointed to the dismal productivity record of the sector as something that needed urgent addressing. And he said that he observed that the industry, despite many steps in the right direction, was still not yet there in terms of health and safety. If 4 people are dying, that is still impacting four families, he said. It's still four too many.

Matt Price concluded the discussion by saying that in ten years' time, he would love to see a more diverse and inclusive workplace. He also expressed the wish industry would make itself more appealing so that the next generation would flock to it.

And we wholeheartedly agree with that. 

Here is to a successful 2022 London Build Expo. We will love to see you next year at our booth or in the panel discussions. 

Can't wait that long for more from us? 

Check out Impulse, our new product: https://www.disperse.io/solution-platform-overview

Visit our homepage: https://www.disperse.io/

Read our blog: https://www.disperse.io/resources/blog 

Schedule a product demo: https://www.disperse.io/request-a-demo

Or watch a webinar to get acquainted at your own pace: https://www.disperse.io/resources/webinars 

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