Unlocking the future – five factors that drive innovation in the built environment

7 min read

It’s been a privilege to witness the built environment’s digital and technological development over the last ten years - with the last five of those years in particular offering really significant promise. 

However, the changing landscape brings with it an ever-growing need to move faster; to not only build things better but to build better things too. There are pockets of world-class innovation all across our sector but the pace of change still isn’t where it needs to be.

When examining why this is, it throws up a key question: what exactly is it that motivates our industry to innovate? Understanding the range of possible answers to this question is crucial - if we are to ensure the next decade is more progressive than the last.

1) Powering productivity 

Whether it is the efficiency or the productivity of a particular programme or site, new technology offers our industry the opportunity to enhance our service at a speed and scale we’ve never really seen before. 

From digital command centres and remote conferencing to the unlocking of the digital twin, projects are moving at a greater pace than ever. The speed with which projects are evolving means that there is now more data than ever before, with a 2021 report by Autodesk, citing that the volume of available project data has doubled since 2018. But according to that same report, bad data may have caused 14% of all construction rework, causing $88.69 billion in avoidable rework worldwide. So although there’s more information available than ever, we must innovate to properly utilise it.

The digital command centre, in particular, puts live progress reports directly into the hands of subcontractors, managers and leaders, facilitating faster and better-informed decision making at all levels. In recent trials at Paddington Square, we’ve seen a 15% increase in planned activity signoff as well as 1 day a week saved by the removal of manual data handling for all information managers. 

The push to constantly optimise productivity is a mainstay of every industry and the built environment is no different. Technological innovation is often the solution.

2) Going green

With almost 40% of carbon emissions attributable to the built environment, it is imperative that our industry continues to play its part in addressing the fight to save the planet. We must move faster and we must go bigger. Sustainability and innovation therefore go hand in hand, and the means by which we will create a greener and more energy efficient industry – before it’s too late. 

This includes whether we can not only reduce the amount of waste that we generate but also accelerate our application of new materials, like cement-free concrete. Approximately 2/3 of the global building area that exists today will still exist in 2040. Without widespread existing building decarbonization across the globe, these buildings will still be emitting CO2 emissions in 2040 and we will not achieve the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target. 

With this in mind, recent trials of Mace’s low carbon concrete cassettes yielded positive results in terms of both sustainability and productivity - lowering embodied carbon within the floorplate by up to 80%, vehicle movements to site by 40% and labour resources for steel frame erection and following trades by 60%. It’s the fight for changes like these that drives innovation across the industry, as we all strive to do more in pursuit of a sustainable world.

3) Reducing risk

By its very nature, the built environment can bring with it certain hazards and often, challenging work environments. The safety of each and every person who steps foot on a project is paramount at all times and like productivity, it’s an element of the industry that can be continually improved. 

This fact has driven innovation over the last decade as the industry continually makes improvements to the conditions under which we work. The merging of the digital and physical view of construction sites and the integration with training means our sector is using both augmented and virtual reality technologies to save time, reduce errors, prevent rework and create a long-term return on investment. Meanwhile, robotics, plant automation and off-site prefabrication are all ways in which technology can reduce the risks to a workforce.

Taking a data-led approach we must continually improve our risk management and reporting, training and activity management. Actively seeking out opportunities for improvement and building a learning culture keeps us moving forwards. 

4) Evolving environments

Big or small, crises almost always have a significant financial and human toll, resulting in both social and economic dislocation. However, it is from much of this disruption that new business models emerge. 

Most recently, the Covid 19 pandemic altered the business environment forever, forcing a rethink of office life and fast-tracking the remote and now hybrid working model. It is during periods of crisis like these that innovation is most important - a chance to identify and quickly address new opportunity being created by the changing landscape as well as build the foundation for postcrisis growth in order to remain competitive in recovery.

5) Regulatory reform

Innovation must be driven and supported from the very top. That means that it is not only the responsibility of industry leaders, but government bodies too. Policy changes can propel the industry into making the changes we often so desperately need. And so landmark rulings like the Building Safety Act are catalysts for industry transformation — to help create a safer, more productive, and digitally-driven industry. 

A prime example of this can be found within the most transformative element of the Act - the legal requirement for there to be a digital ‘golden thread’ of building information, created, stored and updated throughout a building’s life cycle. While the UK Government will not be mandating the use of specific software, it is likely this requirement will lead to the widespread digitalisation of construction data and adoption of BIM. 

Diverse drivers

What drives innovation in the built environment? Due to the diverse challenges we face every day, there is no single answer. How we build infrastructure in the Western world is very different to how we might design and build infrastructure in developing countries. And how we design and build a train station is very different to how we build a house. And that which is innovative today may not be innovative enough tomorrow. That’s why we must look beyond current climates, pre-empting possible future legislation to avoid unnecessary retrofit. 

But the real key may be in recognising the diversity of our drivers, and focusing on how we're innovating at different scales in each of the areas above. In doing so, it will allow us to: a) be more confident about what we're doing and b) incentivise us to move just that much faster. Because that second part is particularly vital – innovation begins today. So whatever your motivation, start now or risk being left behind. 
I want a better perspective on