A New Civil Engineer‘s article by Fred SHERRATT tries to answer How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?’ Preceding these excerpts and highlights through our bolds with all due respect for all involved are our thoughts.
The debate about the digital transformation of the construction industry in its different markets across, for instance, the MENA region, has been well surveyed on projects through the role of technology in shaping the next phase of development.
The impact of digitalisation in the region’s construction will encompass a radical change in all sectors. Such sectors as electricity and transport, particularly road construction, are naturally, as it were, prone to be digitally handled through automation with a certain ease. According to many observers, the building industry though being, as it were, more vernacular in its diversity and composition, would require still lots of digital innovation and eventually be a crucial driver of future growth in the construction industry. Collected data on what digitisation means for the construction industry to be spent on in the MENA region illustrates well over the recent past. Most concerns are for those countries of the Gulf whether the future’s Construction sites will be people-free’ for obvious reasons and the opposite for the rest of the MENA region.
The picture above is for illustration and is of The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Ahmad Sufian Bayram.
How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?
Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution! Under Construction 4.0 robots lay bricks and drones carry out surveys. Improved connectivity and data management means AI and machine learning can plan projects better than humans ever could. Building information modelling (BIM) has blossomed, projects completed in the virtual world before ground is even broken. Computer controlled craftsmanship optimises design, whilst the Internet of Things enables the use of real-time data processing and digital twins to optimise delivery on site.
Fred Sherratt is the interim deputy dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Anglia Ruskin University
And for an industry told to Modernise or Die this could not have come at a better time.
Construction 4.0 promises increased efficiencies, enhanced and optimised productivity. Not to mention savings of time and money through reductions of labour, material and processing costs. This is trumpeted across the industry through voices heavy with technological optimism, industrial progress, all the benefits and rewards this revolution will bring, as well as scare stories for those not getting on board now – you’ll be left behind if you miss the boat!
But maybe we should think a little more critically about this. Because we have been here before. Three times to be precise.
And, it hasn’t always gone well. Not least because technology is not neutral, as Jacque Ellul argued in 1954. The underlying rational and objective methods that drive its implementation also instil within it an autonomy and amorality that is potentially dangerous. People and industries are compelled to adapt to technological change – as who but a Luddite would challenge all the promises it brings? – but such change is not always positive. History shows that technology can fundamentally disrupt the ways industries are structured and operate: workers are not just replaced by robots, things change so much neither robots or people are needed at all. So just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, and certainly not without careful deliberation.
Our industry contributes significantly to UK employment, including many site workers who’ve struggled with formal education whilst their myriad practical skills have long been devalued. For them, Construction 4.0 presents a positive narrative of “reskilling” or “multi-skilled” workers, but history suggests a downgrading of both job roles and earning potential is actually much more likely. Technological advancements tend to reduce labour requirements overall and also split skilled roles into two: new tasks only requiring one degree-qualified manager and some unskilled labour, with reduced quality of work and thus less remuneration. Estimates suggest 50% of traditional construction work could be automated over the next 20 years, making this a significant concern. But Construction 4.0 doesn’t care, the amorality technology brings to progress creates a convenient myopia for social consequences such as this. Any reduction in the numbers of people employed or their potential earnings is beneficial – a reduction in wage costs, hurrah! It’s just a shame about the jobs, and the satisfaction people used to be able to realise from skilled manual work.
And it is not just site workers who are vulnerable to such “progress”. Engineers have already seen their work shift into the virtual, where they now sit in front of screens to design and provide information to control and guide subcontractors. Their work is now shaped and structured by new technologies which require specialist skills for operation, and which also created new roles that potentially undermine professional autonomy. Whilst professionals were upskilling themselves, “BIM managers” took charge of the design process as a whole, because they were best able to navigate and negotiate the software, not because they were best skilled to lead design development or coordination. Although things have rebalanced as training caught up, professionals across our industry are now forced into ways of working as the technology dictates, choice is no longer an option.
Indeed, the “technology owner” may even become the dominant industry professional in the future, through the autonomy unquestionably conferred on them. Indeed, Cui bono [who will benefit] is never a bad question to ask, particularly in a US$10bn global construction software marketplace. Software vendors promise solutions to all manner of construction process inefficiencies, but in doing so they are also redesigning industry structures to fit their technologies. But the confidence (arrogance), that technology developers can capture (and inevitably improve) what we do is never challenged: they are now gurus to the industry, with little sense of history, craft or profession. The consequences of this dominance could be considerable: a built environment constructed to meet the dictates of technology, rather than the manifestation of the imagination, fun, creativity and humanity of a real person. Are we happy about that?
We should therefore consider carefully whose agendas Construction 4.0 is serving. Our industry does more than simply create our built environment, it also employs vast numbers of people who gain both income and self-validation from this process. Construction 4.0 is challenging how we do things, disrupting us, bringing progress at last to our dinosaur of an industry. But who is challenging Construction 4.0? Luckily it’s all still relatively piecemeal, smoke and mirrors are plentiful, and we are not (yet) at the point of no return. But it’s up to professionals to point out that Construction 4.0 has the potential to do harm as well as good. We should all think a little more critically before we add our voices to the current tsunami of technological optimism. It’s a common trope of our industry that people are our biggest asset. Why don’t we try to keep it that way?
- Fred Sherratt is the interim deputy dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Anglia Ruskin University