Seeking to revolutionise the way the UK designs, constructs and operates buildings, the Transforming Construction Challenge aims to transform the construction sector – enabling it to produce safe, healthy, and efficient buildings. At last, we have a legitimate chance to attend to some longstanding industry ills such as low profits, weak productivity, poor adoption of digital construction etc. But taking a more positive view, I’m keen to see this done in concert with the development of a much more authentic relationship with through-life value, and quality. We mustn’t forget the user experience narrative – in some quarters the Challenge will not be seen to have succeeded unless it commits to the pursuance of broader societal goals. And this is the tricky bit – because we’re going to need help from people outside of the industry to achieve this, which is where we come in.
Hard numbers, the stats which tell the story of our industry still matter. In line with the expectations of the Industrial Strategy and the Construction Sector Deal, the Challenge is supporting industry in adopting technologies and helping buildings to be constructed 50% faster, 33% cheaper and with half the lifetime carbon emissions. These targets from Construction 2025 remain incredibly relevant for business and policymakers alike, but the reluctant and incremental innovation pathways in construction simply haven’t delivered such changes at scale, and will not do so unless we all do things differently.
So you can see why it is worth putting some energy behind this endeavour. We also need a collective drive to deliver such a radical change. That’s why, at least in part, the Challenge is funding the Transforming Construction Network Plus (N+), a new community able to explore new perspectives, ideas and collaborations. The N+ brings together experts from a range of disciplines to tackle the most pressing problems across the digital, energy, construction, and manufacturing space. And we are targeting social scientists and others who can bring truly novel insights to the fore – it’s time to work differently.
At our most ambitious, our vision for N+ is to deliver transformational impact by adopting an integrated approach, situating construction as a production system for built assets that adds value to cities and their infrastructures. On a day to day basis, we’ve been talking with businesses, scholars and other stakeholders to change mindsets and open up new channels for collaboration. Since the launch of the N+ in November 2018, we have engaged directly with more than 1,700 people, which speaks to the significance and reach of the movement already.
In detail, we are aiming to provoke, enable and amplify innovation, through four main objectives:
- Knowledge: to inform new research and development (R&D) models and government policy that link digital, construction, manufacturing and energy to improve productivity
- Community building: to advance collaborations through knowledge exchange and debate, beyond what is currently possible
- Business models: to produce user-informed, practical resources that accelerate pathways to manufacture and delivery
- Investment and legacy: to de-risk and increase construction sector business R&D spend and enable new R&D collaborations that outlive the grant.
The network unites academic researchers with industry and policy representatives, creating a new body of knowledge to contribute to the Transforming Construction Challenge and inform future construction policy and practice. You’ll notice that it’s not solely focused on content generation – we want to challenge conventions, and leverage change, so there’s plenty of opportunities on our calendar to do so. For instance, the incredibly low R&D spend of our sector has been a great frustration for many construction scholars – it’s definitely time to shift the dial on our industry’s exploitation of R&D tax credits such that businesses are more comfortable with innovation. That’s why we are undertaking our own study of effective models for construction R&D, which we will report on next year.
To offer inspiration at least, we’ve delivered international webinars – bringing expertise and insights to the UK from across the world, and held inspiring Discovery Days – reaching out to stakeholders to encourage ‘discipline-hopping’, which is a proven mechanism to provoke innovation. And with £1m to invest in a raft of new research projects during the two years of the project, the N+ is organising two funding calls.
Picture: Transforming Construction Network Plus Discovery Day in WMG, University of Warwick, 27 June
The first N+ funding round received an excellent roster of 77 proposals – with 41 different lead universities, 366 individuals named and 85 industry partners backing their academic partners in a raft of high-leverage, innovative project proposals. The idea of the N+ calls is to encourage the community to take a novel perspective and to explore methods and theories from a wide range of disciplines – and it’s been truly heartening to see so many new collaborations being ignited along the way – even if we couldn’t fund them all through the N+.
In tackling the issues identified within the Transforming Construction Challenge area, the network supports research that addresses the three areas of ‘’designing and managing buildings (through digitally-enabled performance management); constructing quality buildings (through an offsite manufacturing approach); and, powering buildings (through embedded active technologies and improved quality of build)”. The remit is unashamedly integrating, positively technological, yet also highly sensitive to the user and society because we are framing construction in a wider sense than is often the case.
From Round 1, we are currently supporting projects looking at interoperability, user experience, space tech for hospitals and performance improvement, the four projects successfully awarded aim to transform the UK Construction, bringing new research knowledge to our sectors and its actors.
This leads me to reflect on the nature of activities that we need to see to make the Transforming Construction Challenge deliver on its ambitions. I think it comes down to three things:
- Step outside your comfort zone: don’t be afraid to work with people with radically different skills, approaches and ideas. Be a novice in their world and enjoy learning one another’s languages and customs.
- Never forget value and quality: no one needs another ‘dash for trash’. Be a champion for what’s good about the built environment, and aim to make it better.
- Speak truth to power: we have a once in a lifetime chance to change the very institutions of construction. Step forward and volunteer to make things better, and bring an industry mandarin or two along with you.
There’s so much more that can be done, and there’s never been a better time to do it. The N+ and all the investments in the Transforming Construction Challenge are working together to make change happen. We’re certainly looking forward to launching the next round of funding from the N+, on 19 September 2019, to see who else decides to join in and take up the challenge of industry transformation.
It’s time to play your part – join the movement today.
Jacqui Glass is Principal Investigator of the Transforming Construction Network Plus, Professor of Construction Management, and Vice Dean Research in The Bartlett.
The N+ is a joint project between The Bartlett, UCL’s Faculty of the Built Environment, Imperial College London and WMG, University of Warwick.