Updated: Oct 13, 2020
For years, we’ve been hearing from business management consultants and technology companies that the industry suffers from low productivity, a resistance to technology and a skilled labor shortage. "We need to fix construction," was the common conclusion.
The proposed solution was to Idiot-Proof the industry. This, in theory, would allow the building trades to focus on what they do best, ie. build, while technology handled the higher-level needs of the industry: increased transparency, an introduction of updated business metrics and enhanced supply chain logistics, etc.
Twenty years later, our industry doesn’t look that much different than it did in the early 2000s, however. Trades people are a little more tech savvy, but most are frustrated with the extra administrative work. Entering project progress updates and uploading photos onto tiny screens doesn’t often get done during their work day, while they’re busy building, which means they either sit in their trucks to update the systems or do it from home every night after the kids have gone to bed.
With all the new offsite-built housing technology, saving project owners 20% on labor costs, there should, at the very least, be more affordable housing stock today than in the early 2000s. But that's not the case either. Affordable housing still doesn’t exist.
What’s going on here? Where has all this energy in building innovation gone? Why aren't we seeing concrete results?
Put simply, technology alone is not the answer. What else besides technology should we consider?
Let's take a look at the broader context.
A Little Perspective Using a Causal Loop Diagram (CLD)
Using a CLD, we can plot the relationship of moving parts in a construction ecosystem like this:
Quick guide on reading CLD’s:
All elements are nouns, their relationship to each other articulated by arrows (solid lines are positive, dotted lines are negative)
Blue circles are the origin elements that start the relationships
Gray circles are participating elements
Orange circles are elements that connect the two spheres of the problem/opportunity
Green circles are the opportunities our industry faces
For example, increased (entry level) wages lead to a decrease in employee turnover which leads to an increase in career opportunities, more worker experience awareness, etc. Increased barriers to entry into the industry lead to decreased industry fragmentation which leads to more housing projects, etc.
Why Building Technology is Not the Answer
Why isn’t innovative building technology on a CLD that purports to explain the greatest challenges our industry faces today?
Because products don't innovate. People do. The product, themselves are merely tools. And if they aren't designed by the folks that will use them, they won't produce the intended impact.
Innovation is essential to advance society, but how innovation happens is critical. At this point, construction folks have all the tools they need, and then some!
Why Construction Education and Workforce Development is the Answer
Paradigm-shifting innovation found in companies like Amazon and Google isn't delivered top-down from Jeff Bezos or Sergey Brin. Instead, employees are encouraged to connect with their customers and design the innovations their companies are famous for. The most innovative aspect of this isn't their products. It's their corporate governance.
If innovation, therefore, requires innovative structures that support the self-direction of employees to deliver that innovation, and construction needs innovation, then why are we spending all this effort and money Idiot-Proofing the industry?
That’s the opposite of what is needed.
So what do we now? Let’s go back to the CLD.
The answers are all in blue:
Increase (entry level) wages for trades,
Increase resources for construction education,
Increase barriers to entry, and
Increase consistency in building standards across jurisdictions
Conclusion: If we want more innovation and more affordable housing we need to focus on developing people, not products.