Let’s say you’re a GC and I offer you the opportunity to work on a lucrative project.

The specs are as follows:

Mile-high skyscraper. It will house the population of a modern metropolis. It will be the most energy efficient building in the world.

That’s not all.

No blueprints. No architects. No engineers. No foreman on site. No materials but the natural environment. No tools beyond the workers’ own bodies.

You’ve got 3-4 years to get the job done. You must coordinate a workforce of 1,000,000-2,000,000.

Am I drowning in the sound of your laughter yet? Sounds like science fiction, right?

Not for our colleagues in the nonhuman building industry.

This is exactly what mound-building termites routinely achieve in places like Africa and Australia. Termite mounds, soaring cathedral-like structures that may rise upwards of 30 feet (adjusted for scale = mile-high), are “megacities” that house millions, endure for centuries, and operate like giant lungs with crazy energy efficiency.

Lacking the basic elements of human construction, how do these creatures produce such complex structures?

The basis of their success is collaboration.

As individuals, termites are ineffectual. Working together, they form a superorganism greater than the sum of its parts. And they have a system of communication—via touch, vibration, chemical signal—that enables forms of knowledge transfer that support a kind of “collective mind.”

Rain tears a hole in the mound. The atmospheric change is immediately sensed, the change is immediately communicated, clusters of dirt-carrying workers immediately come running. The hole is repaired.

No miscommunication, no questioning of authority, no confusion, no rivalry.

Thinking of my own current projects, I’m asking myself: How much do these guys charge?

By definition, building (whether human or nonhuman) is a collaborative enterprise. The successful completion of a construction project requires that the “Right People” with the “Right Tools, Materials and Information” are in the “Right Place” at the “Right Time.”

So, you may ask, why is it so difficult to collaborate in the human building industry?

Three reasons:

  1. Industry fragmentation. There are around 710,000 construction companies in the US—80% of them employ 10 workers or fewer (only 2% of them employ over 100 workers).
  2. Multiple stakeholders with conflicting interests. Here’s a roll call of the participants in the building industry’s circle of interest: owner, architect, engineer, general contractor, subcontractor, project manager, manufacturer, distributor, broker, financier, insurance, legal, title, regulatory agency, design consultant—and more. Now, try linking all these different players in complex transaction chains that involve numerous contractual relationships.
  3. Culture of obfuscation. Many experienced professionals view knowledge as power and are reluctant to share it. Materials and workmanship are often hidden as well.

Moreover, companies generally fail to implement effective knowledge-sharing practices from project to project. Knowledge gained from past projects is routinely lost—to the detriment of future projects.

Any good news?

Yes. We finally have a platform that will enable real-time knowledge-sharing and transparent communication. New digital technologies such as BIM, VR and AR dramatically enhance collaboration among all project stakeholders at all stages of the life-cycle of a built asset.

Now, we need our mindset to catch up with our technology.

Some have already changed their minds. Today, pioneering groups of ambitious builders have begun building the towers of the 21st century. The new tech offers access to a virtual “collective mind” that allows them to work together in unprecedented ways—and extend the boundaries of what’s possible in construction.

Alas, they’re not termites. But they’re the best we’ve got.

Let’s collaborate with them.