I read the other day that building projects for life on Mars are already underway. Researchers at Northwestern University, using samples of simulated Martian soil, have developed a blend of sulfur concrete that is super-strong, fast-setting and works well with 3-D printing. Meanwhile, in Hawaii, a robot successfully constructed a prototype of a spaceship platform. NASA plans to send an advance guard of robot builders to construct habitats for the first astronauts.
Think about it: we already possess the tech, tools and materials to build houses for humans on an alien planet…
…and yet, here on planet Earth, we have trouble providing decent housing for everyone, and the technologies and methodologies of the building industry have hardly changed in the past 50 years.
Compared to other industries, which have undergone unprecedented changes over the last few decades, and have reaped the benefits of digital innovations, the building industry has been slow—read: glacial—to adopt new technologies.
A recent report by McKinsey & Company revealed that the industry’s productivity levels have not risen significantly since the 1940’s. In the US, labor productivity has actually fallen over the past 40 years, and plunged by half since the late 1960’s.
This allergy to technology is preventing the industry from entering the 21st century.
What are the barriers to innovation?
Lack of standardization. In construction, no two projects are the same—each project occurs at a unique site with unique organizational and environmental conditions. The industry earns its money on a series of idiosyncratic, unrelated projects. This frustrates standardization and hinders new technological applications.
Minimal investment in R&D. Research and development is vital for the renewal of any industry. Yet the building industry invests much less in R&D than other industries. The benefits of R&D are long-term, the costs short-term—an unappealing trade-off for project-driven companies confronting shrinking profit margins and stagnant productivity.
Conservative Culture. The building industry retains a conservative corporate culture which does not nurture progressive or innovative thinking. Too often, the industry mindset is oriented toward the past, not the future. Many are still invested in protecting the established ways of doing things.
Sheer Inertia. Established work processes are rooted in devotion to decades-long habitual practices. And nobody wants to be the first to test things out, especially when a lot of money is involved. New technology is often viewed as too risky, too pricey, or both.
All said, a number of challenges, each of which is understandable enough.
However, the building industry, perhaps more than any other industry, also has the potential to leverage innovation for future business opportunity and return on investment.
So what’s it going to take to foster a culture of innovation?
• A change in industry mindset
• A renewed commitment to R&D
• Strong leadership from the top (CEOs, thought leaders, government)
• Successful integration of new technology and traditional techniques (after all, the point is not to destroy the past, but to retain its positive aspects)
Change is coming. Those on the forefront of change will be the first to reap the rewards of innovation.
And what about those who refuse change?
Well, I hear there’s work on Mars…