DCW 2024: There’s no substitute for the human presence

Digital Construction Week presented a smorgasbord of all things tech, but as the show demonstrated, the driving force of it all is entirely human. Mark Cantrell reports

For a show dedicated to the latest technological developments in construction, the focus on the human element at this year’s Digital Construction Week (DCW) may raise a few eyebrows. It shouldn’t, really.

For those that attended the show, they’d soon get a grip on why; a moment’s reflection ought to join the dots, in any case. Technology, designed and implemented as it is by flesh and blood people, is very much a part of the human condition. One way or another, we’re all cyborgs now.

So, yes, the human was a strong presence at DCW’s package of talks, presentations, and panel discussions – and not just in terms of visitors to the show.

This being a trade event, of course it was focused on the business of the built environment, construction, design, productivity, and – naturally, given the urgency of the climate change issue – sustainability and decarbonisation.

Human well-being, however, was another important factor found – either explicitly or implicitly – woven throughout the fabric of the event’s packed programme.

A case in point was the session on mental health, or as the billed title said: Get Construction Talking: Addressing mental health in construction starts with you.

Get Construction Talking

It’s an “unusual discussion” for a construction technology show, as host, Procure’s Sasha Reed admitted, but it was no less important for that.

Essentially, two workers die by suicide a day in the construction industry. That’s a sobering figure; little wonder the brochure blurb for this session dubs it the “silent killer”.

But as the discussion explored, it doesn’t have to be that way. We just need to open up, look out for each other, dismiss the stigma, and recognise that any one of us can struggle with our mental health.

Indeed, encouraging such openness and a willingness to talk was very much what this session was about. It proved an engaging and poignant ‘fireside chat’, serving its purpose of raising awareness, courtesy of the two brave individuals who put themselves in the spotlight to share their stories.

Reed was joined on the main stage by Fred Mills, founder and managing director of The B1M, and Ray Blewitt, head of digital construction at John Paul Construction. This was no abstract discussion of the issue, however; both men know first hand the reality of dealing with mental health struggles.

What emerged from their talk was no ‘woe is me’, though; no, the discussion was positive, hopeful, inspirational in the best sense of the word. Better still, we should say the session was encouraging; the very point of it, after all.

These days, PPE is second nature. As Blewitt pointed out, construction professionals no longer think twice about donning hard hat and hi-vis vest before venturing on site. Indeed, safety culture is everyone’s responsibility; one of the talk’s key messages was to make the case for incorporating an awareness of mental health and well-being into this attitude and approach.

Change, the audience heard, means acknowledging the problem, and taking the steps to shift the industry’s culture. As Mills said: “We need to re-gear construction and recognise it doesn’t work without people.”

A stage for all reasons

There was plenty more to explore and engage with at DCW; matters both technical and topical during the two days at London’s ExCel, and of course there was a packed exhibition space. Indeed, there was far too much to ever do the show justice here; even so, a taste must be taken.

Sessions were provided across 10 stages. These offered convenient focal points of navigation, but also served to provide broad themes to collate the sheer variety of discussion topics on offer.

Away from the main stage, the other focal points were the information management stage; the information management exchange; asset management stage; geospatial theatre; innovation stage; people and change theatre; transformation hub; net zero stage; and a tech stage.

There was also a food hub, for those feeling peckish, not to mention a handy coffee point for essential refuelling. With so much to take in and digest, informationally speaking, the brain certainly needed the sustenance to keep up.

With that food for thought, we turn from the grey matter of the brain to its silicon simulacrum, and with that, one of the major themes at this year’s DCW.

Inevitably, given it’s become such a cultural – as well as a tech – phenomenon, there were plenty of discussions about artificial intelligence; AI as it’s more fondly (or sometimes ominously) known.

Machine learning

DCW 2024: Ethical and trustworthy Approach to AI

One – of many – fascinating sessions around this topic cut to the chase on day two. Suitably entitled: Ethical and trustworthy Approach to AI, it asked Why is it relevant?

Why, indeed. It’s the question of our age, not just for construction, but for society as a whole. The technology is fervently praised with much promise, but also stirs dark mutterings of its feared potential to obliterate swathes of livelihoods – jobs. Computer says: “You’re fired!”

Stop right there; before we head off down the rabbit hole of anxiety, the panel was quick to remind the audience that much breathless hype surrounds what we call AI; most of it not even written by ChatGPT. Whether utopian in outlook, or darkly dystopic, it risks blind-siding us to the realities.

In a way, we’ve been using variants of AI for years, decades even, as panellist Pierre Saunal, architect and founder of airc design, playfully pointed out with the example of the pocket calculator.

We let the device do our drudge ‘thinking’ for us – in this case the basic calculations – while we focus on the higher level aspects of the task in hand. Much the same might be said of today’s AI iterations; if we let ourselves carry the tech, rather than get carried away by the hype.

Essentially, we need to understand what AI is, the session suggested; we also need to understand who is behind the AI, because at the end of the day, it is people that use the technology. That’s Saunal’s point, but it is one that both reflected and resonated with those of his fellow panellists.

He was joined on the stage by Alasdair Reisner, chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association; Charlie Sheridan, chief data and AI officer at Nemetschek Group; Sarah Rock, construction partner Boodle Hatfield LLP; and Lee Morris, managing director at Solibri, Inc.

Rock made the point that there is no legal definition of what constitutes ‘AI’, so we need to talk about what we mean by the term to avoid misunderstandings, and – one could suppose – lose sight of what the technology actually is and isn’t; as it were.

That takes us back to the point about hype; the breathless enthusiasm for the tech’s potential – blending and bleeding into the realms of science fiction as much as considered speculation – makes it hard to pin down the reality, but it’s this latter we really need to grasp if we are to make the most of the technology. If we let AI become just another buzzword, it risks smothering the very real innovations.

But what about that original question, about the ethics and trustworthiness of AI? Sorry, cyberpunks; there’s just no getting away from the meat and bone of the human maker.

As Saunal expressed it – and fellow panellists echoed – the answer to the question is rooted in human ethics. We use AI until its use causes harm to another person. The discussion explored a more technical perspective too; in terms of data quality, who owns the data, that kind of thing, but the question is entirely rooted in good old-fashioned human trust.

Staying with AI, but slipping back through time to day one of DCW, those with an interest in the geospatial profession gathered at the main stage to discuss whether it had a human future. The long story short, yes was the answer, but expect change.

A robust debate was promised, and that’s what the audience took part in too. The session certainly posed a bold point to fuel the discussion: AI will make the role of the geospatial professional redundant inside a generation.

Exploring the issue on stage were Simon Navin, director of business development at Dalcour Maclaren; Denise McKenzie, managing partner at Place Trust; Hannah Sarah Thomas, technical director geospatial, Jacobs; Ed Parsons, geospatial technology evangelist at Google; Nick Ruddell, graduate surveyor at Dalcour Maclaren; and Barry Gleeson, technical director at WSP.

Between them, the panellists offered up quite an enthralling debate; of course, there’s always one who can’t resist the tongue-in-cheek “I for one bow to our AI overlords”, and so it proved.

Jesting aside, it was all part of serious business, but there was no sense of impending doom that might otherwise be implied by the session title. Indeed, once again the discussion was threaded by the human element.

The role of the geospatial professional will undoubtedly change, the audience heard, but the point was made that no AI is ever going to be human. That may sound somewhat esoteric, but it’s a factor rooted in the concept of professionalism.

A machine – by its nature –cannot be a professional; no matter how ‘smart’ tech gets, it’s still a big dumb object, or else a clutch of dumb code and algorithms processing mindless data. At least for now, the technology may be way more sophisticated and powerful, but fundamentally no more smarter than the clockwork automata of bygone centuries.

In that sense, the ball remains on humanity’s court; but it does place an onus on humans to up their game and not to drop the ball. As the panel expressed, it’s the job of a professional to rediscover professionalism.

The sessions featuring AI weren’t all playful speculation (even if with a serious point); practical applications and real-world examples of its potential applications were there for the hearing too.

Nick Niknam, regional director, Bentley Systems, presented a fascinating session titled: AI – Powering a new era for infrastructure engineering, for instance.

This proved something of a unique and interesting discussion, introducing the benefits of AI in various different industries, and then connecting this to infrastructure and construction. As Niknam explored, connecting and applying engineering principles between current digital twin technology and AI can help improve the efficiency of implementation within a business.

Another real-use application was offered up by Wates on the Innovation Stage. There was certainly a lot of interest for the session, exploring how the company used AI to enhance collaboration and reduce the risks of delays to projects.

Busy and well-attended would be something of a universal descriptor for the DCW’s sessions, but this one was literally standing room only. Between them, Amir Berman, strategic product consultant at Buildots, and Tom Bell, project manager at Wates Group provided an engaging and informative discussion. Little wonder, there was so much interest in what they had to say.

Beyond AI

There was plenty more to discover in DCW’s packed programme; too many to include here, and the choice of highlights is a tough one to call, given there were so many. But as a taster of talks away from the realms of AI, the Women in BIM presented a lively discussion at the People & Change Theatre, entitled: How to manage egos, conflict and disengagement when implementing new technology.

In many ways, this is perhaps one of the most pertinent issues for the construction – and wider built environment sectors – as they navigate the changing technological landscape. Chaired by Dr Melanie Robinson, associate, BIM Academy, the panel featured Vicki Reynolds, chief technology office at Catalyst; Francesca Lofiego, digital construction manager, ISG; and Fran Parkins, digital lead, Build Asset Consultancy, Rider Levett Bucknall.

Again, another packed session, the panel focused on the mental challenges of rapidly transforming digital construction and its culture. However, the points made can be applied to people of any industry.

Addressing problems they have personal experience with, and then using these to expand and explore potential solutions, the panellists explained approaches that can lead to a more positive digital culture.

Discussing the future of the geospatial professional

Digital transformation was also the order of the discussion at the Transformation Stage. By now, the event was drawing to its close, but there was still plenty to learn and engage with, as Gleeds’ Benjamin Huskisson exemplified with his presentation: Digital groundbreaking: Beyond the hype and into reality.

Digital transformation means a lot of different things to different people, he pointed out. That’s why Gleeds came up with formula to better define it.

“Everything we do has to deliver profitability,” Huskisson told the audience. “Technology has to be aligned to business priorities. Tech is not just backroom support. It’s an enabler.”

As he went on to explain, data is an important part of this; a factor that is essential to be understood at the c-suite level; he added to say that a “cognisant people and culture” is essential to digital transformation.

Gleeds only embarks on a digital transformation roject if it demonstrates a clear solution to an industry problem, Huskisson explained; a lesson there, surely, in itself.

Dr Melanie Robinson, an associate with the BIM Academy, gave an insightful talk at the Information Management Exchange, regarding lifecycle management. A key takeaway of this session is the necessity for digital information to be maintained for effective access, and interrogation years in the future.

As she went on to explain, an exemplar in managing the lifecycle of information is provided by Scottish Futures Trust’s Standard Information Management Plan (SIMP) initiative. This uses a centralised structured information database for effective and efficient management. Classification of data using ISO19650 management principles was also a highlighted area of importance.

One eyebrow raising observation shared by Accenture’s Huda As’ad was that the construction industry actually uses less tech than the farming industry. It goes against expectation, but it certainly places things in perspective.

As’ad was giving her talk, entitled Digital backbone: The bridge to disrupt the asset lifecycle. Discussing the digitalisation and decarbonisation of the power grid, she explained that one of the challenges of clean energy is storage.

In turn, that’s part of the challenge of balancing demand. The grid as it is currently designed doesn’t provide this balance. As she went on to explain, we have multiple challenges, hierarchical structures, centralisation, fragmented supply chains, so anything companies and professionals can do on the collaboration spectrum, then they are already ahead of the game, she said.

Circularity was theme for the session Digitising material use – enabling the circular economy, over on the Net Zero Theatre. The construction industry generates over half of all waste generated in the world, but only 2% of materials are reused at the end of a building’s life, so tackling this is a big issues for both the industry and society.

This proved an interesting discussion featuring Sam Stacey, chair, Sustain CRE; Marie Louise Schembri, sustainability director, Hilson Moran; Morgan Lewis, chief executive of Material Index; and George Stainton, managing director of General Demolition.

As the session pointed out, a lot of the buildings out there in the world were never designed and built with circular construction concepts in mind. That is, they weren’t built for the purpose of eventually reusing the component materials.

Circular construction is a new idea for the industry; designing buildings to be deconstructed at the end of their life, so that the materials can find some kind of re-use. The idea is gaining ground, however; at least going by the discussion. More developers are showing interest in circular economy credentials.

There’s plenty more we could highlight from the event’s programme, but we’d end up writing an entire book. All told, Digital Construction Week had plenty to offer; there’s really no substitute for actually being there.

Read next: GCCA agrees decarbonisation deal with UN body

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