Digital transformation: The future of Dubai’s construction industry

ARTICLE

Digital transformation: The future of Dubai’s construction industry

Nic Jacobs, Business Systems Lead Middle East at Faithful+Gould, looks at how technology is changing project management in the construction sector both in Dubai and the wider region

Digitalisation, Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT). These are just some of the buzzwords to have emerged in recent years, affecting almost every industry as companies seek to innovate and explore new opportunities presented by rapidly evolving technology. As the boundaries of what is possible are pushed ever wider, these are exciting times for us all.
For 11 years, I have worked in construction project management in the Middle East – in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. During my time in the UAE, I have been privileged to contribute to Dubai’s transformation into a world-class business hub and leading tourism destination, through my involvement in some of the emirate’s flagship developments.

Giant strides

I have seen huge changes in the way the industry works, enabled through the application of technology. The introduction of digital Project Management Information Systems (PMIS), to manage project data and automate business processes including reporting, represented a big leap forward for the building industry – but this was a few years ago.
In present times, deploying digital systems is especially beneficial for clients who have reached high levels of organisational maturity. From where we as a business operate, the real value of running projects or large programmes of works on sophisticated systems is the ability to realise value from data, and improve the overall project delivery experience for all stakeholders involved.
It is no secret that the construction sector has historically been one of the most inefficient, beset by delays and cost overruns. As a project manager, the first advice we offer clients is to ensure they have in place a robust set of processes and procedures, established lines of authority and good governance. A PMI-system is merely a tool (the software), configured based on these processes and procedures, that could be increasing overall efficiencies and effectiveness. We refer to this as governance before technology, and not the other way around. Investing in a software system (the technology) will not solve operational problems. There are so many stakeholders in a project delivery team – client representatives, management consultants, design consultants, contractors and suppliers – that the scope for delay or error is significant when the governance or the system does not meet expectations.
The value of automating project (management) delivery is even greater when applied to large programmes of work, where we handle multiple projects simultaneously for a client, and have standards to mandate across the projects. For example, clients such as Dubai Municipality and the Roads & Transport Authority have robust requirements in the form of design and data standards (e.g. Business Information Modelling (BIM)) that they maintain for everything being built in Dubai. Without an appropriate PMIS, compliance will be much harder to achieve and enforce.

A mine of data

What we are then left with is a hugely rich database of information, and the next stage in the construction sector’s digital journey will concern how we put this data to good use.
Faithful+Gould, while overseeing the delivery of projects in the sector, has a regional and global footprint. In the process, data is generated, resulting in business intelligence used to analyse and benchmark performances of similar projects across the world.
Data captured by the same technology can also be used to track performance of teams working on a project, identifying strengths / bottlenecks within the delivery process, which helps with continued improvement and knowledge transfer within the business. With access to a database of inwardly and outwardly data, we are able to set standards based on local, regional and global KPIs once we have built up a critical mass of information.
For the property developer, efficiencies could be compared across projects, factoring in details about the cost and quality of construction, the project’s location, and so on. The point here is that data can be interrogated in all manner of ways to enable more informed decision-making.
But perhaps the biggest benefit of having access to all this information will come during the completion of a construction project. It will mean facility managers have access to a wealth of data about their assets, the suppliers, the origin of a product and when it was installed, right down to the very last detail. If the buildings have been fitted with smart technology, combining sensors and the IoT to provide real time information, they can also monitor the health of those assets, prioritising maintenance and carrying out interventions before equipment fails.

The smart money

The owners of assets are keen to see greater investment in smart building technology. The challenge is that the financial returns are only seen after completion, and the benefit is mostly to the purchaser, and not always to the developer. Market conditions drive investment decisions, and those delivering the project want to see guaranteed premium sales prices before they are willing to increase their capital spend. As an industry, we have a lot of work to do in this region to be able to quantify efficiencies and savings that can be achieved by upfront investment in technology.
Smart technology is really exciting, and I am sure that as the number of smart buildings grows worldwide and with it the body of information showing the efficiencies and cost savings created through the introduction of technology, it will become easier to adopt the introduction of smart tech in developments. Whatever technology is adopted, though, it is important it should be future proofed, meaning it operates on open source software platforms, to ensure it doesn’t become obsolete.
I can also see blockchain bringing value to our industry in the years to come. It will boost transparency, which has long been an issue in construction, providing assurances to all parties in the supply chain that contractual obligations have been fulfilled. Risk mitigation is a big cost to our industry, with every player factoring risk provision into their fee, which inflates prices and introduces complexities in what should be straightforward contractual conditions.
Blockchain linked to cost management systems would also save paperwork and therefore time and resources for those involved in the construction industry, while blockchain linked to full BIM would make even greater savings.
Dubai Government aims to lead the MENA region in blockchain by 2020, and is therefore very supportive of the technology. Working closely with our colleagues in Acuity, the advisory part of our business, we are talking to clients and suppliers here in Dubai about potential collaborations and proof of concepts for blockchain. Among them are Dubai Electricity & Water Authority, real estate developers such as Dubailand, and most recently the team behind the planned Hyperloop.
For now, most blockchain activity in construction concerns transactions, the supply chain, transfer of ownership and records management. For example, the Dubai Land Department has been putting its transactions with developers on a blockchain.
We are looking forward to exploring ways the industry can benefit from the technology associated with blockchain.
Much further down the line, we also see potential for 3D printing. It will speed up the production of construction components and even modular units, improve the quality and hopefully reduce overall cost and waste.
An interesting conversation surrounds the disruption caused by all of the above, for example, reskilling construction workers and project management, and perhaps even aiding governments with their job creation and economic diversification targets.

Keeping focus

It is easy, however, for us to get excited by the next big thing and lose sight of what we really need to be more effective. If we consider consumers – how many of us have the latest digital camera and yet use only a fraction of its capabilities, and even with our mobile phones, most of us only use the basic functions.
In the professional world, where costs are rigorously monitored, our job is to sort the nice-to-haves from the essentials. When we hear talk about Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, it often feels like a solution looking for a problem to fix. It needs to be the other way around, with products showing genuine and proven value that save money and get us to our end goals faster and more efficiently. As a business, we seek to demystify all these buzzwords and identify the actual problems that need addressing, and to make the best possible decision based on the information available.
The role of the project manager is certainly evolving, however. In the past, we were performing a ‘policing’ role, overseeing and reporting on projects on behalf of the client. Today, we are disrupting the way projects were managed, partnering with clients to make data driven decisions. When I look forward, I believe the construction industry in the Middle East will be far removed from the one I joined 11 years ago.
Nic Jacobs will speak at the FutureTech Construction Summit at The Big 5 on November 26. Joining a panel discussion on Technology as a Catalyst for Disruption, Nic will examine how tech innovations are transforming the construction process.

Topics

  • Big Data
  • IoT
  • Real Estate