Stacy Scopano, vice president of innovation at Skanska USA, began his keynote address at the recent Associated General Contractors IT Forum with a bold claim: Disruption is the new normal.
At the first AGC IT forum 10 years ago, attendees spent most of their time discussing Microsoft SharePoint, a document management and collaboration software that was the groundbreaking technological advance at the time. The breakneck pace of innovation from that point forward left construction and other industries unable to fathom the changes that have taken place, let alone implement the new technologies on a large scale, Scopano said.
The exponential increase in computing speeds, for example, is beyond our ability to process, the Skanska official said, because humans have never produced something that moves that fast. That’s part of the reason that the first construction application vendors in 2011 faced a tough sell, according to Scopano, as they tried to convince construction executives on the reality that every worker would soon carry cell phones (read: processing power) in their pockets.
But the construction industry no longer has a choice when it comes to technology adoption. It's now experiencing “peak disruption,” Scopano said, coupled with a massive demographic shift that’s bringing Generation Z into the workforce as baby boomers phase out. With the labor shortage raging on, the task at hand is to attract and enable the young talent to whom technology comes naturally.
A Gen Z high schooler, Scopano said, “can just download a free [CAD] kit, 3D-print it and expect the world to operate differently. And we’ve got to fund it.”
Sustainability is the “low bar”
Not only is the industry facing new expectations from Gen Z, but construction clients are also demanding a shift, according to Scopano. LEED development is the norm, and has been for years. “You’re not going to get a tenant” if you don’t build to LEED standards in major cities these days, he said.
Sustainability is the “low bar” as owners move beyond the “blasé” building end user requirements of the past several years to more progressive development objectives like wellness and productivity, Scopano said.
Digital operations and maintenance workflows will become the standard, he said, and this could look like an app that directs an arriving visitor to a vacant parking space, checks him in once he enters the building, notifies those who are expecting him, provides navigation to his destination and control over lighting and temperature in the room he occupies.
Even though operations and maintenance responsibilities don’t typically fall in the contractor’s court, contractors have to rethink their approach in the early phases of development and preconstruction, Scopano said. Skanska now has to “reverse-engineer how a guest would visit a company that’s a tenant in one of [its] buildings.”
But as fast as the contractor-client relationship is evolving, digital tools are being introduced to facilitate project collaboration. Virtual reality, for example, was used heavily by Skanska throughout preconstruction of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s The Living Building. In addition to using salvaged items and other sustainable materials, the team is aiming to create a facility that will generate more energy than it requires. Skanska used a VR model to present the client with different approaches to meeting these and other sustainability objectives as well as the cost implications of each approach.
Tackling disruption from all angles
With the fast progression of edge computing, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and more, “the world’s too complicated now” for the construction industry to be the economy’s technology leader, Scopano said.
We’re partly to blame for this flood of technology, according to Scopano, because when the iPhone came onto the market in 2007, “all of us sponsored Apple to drive down the cost of that massive processing.” This, in turn, made devices capable of producing huge amounts of data widely available in the marketplace, and poring through this information has become yet another pain point for contractors. “When you start coughing up all that data … the hardware evolutions are just going to create more information, more pain, unless you get ahead of it,” he said.
Field supervisors and superintendents who use sensors, cameras, iPads and other devices on jobsites, for example, have to search through hours of footage and a plethora of unorganized data to identify the issues that most need their attention. “The real journey that we’re on is structuring infrastructure for the pools and the lakes of data,” Scopano said.
To this end, a few AI systems on the market can understand construction schedules as well as a project manager when it comes to quickly flag priority items, according to Scopano, but these currently operate like a word processors' spellcheck tool did when it was a feature you had to turn on or off. In just a few years, spellcheck progressed to something that is always on, and AI is likely to make the same progression, he said.
In the near future, AI could pair weather data with the schedule to predict whether tasks at elevation are at risk of lightning strike, or even predict if a flu strain will flare up in the area of a particular project site, potentially affecting laborers. Far-fetched as they might seem, “these are real applications,” he emphasized.
Skanska is also going after technology applications that will capitalize on existing talent. For example, the company recently field-tested RealWear AR headsets to provide tower crane operators with better visuals from the ground. During the tests, one crane operator with 20-plus years of experience was able to relay his experience with the headset to Scopano and other execs via video chat and to share tips with other operators across the country.
“We have to provide multiplying capabilities, individual by individual,” he told forum attendees, so that “one person could have a fleet of people across the world talking in [their] ear.”
Scopano broke down the notion that disruptors like AI, AR and VR are more trouble than they’re worth. On the contrary, new use cases are unfolding every day and demonstrating that “tech is home here,” he said.