Disruption is a well-worn term within the realm of construction dispute resolution; generally accompanied by a fairly negative connotation. To the rest of the world however, disruption has a very different and largely positive definition.
We consider where ‘positive disruption’ might change the construction industry, outside of advances in construction technology, and who should be the flag-bearers for introducing it.
A term widely used in the construction industry as the umbrella under which disturbances or interruptions to a rate of progress are discussed.
It’s a topic many of us spend our days either considering, monitoring, reviewing, proving or disproving.
However, the disruption we focus on day-to-day is the polar opposite of that which forms a mainstay in the vocabulary of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, innovators and industry influencers.
Disruption in these more positive terms is the introduction of new technology or ideas to radically boost productivity in a sector.
The Place of Disruption in Today’s Industry
Construction, at least to those who have some experience of the industry, often carries the stigma of being slow-moving and luke-warm when it comes to embracing radical change or new ideas.
That’s not to say it hasn’t made incredible strides forward in recent centuries, particularly in the fields of manufacturing and construction techniques, though when looked at through the lens of other major economic drivers it’s obvious that there’s still some way to go before the industry can be considered a utopia of efficiency and value for money.
The majority of new advances within the industry appear to revolve around how to build better or with more automation, the recent introduction of drones to capture progress on certain sites, 3D printing and augmented reality helmets providing just a few of a number of recent initiatives.
Whilst these examples are exciting and a great topic of discussion over the water cooler, the introduction of such discrete advances within an industry sector often introduces a new set of problems: its other parts aren’t disrupted at the same rate and are simply left to catch up in their own time.
So whilst disruptive advances in construction techniques continue to be put in place on the projects of today, what more could be done to improve commercial and administrative fields?
Ripe for Disruption?
The field of contract administration and dispute resolution remains a huge sub-industry within the behemoth of construction and for good reason: vast numbers of capable minds are needed to produce drawings, contract documents, correspondence, evidence to enable payment and a host of other day-to-day issues.
But why do both the developer and contractor need to double up on project resource? Why does each need their own planner and quantity surveyor?
How many of us see the same issues of time and cost overruns transferred from project to project, regardless of the industry sector or geographical location?
Perhaps there is another way.
If one party or smart software could be trusted to act truly impartially and without political motivation, the need for, or duplication of, administration staff could surely be halved or even eradicated.
Consider for a moment a world where the following are all realities:
The role of ‘the’ Architect, Construction or Project Manager and Engineer is automated;
Applications and certifications for payment were a thing of the past;
Contractors and Subcontractors are paid using frictionless software that automatically calculates the amount due for an item of work or service performed and makes payment the same day;
Events that delay (or disrupt!) progress can be accurately and unequivocally quantified;
Programmes are precise, down to the minute;
Disputes are resolved by computer-based decision-making software.
Whilst the first reaction to each of the above might be cynicism, the truth is none of these things are impossible to achieve.
But who should the industry look to in order to turn these ideals into reality?
Disruptors of the Future Needed
The vast majority of contractors can hardly be criticised for focussing less on R&D and more on keeping the lights on, whilst examples of private developers seeking out new and better ways of administering projects are conspicuous by their absence.
This is perhaps the most ironic handbrake to truly disrupting the industry for the better, as the introduction of streamlined administration and cost and time certainty means developers perhaps stand to win biggest in the greater scheme.
However, we live in a capital-hungry world where businesses must first and foremost survive, so the push must then come from Government level - perhaps in the way of offering grants or significant initiatives to start-ups, incubation hubs and universities who can look at industry problems with a fresh perspective and propose methods for real, lasting change at every stage of a project.
It would be both refreshing and exciting to see a government department roll the dice and recruit some of the world’s top entrepreneurial talent from creative non-construction industries to actively try and solve some of our industry’s oldest problems.
Institutions and / or non-profits such as the RICS, RIBA, PMI and ICE might also be encouraged to take a lead in solving some of the issues that often lead to costly overruns and disputes.
In the same vein, surely publishers of standard form contracts can weigh the long term commercial and societal benefits of introducing tangible and guaranteed improvements to contract administration against short to medium term research and development costs.
Not only would anyone willing to embrace the challenge of tackling such issues put the disrupter in the potentially enviable position of being light-years ahead of the game, but perhaps it might, in the wider scheme, simultaneously both attract and retain talent that might otherwise decide against a career outside of the mud and bullets of the construction industry.
The benefits of this are obvious if not surprising - more new disruption to the industry might just mean less of the old disruption to projects of the future.