Much needed forced digitalisation of the construction industry 


COMMENT: The construction industry has been forced to change. It’s already clear that we’ll emerge from lockdown at a completely different digital maturity level than before the coronavirus.

By: Anstein Skinnarland, Digital Development Director, COWI

These past weeks, consulting engineers have worked from home. COWI has gone from less than 100 to over 5,000 offices relatively smoothly. Many of our colleagues have built new digital procedures from the ground up and successfully so. Many companies have seen the same happen.

However, we should not take this for granted. Companies that don’t adapt and succeed now probably won’t succeed in a year or ten. And those who were at the technological forefront before the crisis erupted, have a head start. But if we look past the technical framework that allows us to work from home, today’s digital situation also raises questions that will affect how we work in the future.

Our industry has talked about digitalisation for years. And just to set the record straight: We’re great at a lot of things, and the best in the world at some things. But when we brag about our digital competencies, we tend to use acronyms: We say VDC, VR, BIM and ICE, while patting ourselves on our back. These acronyms hide a lot of evasive actions taken in pursuit of the fully digital everyday life.

Let’s take a closer look at the latter: the ICE methodology, which is among the most recent types of digital coordination. The foundation is digital. Still, many use this technology as a tool for physical meetings. In other words, you apply an analogue form to digital technology. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Digital aids improve work processes, boost project flow and ensure speedier clarification. But why not go fully digital?

Today, this type of meeting also has to be held from our home offices. That can be a challenge. Last week, we tried it when 20 disciplines performed an interdisciplinary check of a road project digitally. We had some issues, but we managed. Now is the time for the construction industry to try out the entire tool box to find out what needs to be improved when we return to normal. Only when we know which aspects of technology do not work are we able to advance methodology in the right direction.

A different problem made relevant by the increased use of home offices is the clients’ requirements for a project office. Human interaction is important, but the side effects of home offices benefit sustainability. We are seeing that projects that are usually carried out at project offices can also be carried out from home. We don’t have to meet constantly, and we do fine without weekly air travel. In addition, this will have a positive effect on companies, since they will avoid having office areas emptying and professional environments thinning when large parts of departments are located at the other side of town – or in a different town. I hope that, going forward, we will be innovative when it comes to how we use project offices and where we work.

Many point to globalisation being one of the causes of the corona crisis. True or not, we know that we have to unite globally to successfully recover from it. The crisis hits us in different ways. How hard the crisis hits depends on the national and local measures implemented. In China, for instance, production crashed when national measures were implemented. When projects close down in a country, a city or a municipality, effective resource allocation is more important than ever. Successful intertrade and being able to rely on competencies where they are present reduce companies’ vulnerability.

Across the COWI Group, 5,115 employees in 24 countries are working from home. Many communicate with each other using Teams, Yammer and Skype on a daily basis. The digital work that is being done to secure global intertrade also benefits the Norwegian unit, since it gets easier for small technical disciplines to integrate in large networks.

The lessons we learn should mould our future projects. And today, the future is not as far away as it was a few months ago. Now, the future means daily work life after the coronavirus. Whether it will be here in two weeks, two months or six months really doesn’t matter. The construction industry must gain digital experience to make us stronger as an industry in the aftermath.

The goal of the digital transformation is not to have everyone isolated in from of their screens, not talking to each other. The digital daily work life will be brighter after the coronavirus. But the new technology must be anchored throughout the industry. What we’ve seen these past weeks is that digital maturity is also about survival. And if there’s anything we’ve learned it’s that digital development can’t wait.

Get in contact

Anstein Skinnarland
Digital Development Director
Management Buildings/sustainable buildings, Norway

Tel: +47 99224973