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There is no doubting we are facing challenging times. This year we have voted to leave Europe, have seen a largely new Government and the industry is under increasing pressure to deliver faster and cheaper despite a growing skills shortage. But are we fast becoming ‘busy fools’, just adding pressure to already overloaded inboxes and adding complexity to projects when we should be working together to solve issues and be more effective?

We are living in a time of massive social change. In 1950 only 30% of the UK population lived in cities. Now over 50% of the population live in cities and this figure is projected to rise to 60% by 2030. We have an ageing population in some parts of the western world, especially when compared to Asia and Africa, which is still characterised by younger demographic.  We are seeing a shift in economic power, with an increase in investments flowing from east to west and between emerging markets. For example, in the last ten years we have seen a 10 fold increase in investment from China in Europe. This will result in seeing the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) exerting a higher level of influence. In the UK, we have seen this with large infrastructure projects such as Hinkley point. We are also experiencing rapid advances in technology, technology that will affect how we work, how we live, how we travel.

So at a time of massive social, economic and technological change, why are we adding more pressure? Every year we seem to take on more and more, both professionally and socially. But are we actually making headway and improving our lives? Are we addressing the challenges and making improvements? Personally, I fear not. All too often there is no joined-up thinking and a lack of collaboration between organisations to help ease the pressure and find solutions.

Two weeks ago, the Farmer Review examined the shortcomings of the construction labour model and identified how it has given rise to underinvestment in training and development (see my thoughts on the Farmer Review) . Its conclusion was that we are staring at a ticking bomb in terms of a massive skills shortage and something has to change and change urgently. We need to heed this warning and find a way to attract the best minds and talent and retain them in the industry. We need to ensure the construction industry is seen as an exciting and vibrant industry to join and that opportunities are diverse and inclusive.

Brexit has been by far the biggest news we have faced this year. Whether we like the outcome or not, it has happened. We need to dust ourselves down and embrace the change and look for the opportunities. Whilst Brexit may have a negative effect on some areas of the industry, it is also a great opportunity for us. One outcome that many didn’t anticipate is the effect it has had on other European countries in terms of intrigue and interest. All eyes are now on us to see what advantages and benefits our exit of Europe is going to have, so now is the time for us to shape our industry into one that leads the world by example. But we can’t do it by working on our own, we need to come together.

One side effect of Brexit is a renewed focus on international trade but with this comes a greater call for higher levels of global standardisation. The UK is widely regarded as a centre of excellence of building standards and we need to ensure that the values and belief of the industry are of the highest standards. Placing ethics at the heart of what we do, through standards such as BES 6001 and continuing to drive supply chains to do better, we can continue to excerpt our influence and expertise.

The changing social climate will have increasing implications over the coming years and decades. For example, we have seen the application of standards such as BREEAM, the internationally recognised measure of sustainability for buildings and communities, move from single buildings to communities, as developers and planners start to look at a more holistic approach to schemes. The cities agenda is now very much on the agenda as evidenced at the recent Telegraph ‘Britain’s Smart Cities’ conference. It reinforced that further evolution is important as we begin to truly understand our cities as eco systems and how we design them to be more resilient, not just from an environmental perspective, but also changing socio-economic changes. Operating at this level will be important as we see the growing agenda around urbanisation but this is something that everyone needs to understand and buy into if it is to succeed.

As our cities grow and form their own eco systems, so will their reliance on data and technology. This will underpin our futures but we must first ensure that we maximise the potential of new products and services that will benefit from the endless amount of data – both that will be generated from our buildings and a growing number of other sources across our cities. This information will create the opportunity for new relationships, which essentially puts the consumer at the heart of the conversation with our cities responding to our needs.

So how do we manage all of this added complexity and change? A big part of this is the need for organisations to be more transparent. All too often businesses feel the need to be overtly secretive but this can have the adverse effect of stifling productivity. Information and data gathering, growing international trade opportunities, global standardisation and the challenges of skills shortages will require the industry to collaborate much more closely. There is a need for greater openness across parts of the industry, if we are to embrace chance rather than allowing it to swamp us.

Industry leaders need to realise that whilst we are in a time of uncertainty we are also in a time of change and with change comes opportunity. However if you don’t grab opportunity when it is there, all too soon it can be taken away and we are left in a position of catch up. With my role at BRE being allowing me to span academia, industry and Government, and having unique access to research, I can see the many opportunities that present themselves if we can get the right people round the table. Now is the time to get these people to contribute to the debate, face our challenges and work together to find solutions.

Martin Townsend
About the Author
Martin has a diverse professional background covering all aspects of the built environment from advising UK Ministers when he was an Advisor in Government, to his time as a Regulator in the Environment Agency, or working on construction sites. He works closely with the construction industry bringing sustainability issues alive for companies' right across Social, Economic and Environmental agenda. As Director at BRE he looks to accelerate and broaden the uptake of tools, standard and learning throughout the industry, from component, building and city level, and in doing so, challenge the industry to improve, based on both best practise, but also the latest research.

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