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Will Construction of the Future be Unrecognisable to Today?

last modified Apr 02, 2019 04:42 PM
The shape of future architecture, engineering and construction was subject of the Construction Engineering Masters Annual Debate

A bell sounded the start of the  Construction Engineering Masters (CEM) Annual Debate as the two teams were led into the University of Cambridge Debating Chamber. Home to the oldest debating society in the world and host to a wide range of public figures who have shaped the world we live in, including the Dalai Lama, Winston Churchill and Baroness Hale of Richmond, the Chamber was full of academics and industry professionals (many who are currently completing a part-time master’s degree at Cambridge) awaiting the opening proposal of the motion.

The moot for 2019 was: This House believes that the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry of 2050 will be unrecognisable to today and the topic invited insight, informed comment, passion and humour as the two teams presented their arguments to win the day.

Sponsored for the second year by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), the invited audience was joined by CDBB’s Dr Kate Parsley, Head of Engagement, and Nicola Pearson, Head of Change and Knowledge Transfer. The two debating teams were no strangers to the topic of transforming construction; the CEM programme is designed for experienced practitioners in construction and related sectors, recognised as future leaders and potential agents of industry change.

Dr Kristen MacAskill, Construction Engineering Masters Course Director, who chaired the evening, said: “The Annual Debate is a highlight of the CEM two-year Masters of Studies programme that aims to equip future industry leaders with the ability to deliver change. The debate is an opportunity to explore challenges that face our industry and students must develop and present the best case to propose or oppose the moot, delivering evidence-based arguments to win support – even if they do not personally agree with the motion tasked.”

The speakers for the two teams comprised Paul James (of Peter Brett, now part of Stantec), Joe Rice-Jones (Bentley), William Charlesworth (Yendall Hunter), Mungo Stacy (WSP), Sheryn Gillin (Laing O’Rourke) and Alex Morris (Arup). Opening the debate the first speaker, proposing the motion, began proceedings by confirming the proposition’s definitions; architecture engineering and construction being a collective term for the construction industry as a whole and focus was on the industry itself rather than the product delivered. The audience was invited to think back to 1989 as the speaker described a society and a construction site of yesteryear – no mobile phones, basic health and safety regulations, pay packet wages, smoking in offices and calculations and drawings made by hand – bringing focus to the unimaginable changes made in the last 30 years. The past, said the speaker, is unrecognisable to today.

Introducing sustainability as a key driver to the future of construction the speaker outlined global challenges, including the UN prediction of world population reaching 9.7 billion by 2050. It was argued the construction industry has opportunity to create the ultimate disrupters and there is no choice but make dramatic changes to how we build, recycle and demolish materials. Citing mental health and wellbeing as another driver for change, and the World Economic Forum prediction of $100 trillion investment available for global infrastructure, the opening speaker declared construction in 2050 will be unrecognisable to today.

Arguing against the motion, the first speaker of the opposing team was clear and eloquent in defining the AEC industry as global, at the heart of civilisation and that the industry exists to satisfy basic human needs. The opposing team argued that the product of the construction industry as key to the definition. The speaker queried the proposing team for not qualifying the term ‘unrecognisable’, defining it as something not known or experienced before. Presenting a strong case, the speaker argued that, in order for the whole to be unrecognisable, the majority of industry would need to change radically and the scale of change required is inconceivable given the diversity, fragmentation and scale of the global industry.

Fantasy and fact collided during the second speeches, with both teams attempting to appeal to the audience’s imaginings of possible futures. The proposing team took the audience on an imaginary journey to 2050 when AI and machine learning is driving multiple projects all held on a gaming platform, homes are ordered on Amazon, delivered by drones and made of sustainable and energy-efficient materials while food is grown locally on bio-walls. Digital built Britain is a reality and the national Digital Twin a success that delivers a surge of investment in projects.

Opposing this vision, the second speaker of the opposing team remained in the present, pointing out the technologies and tools already in development that will still be part of the industry in 2050 including BIM, AI and drones. Drawing attention to the length of time taken from a project’s conception to delivery – 200 years for the Channel Tunnel and 44 for HS1 – the incremental rate of change in construction was described as “glacially slow”.

When the floor opened for audience participation, contributions were reflective and informed, capturing the high level of understanding of the topic under debate. Finely-honed observations considered: the pace of change in technologies used in construction; the need to maintain our building stock; the potential economic consequences to not embracing industry change; and the belief that the human spirit will transcend technological advances, ultimately making the future recognisable.

Final speakers had the difficult task of responding to the arguments presented and winning the hearts and minds of the audience to secure victory for their team. The final speaker for the proposition observed the fundamental argument over what is ‘unrecognisable’, pointing out that the technologies already in development – smart sensors, smart contracts, blockchain and algorithms – combined with the wall of available finance makes revolutionary change unstoppable. Closing the debate the final speaker in opposition reminded the audience of what defines ‘unrecognisable’ and told a tale of the building of King’s College Chapel where King Henry laid the foundation stone in 1446 hoping for project delivery in 10 years, but the over-time and over-budget building was not completed until 69 years later. “Do you find that unrecognisable?” While this was an extreme example, project delays remain a major challenge for the industry today. Construction, the speaker argued, is the coordination of labour and resource to put a project in place and that, the speaker said with flourish, is certainly not unrecognisable.

Following passionate arguments on both sides of house the audience departed the Chamber, choosing to leave by a door on the left (the ‘noes’) or a door on the right (the ‘ayes’) to decide the winning team. Ahead of the debate a show of hands from the audience indicated a fairly even split in support of and in opposition to the moot. The opposing team was the clear winner at the end of the evening.

Mungo Stacy was named as best speaker of the debate. Commending excellent performances all round, CDBB’s Dr Kate Parsley presented participants with a memento of the event: “CDBB is delighted to partner with the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology and support the CEM Annual Debate that brings lively, sharp and compelling evidence and argument to consider the future of construction and the built environment. The CEM attracts best in class from the industry and this was clearly reflected in the 2019 Annual Debate. Well done to everyone who participated.”

Welcome to the Centre for Digital Built Britain.  

The Centre for Digital Built Britain is a partnership between the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the University of Cambridge to understand how the construction and infrastructure sectors could use a digital approach to better design, build, operate, and integrate the built environment.

Upcoming events

Toward Blockchain-Enabled Supply Chains in the Built Environment

Jun 28, 2019

3M Buckley Innovation Centre Hudderfield, HD1 3BD, UK

Recommendations for Automated Checking of Regulations and Requirements Management in Healthcare Design

Jul 01, 2019

The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London, WC1E 7BT

International Conference on Smart Infrastructure and Construction (ICSIC) 2019

Jul 08, 2019

Churchill College, University of Cambridge

CDBB Week 2019

Sep 09, 2019

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