Great Tech Expectations: What Speaking to a Group of Future Construction Leaders Teaches Us

By Doug Chambers, FieldLens CEO

A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to speak with students from Pratt Institute’s School of Construction Management on the topic of the future of technology in the construction industry. The 100 or so audience members were a mix of undergraduate and graduate level architecture and construction management students, many of whom make their living working in construction during the day while working on their degree in the evenings.

It was a thrill for me to meet with these students, especially when it became evident how genuinely excited each and every one of them is about the construction industry. America’s economic health is tightly linked to construction activity, and as we emerge from the recent economic recession, the enthusiasm and dedication of our future industry leaders is more important than ever. For someone like me (a guy who is incredibly passionate about almost anything construction related), I was inspired by this group of students who are clearly eager to join and have an impact on the future of the construction industry.

We kicked off the night by discussing the significance of mobile technology in daily life. I opened by asking the students for a show of hands as to how many people in the room have a smartphone. Not surprisingly, nearly every hand went up as iPhone and Android screens lit up the room. “How many of you use that smartphone for just about all your communication during the day?”  Again, every hand shot up. Then the follow-up question – and this is the really important part – “How many of you expect mobile technology will be a large part of your career in construction?” Every single hand stayed raised.

This is extremely important for the construction industry to understand! Not only have these students universally adopted the smartphone, but they expect that this technology, and technology in general, be part and parcel to the work they do every day. Now these students are just a small fraction of the construction industry’s future leaders, but I’d be willing to bet it’s a sample representative of nearly every up and coming construction professional out there.

Construction Labor Productivity, 1964-2012 based on various deflators vs. Productivity for Nonfarm industries.  (Source: Census Bureau, BLS)
Construction Labor Productivity, 1964-2012 based on various deflators vs. Productivity for Nonfarm industries. (Source: Census Bureau, BLS)

Now for a dose of reality – construction is the only non-farm industry that has actually decreased in productivity over the past 50 years. While other major industries have nearly tripled in productivity, construction has lost ground. Why? What is holding the construction industry back? The answer is this: to date construction has not been significantly impacted by the technology innovations that have revolutionized how we live our lives and how other industries work. Construction professionals spend their most important time working in the field and until recently they couldn’t bring their computers with them.

The good news is things are beginning to change, thanks in no small part to the latest crop of tech savvy construction students and professionals poised and ready to lead the industry forward. The widespread adoption of innovative technologies that help drive productivity will change the way teams come together to build.  Field access to documents and data via mobile devices, virtual collaboration tools, BIM and its impact on coordination and logistics are just the start. Emerging technologies like 3D printing will change the way we approach complex installations in the field. Aerial drones will fly through construction sites mapping layouts, scanning for hazards and documenting current conditions. Wearable technology like Google Glass and gesture-based controls will become as commonplace on the construction site as the hard hat.

Surprisingly the takeaway from this talk for my construction peers isn’t actually about the technology – it’s about the people who will be using the technology. These tools aren’t being delivered to the field because a big advertising company made them seem cool or because some executive in his or her ivory tower decided technology is the way to go. Tech requirements for construction are grassroots. They come from people like me who worked in the field and know that modern technology impacts and adds value to work being done on the jobsite just as much as it does for the work being done in the office. They come from students like the ones at Pratt, who eagerly embrace new technology and seek ways it can improve their productivity. The shifting paradigm dictating what construction professionals are/will be using in the field is rooted in demand created by workers who need better tools to do their jobs. People are the most important asset of this industry. Not concrete, steel, software, or plans and specs. People. And providing those people with the right tools is what truly matters.

Construction professionals solve complex problems every day, and improvements in technology will empower them to collaborate and learn from each other more efficiently. Using technology to truly connect the people designing and building our buildings has the potential to reverse the productivity backslide plaguing the industry, making us more productive than we’ve been in decades. As future leaders of the construction industry the students of Pratt Institute and every other program not only deserve better technology tools, they’re expecting them.