If a Feb/Mar study this year is anything to go by, and extrapolating pandemic’s debilitating effects; we have a problem.

Ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games, the French government had stated that new facilities and buildings must be sustainable and ‘smart’. Elsewhere, countries such as Singapore and Japan have similar smart city ambitions. This is not news.

However, when half of 400 construction leaders interviewed in France, Spain, Singapore and Japan believed the construction sector did not have the digital capability to meet the demands of a smart city, that is news.

There is some readiness in the industry to meet the challenge of digitalization to support the construction of intelligent infrastructures: 95% of respondents in the abovementioned survey by FinalCad had mentioned their organization was ‘somewhat prepared’ for the collection of big data and adoption of digital technologies.

However, there are still barriers to overcome, with 68% citing an inability to collect real-time data as a major challenge to smart development. More than a quarter (28%) also pointed to an inability to create a digital ‘footprint’ of a building or asset as a challenge.

Smart and Green mandates affected

Overcoming these hurdles will not only be crucial for smart cities development, but for ‘green’ construction as well. The EU Commission, for example, is introducing a new framework called Level(s), late this year to adopt a new approach to developing sustainable buildings.

Level(s) encourages builders, architects and public authorities to think about the lifecycle of a building, from the sourcing of materials to the eventual deconstruction and recycling of materials. But the research highlights that construction firms are not ready for such an approach today; many cannot record and share data around the provenance of materials (32%) or the percentage of waste material on a site that is recycled (42%).

Commented Franck Le Tendre, CEO, Finalcad: “COVID-19 has hit the construction sector hard and businesses revenues have absorbed the brunt of this. We know from our research that profit margins were already averaging just 2% before COVID-19. While this is no doubt extremely challenging for the industry, it’s also an opportunity for construction firms to embrace digitalization and arm themselves for the future.”

By prioritizing digitalization now, Tendre said, they will be able to tap into future trends like smart cities and green construction. This will enable construction companies to play their part in creating a more sustainable future as well as access new revenue streams that will be key to long-term recovery.

Other digitalization challenges

The survey also found that the digital skills gap is a barrier to digital transformation for the vast majority of construction businesses; 96% of respondents felt the workforce lacked the skills to use digital tools and applications to some degree.

To overcome this challenge, construction firms must invest in intuitive solutions that place an emphasis on user experience and ease-of-use, according to the study. This will ensure all workers, regardless of their existing skill level, can use any new tools introduced.

By promoting the adoption of digital tools with this approach, digitalization will be accelerated, and productivity, efficiency and collaboration “will be improved across projects”. Considering that 97% of construction leaders admitted they found it “somewhat challenging” to work in a collaborative way and share information easily, driving this change is particularly important.

“Bridging the digital skills gap will be pivotal in supporting effective collaboration and communication in construction. This is also essential in recovering from the disruption caused by COVID-19, which has completely changed the way businesses can operate, both on and off site,” continued Tendre.

According to him, creating a digital-first workplace will enable construction firms to build the digital foundations for future success. Also, a digital-first work environment is supposedly far more attractive to younger workers given that, by 2025, 75% of this industry’s professionals will be millennials. “This approach will enable businesses to play a role in future trends and revenue opportunities in the post-COVID-19 era.”