IBEW 2020: Leadership Plenary: Re-imagining the built environment in a post-pandemic era


IBEW 2020: Leadership Plenary: Re-imagining the built environment in a post-pandemic era

October 8, 2020

24 September 2020 — COVID has irrevocably changed the way the built environment sector and businesses have to operate. In this session, the speakers discussed where the future of the built environment sector is headed and how we should then design, build and operate our buildings in response to these changes.

Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman (Director of Strategic Foresight, Office of the President, ETH Zurich)

Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman’s interest in the built environment blossomed early, propelling him to pursue a multi-faceted education, beginning with engineering and culminating in a Doctorate in Architecture from ETH in Zurich, where he has recently returned. Chris’s love of concrete bridges and advanced computation enabled him to gained valuable experience as the protégé of Santiago Calatrava. Subsequently he returned turned to his other passion, education, by accepting teaching positions at several prestigious universities. In 1999, Chris joined Arup as the Co-Director for Research and Development. A couple of years later, he became an intrapreneur by forming the Foresight, Innovation and Incubation team. This evolved to its present form as Foresight, Research and Innovation. He, and his team have worked with many of the world’s to companies to help them understand what is driving change and how they can position themselves to take advantage of what is to come.

For some, COVID-19 was a wave that washed over us; some surfed this wave skilfully, others saw this as a terrifying plunge. Yet others in the world felt this as a tsunami. No matter where you are in the world, what we have seen, is that the frenetic pace of our lives that we spend travelling came to a true grinding stop, where the economies of the world ‘switched off’.

What will the ‘new’ normal look like?

I have an issue with the word “normal”, because there is no such thing is normal. Each one of us will have a different definition of the word “normal” as we go about our day. The question now is what will be “sticky”; what is going to stay.

What is interesting is that our view on this really depends on whether you sit or stand to work. Most of us in this webinar sit to work, and most of us work with those who stand to work (in factories or kitchens). So from the perspective of those who sit to work:

  • An accelerator of the inevitable
    Digital transformation is no longer a “someday”, but a “must”; we can do now in seconds what it took weeks to achieve. There will be implications, consolidations; the question is who is going to have an advantage.
  • An appreciation of the moments that matter
    A rediscovery of typologies of interaction, which we have become painfully aware of the interaction that we are missing through the lockdowns.
  • An appreciation of the efficiencies of transactional versus necessary meandering of the creative.
    We no longer have to only rely on travelling to a meeting, we can click in one via a Zoom platform in seconds.
  • An increased awareness of global supply chains
    A crash course in the fragility of globalisation, and an anticipation to enhance nationalistic supply resilience.

Data has become a crucial part of the new normal: where things are, where they are going, what is to come. There is now a new expectation for the tools and parameters that we did not know we have to optimise for a COVID pandemic; our systems now have new optimisation parameters. There is a need for total design, an increased awareness of the critical nature that we cannot continue to work in silos.

“The future will look a lot like it did a year ago, but with a digital ‘twist’.”

Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman

Matt Gough (Innovation Director, Mace)

As Innovation Director for global construction and consultancy company Mace, Matt is leading the company in its ambition to catalyse the next evolution of the construction industry. Focused on the disruption of Mace’s traditional business model across markets and geographies, Matt is at the forefront of the company’s digital transformation, and re-defining how Mace designs, builds and operates the built environment it is responsible for. With a focus on increasing productivity and improving all aspects of our delivery in direct response to the climate emergency, Matt’s is working closely with clients, suppliers and colleagues to ensure we rise to the challenge of transforming the construction industry to meet increasing demand and diminishing resources.

Reimagining the built environment to build back better

For a period of time now, we have been trying to encourage and inspire change for our business and the wider industry. I was looking back in terms of where we were pre-COVID-19, and as a company involved in the built environment, while we have seen a certain permeation of digital tools and technologies into the industry over the past decades, we still have not necessarily had that seismic shift in terms of productivity, performance, improvement and efficiency.

The reason is that technology is not the panacea, it is not the silver bullet; it is an enabler. What we really required is something else, in order to achieve that seismic shift, which we believe is the climate emergency. It’s not something that we had thought or wished for, definitely something that as an industry we had to make it more effective, impactful or responsive, it was going to accelerate change, innovation and transformation way quicker than any digital tools that we have been testing.

Firstly, we recognise the significant humanitarian challenge brought about by COVID-19, and our responsibility as a business, first and foremost, to protect the health and well-being of not just our employees, but also the wider community and society that we work with.

Secondly, we are presented by a significant economic challenge, how do we ensure that we can keep our business operating and our economies vibrant, where possible?

While we are now starting to get back to the same levels of resource and labour, we found that our productivity has improved: 50 per cent of the workforce reduction but only 30 per cent reduction in output. A feedback from our site managers revealed that “with the productivity and the new ways of thinking, we believe we only need 7.5 people to do the same as 10 people,” which is a significant shift in the industry.

Three big trends: Workforce, supply chain, environment

We had a glimpse of the future, and it is imperative that we take some of that positive learning and accelerate/capitalise on it.

Workforce: Prior to COVID-19, it was difficult for us to really understand how our workforce is operating: who and where they are, what they are being tasked with, etc. There is a long-held believe in the construction industry that if you are running behind schedule, you bring more labour to site, you throw more people at it, to try and generate more activity. What we learn during the last six months was that actually, that is not working. Less people could produce more results. Better clarity, better planning, better transparency and direction around what is going on has allowed an increased productivity without an increase of labour.

Supply chain: The fragility of supply chains and the arrangements that we have around both materials and labour have proven to be a critical area in need of improvement and to be addressed. With the impact of the pandemic, there was a closing of borders, affecting the ability to get materials to sites, the lack of visibility of stock piling and where materials are, etc. The industry had to make a seismic shift as to how these issues are being approached, with a need to ensure that this is being incorporated as a standard procedure moving forward.

Environment: It’s long been proven in cases that work off-site is safer, produce better quality, and is more productive compared to the same work on-site.

There is a recognition that technology continues to be an enabler of those type of changes. Our digital transformation has been incredible, we say we have been through 10 years of change within weeks. That’s not through doing new things, but just the absorption and adoption of the tools that we already had in place. The proliferation of technology and tools to support us to do better work has been the silver lining in these recent challenging times.

These past six months have provided a glimpse of the future for all of us. How can we make things more efficient, how can we rationalise and use less space, and the most classic one; can we do that any cheaper? These are questions that we really need to ask ourselves, in order to be an industry that delivers benefits to the society, and one that meets the demands of WELL certification and the climate emergency.

Tai Lee Siang (Executive Director, Building and Construction Authority), moderator

Tai Lee Siang is a practising architect and urban planner since 1990. His key projects won both local and international award and was featured in a URA exhibition “20 under 45” in March 2004. He held the position as President of Singapore Institute of Architects from 2007 to 2009. In 2009, following his contribution to the design world, he was elected by the design industry as the first chairman of Design Alliance of Singapore. In 2011, he was selected as President of Singapore Green Building Council. Tai Lee Siang is a thought leader and strong advocate in the fields of Design, he was elected President of Design Business Chamber Singapore from 2013 to 2016. He also started the Singapore Good Design Mark in 2014.

Tai Lee Siang is committed to expanding his contribution worldwide. In 2013, he was selected as a Board Director of World Green Building Council. He was subsequently elected and served as Global Chairman from July 2016 to June 2018. From 2010 to 2016, Tai Lee Siang held the position of Group Managing Director of Ong&Ong Group – a multi-discipline design firm of 900 strong. He is also Board Member of Health Science Authority and Board of Trustee of Singapore University of Technology and Design. In September 2018, Tai Lee Siang joined Building and Construction Authority of Singapore as Executive Director of BuildSG—an industry transformation initiative by the government of Singapore.

To read the complete article, get your hardcopy at our online shop/newsstands/major bookstores; subscribe to FuturArc or download the FuturArc App to read the issues!