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Rapid urbanisation calls for radical integration Anne Kerr

Tackling the world shortage of available housing will require more than new building technologies. Delivering urban infrastructure projects on the speed and scale required will only be possible through disruptive integration.

A house can be 3D-printed in hours. The completion of the 57-storey Mini Sky City building in China in just 19 days – see the amazing time-lapse video online – shows what can be achieved through prefabrication.

New technology is speeding up the mass construction of homes and communities, yet by itself will not empower the infrastructure sector to build the volume of units required fast enough, at an affordable cost, to meet demand.

A paradigm shift in home-building capacity and efficiency is needed to cope not only with the world’s growing population, projected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, but the transience and mobility of people in the 21st century.

If we are to truly revolutionise housing supply to meet these challenges, the key enabler will be disruptive integration.

As a general rule, there is always value in integrating and reducing interfaces – across the supply chain, sectors, disciplines and delivery process – because whenever there is an interface, there is a loss of value.

In the supply (or value) chain, we have seen integration encouraged through alliances, made up of clients, contractors and consultants who pool their knowledge and ideas to create better solutions. Here, there are opportunities for even greater integration, in new ways that have not yet been explored. And it just doesn’t mean forming alliances that also include suppliers and manufacturers, which would only be an incremental change.

The role of the ‘integrator’

Radical change would be the creation of a new class of organisation: not a contractor, consultant or supplier, but an ‘integrator’. Traditional engineering and management consultancies could step into this role because they have the right skillsets.

They have the technical expertise, they understand the end-to-end process, they are effective information managers, and they are equipped with the soft skills that are essential to pull together different teams from different organisations to work in unison to achieve the same objective.

The integrator would be at the centre of the delivery model, pulling all the strings, applying its depth of knowledge across multiple sectors to determine where synergies lie, identifying where efficiencies can be achieved through customisation and automation, and optimising decision-making.

The establishment of integrators would also support the concept of assembling not constructing infrastructure, creating a workflow methodology that takes full advantage of modular rather than linear processes, ie offsite manufacturing. This is important because the buildings of the future will be of modular design so they are adaptable to suit multiple uses and changing trends; the cities of the future will need to adapt in response to economic migration or large-scale displacements caused by conflict or climate change.

Sectors, at present, largely work in isolation, which is hardly compatible with building smart cities. Utility companies and transport providers can be incentivised to co-operate more, but should only be rewarded to come up with innovations that will deliver the outcomes the ultimate customers want – and what they will pay for.

One of the chief failings of the construction industry has been that stakeholders and sectors have pursued conflicting objectives and pulled in opposite directions. Focusing on what will provide the most benefit to the end user will provide a lens through which they can see how to make integration work, and they can be rewarded by monetising the benefit delivered.

New way of thinking

This new way of integrated thinking also demands that we no longer talk about individual disciplines. In developed countries, disciplines are broken down into silos – the various institutes for all the different professions are testament to that. The real world is more integrated, yet we have chosen to categorise it.

But we should not define ourselves as civil engineers, project managers, environmental consultants and so on. This promotes a siloed mind-set. Rather, we need to think and act as multi-skilled professionals who work as one team to deliver a solution. Our breadth of skills can be brought together through connected thinking and data processing. The golden thread that will bind us together is real-time information – when one team member updates a piece of data, everybody receives that update.

Lastly, take the delivery process: from the concept planning stage, through feasibility study, outline design then detailed design, to construction, operation and maintenance, there are a lot of handover points. The design and build approach is being increasingly used on high-profile projects but there is poor integration between operation and maintenance.

The more we can integrate the whole end-to-end process, the more efficient it will be. Lessons can be learned from other industries, notably aerospace. The giant Airbus A380 airliner is the product of highly efficient co-operation across the company’s global supply and manufacturing chains.

If we could replicate such disruptive integration, ambitious housing schemes currently considered unfeasible will become practical and affordable propositions. It will give the infrastructure sector the capability to meet population challenges worldwide, if not reinvent it altogether.

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