Listening to the construction ecosystem

Open systems that support collaboration across all stakeholders can drive powerful feedback loops and improve efficiency, says Nathan Doughty, chief executive of Asite

On a construction site, everyone from the site manager to a bricklayer working the morning shift is in constant communication with their colleagues. You might hear someone shouting for more mortar, for instance, or asking another worker to lower their ladder from the top of the building. These are all feedback loops and they’re a fundamental part of how people collaborate on a building project.

So before discussing the more theoretical aspects of feedback loops, it’s important to make one thing clear: they are fundamentally about people talking to other people to get things done.

Of course, the site foreman and his crew aren’t the only people involved in a building project. While they’re obviously very important, the construction ecosystem includes a wide variety of stakeholders. Some of them might be sat in an office on the other side of the world to the site itself. Others are responsible for driving the lorries that deliver materials or equipment. And they all need to co-ordinate their efforts to produce a built asset successfully.

Speaking the same language

When Asite was established in 2001, our goal was to improve efficiencies in the construction industry so things not only got done, but were done better. One of the first things we noted was that communication is often repeated. That’s a perfectly normal, human thing. But a lot of repeated communication is based on the wrong information, which can lead to costly mistakes. Or to put it another way, the sooner you find mistakes, the cheaper it is to fix them.

In fact, the best time to discover mistakes is before they’ve occurred in the physical world. Not so long ago, teams had to rely on blueprints to identify potential issues at this stage of a project, and when the architect was on version three and the site manager was on version two, the effectiveness and accuracy of any feedback loops could quickly fall apart. 

Now mobile technology also means everyone quite literally has the plans for a built asset in their pocket. Modern digital tools also allow everyone to communicate with ease and can track what’s been said or decided for future reference. For example, building information modelling (BIM) and Asite’s cloud collaboration system allow everyone to work from the same real-time digital “blueprint” and communicate seamlessly to resolve problems. In other words, everyone has access to the same information and speaks the same language.

This ability to access data and collaborate with colleagues anytime, anywhere has been a game-changer for the industry. But the flip side to this increased access is information overload.

We’re inundated with notifications and messages from people who are keen to get our attention and left unchecked this deluge of data can easily overwhelm us. Furthermore, if someone instantly receives the wrong information, it could be even more damaging to a project than them not receiving the information at all. So while it’s great everyone on site has instant access to data, it needs to be the right, properly structured data to be truly useful and support feedback loops that will enhance efficiency.

Single source of truth

That structure and exactitude is a fundamental part of BIM and our collaborative platform, as well as digital twins. The latter are digital models of physical assets that are connected in real time, which means events that occur in the physical world can be captured, tracked and modelled. At the same time, the digital twin can message the physical asset. This is a system-to-system feedback loop that, while currently governed by people, could eventually be automated and controlled by artificial intelligence. 

The technology that supports feedback loops should be just as intuitive as shouting for some more mortar or asking someone to retrieve a ladder

BIM, digital twins and collaboration platforms ultimately act as a single source of truth for the construction and maintenance of a built asset. Anything that doesn’t get captured will therefore lie outside the scope of a feedback loop and, if it’s important information, that’s bound to cause problems. Human nature being what it is, you can never ensure every stakeholder and participant will capture everything you’d like them to capture. But what you can do is ensure your system is totally open. 

This means that regardless of whether someone uses an iPhone, an Android device or even a BlackBerry, it won’t affect their ability to capture something and collaborate on a successful outcome for the project. Such an open, decentralised system also means feedback can easily be scaled to include all the relevant parties. In short, the technology that supports feedback loops should be just as intuitive as shouting for some more mortar or asking someone to retrieve a ladder.