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Bits & Bricks

Originally authored by Phil Bernstein, Vice President of Autodesk and cross-posted from the Digital Energy Solutions Campaign Blog. For ITIF’s take on bringing innovation to the contruction industry, check out Steve Norton’s coverage of the Bits and Bricks event here.

The construction industry is widely understood to have missed the productivity surge created by the digital revolution. Why is that, and what is the government’s role in stimulating innovation and change in today’s building industry, particularly in the digital realm? This week’s ITIF “Bits and Bricks” conversation suggested some provocative opportunities. The U.S. Government, between DoD and GSA, represents the world’s largest property owner, tenant and construction client combined. So anything they decide to do will move the needle in the otherwise highly fragmented and disorderly world of architects, engineers and builders. But how to focus?

Our panel explored a number of ideas and formed more questions than answers. Even the Government doesn’t act a single entity, so its influence is and will be felt in a variety of ways. But some common themes emerged from the discussion, including:

  • Identifying and sponsoring innovation research (an area traditionally almost completely ignored by the industry);
  • Establishing repeatable standards for the use of technology in building (work begun in earnest today by both GSA and USACE through Building Information Modeling or BIM);
  • Creating clear policy objectives (for project work to create and leverage digital information); and finally,
  • Demonstrating and prototyping best practice through actual projects.  This is probably the most important, and immediately beneficial, opportunity.

The arsenal of digital tools available to today’s designers and builders–which include 3D digital modeling, laser scanning, computer controlled manufacturing, and cloud computing just to name a few–will only take true hold in our industry when the accompanying business processes by which things are built are dramatically changed. An engineer who creates a detailed digital model of a building’s mechanical system has generated incredible rich information from which that system can be manufactured, installed and even eventually operated. Yet in today’s government-based contracting and procurement models that prioritize lowest-first cost (“low bid”), that engineer has no incentive to create or share that information. Doing so potentially increases his/her responsibility for that system’s construction or function, and the contract, an artifact based on an earlier age of drawings and snail mail, hardly reflects potential new contribution.

So to really affect change in our industry, the government must do more than just nudge us toward the use of these new toys. It must examine and restructure the underlying instruments–contracts, obligations, payments, procurements, and allocations of risk–by which it builds. Those sorts of changes will make the real innovations of digital construction, and the productivity gains that will inevitably accrue, possible and widely used.

To watch video of the event, please click here.

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About the author

Steve Norton joined ITIF in 2010 as communications director, bringing over 20 years experience in economic policy and communications. Norton came to ITIF from Stewart and Stewart, an international trade and government relations firm, where he was senior communications advisor. Prior to that, he served as speechwriter and assistant press secretary for U.S. Trade Representatives Susan Schwab and Rob Portman. His service at USTR came after a 10-year career as a journalist at Congressional Quarterly, National Journal’s CongressDaily and other publications where he covered taxes, trade, and other economic policy issues.