Industry and academia: perfect partners?

Construction can sometimes struggle to embrace the latest innovation, while academia needs to prove their technologies work in practice. So, could they be perfect partners for progress? Katy Dowding, Executive Vice President explains why she’s excited to see new relationships grow.

In construction, we must be laser focused on getting the job done – to deliver projects on time, budget and to the highest quality. But with today’s market pressures and high inflation, that’s increasingly challenging.

Alongside this, together with our customers, we want to innovate and find newer, more efficient ways of doing things. So how can we keep delivering on our projects while shaping ways to make the industry smarter and greener?

As construction productivity continues to stagnate at just a 12 per cent improvement in the last two decades, it’s clearly an industry-wide challenge. This compares with a whole economy increase of 53 per cent over the same period. And it’s becoming ever more urgent to close this gap as pressure to address climate change and cost challenges continually increase.

Recent collaboration with academics has led me to conclude that working more with professional thinkers can help us create the approach and space to look for some of these answers.

Teaming up to tackle construction productivity

I’m proud to represent Skanska on the Construction Productivity Taskforce – a group of industry experts working together to improve productivity. Our aim is to look at the elements that will have the biggest impact to drive efficiencies and share that with the industry. As part of this, we have worked with members of the University of Cambridge to develop guidance on productivity measurement.

They helped define what data we should focus on and provided rigour to the data collection process. We were then able to test the theories we had developed together at Norton Folgate, the Blossom Street development we’re currently delivering near Spitalfields Market in London.

The approach has also been piloted at commercial office development, The Forge, being delivered in joint venture between Sir Robert McAlpine and Mace. It ultimately shaped the development of a seven-step practical framework for measuring and improving construction site productivity.

Our relationship with academia is expanding in other areas too. We’ve recently formed a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) with Loughborough University. Together, we have been awarded Innovate UK funding to develop a machine-learning capability to support our work winning processes. I’m excited to see what this industry-leading work brings over the next couple of years.

Embracing academia beyond construction

And it’s not just in the construction process we can benefit from academia. We partnered with our customer Modus to co-sponsor PhD students working at the Ministry of Defence’s Whitehall headquarters – where we maintain facilities and provide services for more than 3,000 people based there. The learning they have shared improved our approach to asset management and added significant value to how we understand our service, while providing them with an unrivalled career leg-up – a real win-win.

Looking ahead, I’m delighted to be part of University College London’s advisory board for the new Innovation in Facilities Management MSc course, run by Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction. I look forward to sharing practical examples that can help shape the programme and what thinking that may provoke, in an area that’s constantly evolving with use of new technologies.

Collaborating to create foresight

The challenges of cutting carbon and integrating digital solutions into our traditional industry remain - and the stakes grow ever higher as we see increasing costs and the effects of the climate crisis and economic instability play out. Collaboration with both academic and industry partners, while not new, can help us find the answers quicker.

No one organisation has the capacity to solve the innovation gap alone, but together we can speed up progress through the richness of broader perspectives.

Last updated: 21/09/2022