It’s no secret that the world of construction can be slow to innovate. In an industry where major players are competing to build better, faster and cheaper than ever, innovation largely takes place in the segmented ecosystems of the private sector, academia and, occasionally, government, making them difficult to apply on a mass scale.
Australia is doing things differently. Building 4.0 CRC aims to bring these siloed aspects of the construction industry into conversation, working together to build an internationally competitive sector that can deliver buildings safer, greener and at a lower cost through cooperation. Built spoke to the group’s CEO, professor Mathew Aitchison, about this ambitious undertaking and what the rest of the world can learn from Australia’s approach to construction innovation.
Uniting government, industry and academia
Aitchison said the idea of CRCs, short for Cooperative Research Centres, is nothing new in Australia, where such programs track industry verticals such as mining, medical devices or natural resources. Building 4.0 CRC is the culmination of a decade of applied research work with industry players throughout Australia.
The group has key focus areas that Aitchison and his partners in the CRC group seek to tackle. “People, practices, culture, sustainability, industrialization and also digitalization,” Aitchison said.
Keeping these areas in mind, Aitchison and his team began by putting collaboration at the core of the CRC’s mission. “We focused on getting all of our partners up and running on projects and working together collaboratively,” Aitchison said. “Really helping that process by making or facilitating our partners to understand what it is to do R&D with a bunch of different stakeholders.”
Because they were working with stakeholders from so many segments of construction, Aitchison said that facilitating these conversations often took some organizational skills. “Let’s say you have a commercial company,” he said, “and then they’re now working with university researchers, some of whom may never have worked with industry partners. They may have been in their silo. And similarly, how do those two types of players then relate to government partners?”
Figuring out how to get the three segments of the project to communicate effectively was Aitchison’s first major task. “Getting those relationships up and running, getting everyone’s general understanding of how to do R&D in the built environment and elevating it to a consistent level takes time,” he said.
Once a shared understanding of their mission was developed, Aitchison and his team had established the necessary conditions for a successful project.
Aitchison believes that the Building 4.0 initiative is unique because it allows these attempts at transformation to occur in a space that’s mutually supportive and open to input from stakeholders on all levels of the construction industry.
“What’s really interesting about the CRC program is that it puts together all of the major ingredients that you need to bring about this innovation that we all are after and bridges the gap between research and industry,” he said. “So we have universities involved in industry, but not only that; it also brings government players to the table.”
But how does this collaboration work on such a massive scale? According to Aitchison, it all comes down to shared processes that allow them to take a more collaborative approach to solving some of the construction industry’s most common problems.
“We start some projects with what’s called a scoping study,” he said. “The idea is to map out the territory at a fairly superficial level, which enables us to go on to do more targeted, specific research. It creates something like a family tree, where we might have a scoping study that starts at a quite general level, but that might spawn two or more projects that have fewer partners and a more defined scope to solve a particular issue that’s been identified.”
Aitchison and his team have used this approach to complete around 20 projects during the CRC’s existence, with an additional 25 in the pipeline. They’ve looked at everything from the use of platforms in the building industry and organizing value chains in the future of buildings, to imagining a new future in the world of planning.
“We are starting a range of projects that we call initiative-driven projects,” Aitchison said. “One of the things that we did when we started the CRC was we effectively solicited interest from our partners and said, ‘What problems do you want to solve? What’s on your horizon? How would you like to do things?’”
By foregrounding these instrumental questions that stakeholders need solved, Aitchison and his team are able to become effective drivers of real, meaningful change throughout the Australian construction industry.
Creating a culture of innovation
As exciting as these individual research projects are, Aitchison said the most important goal of the CRC project is something more intangible: creating a shared culture of innovation throughout the construction industry.
“The bigger picture here is that it’s extremely hard to innovate in building,” he said. “Notoriously so. And it’s been many decades since we might think about a transformative approach to building innovation having been successful. There have been many attempts, some of them quite recent, but the thing they almost all have in common is that they fail enormously.”
Aitchison believes that these failures stem from the siloed nature of the construction sector, which prevents the conversations that allow industry players to share their unique strengths. “What we’ve seen historically is an industry player or a university player has some grand idea, or in some cases you’ll see a government has a big idea like that, but then how do they actually execute that with this very fractured, fragmented ecosystem that’s not really an ecosystem?”
The CRC model allows players to come together in a more meaningful way. “It bridges those critical gaps,” Aitchison said. “I think that that can lead to this kind of innovation. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it’s easy, but I’m going to say that I think the ingredients are right. The preconditions for the innovation we want to achieve are right.”