George Orwell, 1984 and The Future of Construction

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I am reading George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” at the moment: if you didn’t read it at school, it should be on your “must read” list. It was published in 1949 and looks forward to a bleak world 35 years into the future.

It is impossible to predict, with any degree of accuracy, what the construction sector will look like 35 years from now – but let’s try looking ahead a mere 5-10 years: it’s certainly not going to be bleak or dystopian.

Here are three things that might happen:

• Wearable technology – wearable tech already exists with a wide array of fitness trackers and smart watches on the market. On the construction site of the future, workers might use activity trackers to monitor their vital signs and guard against fatigue (or raise the alarm if an accident is detected). Sound and vibration monitoring devices will track personal exposure in real time and not only warn of but will predict harmful conditions; and clocking in and out of sites will become automatic, as a worker crosses a geo-fenced site boundary and their wearable tech ‘reports in’. The geo fence could even measure the presence of alcohol or drugs barring an offending worker from entry. Workforce safety and wellbeing should be greatly improved as a result, going a long way towards fulfilling an employer’s duty of care and H&S obligations.

• Augmented reality – it’s already possible today to take a complex project’s BIM drawings and overlay them on a real world video display, either on a wearable device like Microsoft’s Hololens or, more recently, onto your mobile phone or tablet. Workers will be able to ‘see’ utilities running through their sites, and avoid issues like cable strikes altogether. Questions will need to be asked however regarding liability for this new layer of information. If a mistake is made, was the underlying source code to blame? Or was it the hardware that displayed the information incorrectly?

• Drones – in the last couple of years the popularity of drones has really taken off (no pun intended) and in 5 to 10 years there’s every reason to think drones will be as ubiquitous on construction sites as the excavator. The benefits are obvious – the option to restrict or even eliminate dangerous inspections undertaken at height will have massive implications for site safety. Quantity Surveyors and Clerks of Work may also come to use drones as standard tools of their trade, getting a closer look at hard-to-access areas and taking a bird’s eye view when assessing progress. We might even see drone records, coupled with a BIM-assisted delay analysis, as standard components of extension of time and loss and expense claims.

While these developments seem visionary, and complex legal issues such as data protection, copyright and employee rights will need to be addressed, it’s a fair bet we will see some or all of these technologies on construction sites soon. The key to success is to embrace innovation early. We are already working with our own Legal Technologist Sam Moore (a former construction lawyer) to develop our own knowledge management and work practices to address these future challenges. The construction sector is constantly evolving – who knows, on Scottish projects in the future we may even see the demise of collateral warranties when the Contract (Third Party Rights) (Scotland) Bill becomes law– stranger things have happened!

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