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News & opinion

11 OCT 2019

Technology is here to stay - but are we ready for it?

Danielle Lester, Senior Teaching Fellow for Construction Management and Quantity Surveying, Faculty of Society and Design at Bond University in Australia

There is no doubt that technology, for the most part, is making our personal and professional lives more convenient. Aside from the occasional loss of signal, or other unknown data error we are all reaping the benefits of more time and better connectivity, aren't we?

You could argue that the construction industry has been late to the party with regards to technology. But in terms of change, the construction industry's adoption of new technologies is relative in an industry with the familiar war cry of "We don't need to reinvent the wheel!". Add this to the constraints of idealistic schedules and budgets, and the relatively new educational discipline of Construction Management (relative to engineering and architecture), and we can begin to understand why the construction industry may be slow or even resistant to change.

Regardless of how much the industry is embracing technology internally, the impact that technology is having on society should be giving the industry cause for concern, enough to start developing strategies for how these changes may impact the workforce of the future.

Using everyday behaviour as an example; driving a car that was built in the last 10 years could mean that you are possibly no longer looking over your shoulder when reversing, or waiting for a beeping noise to tell you when you are too close to another vehicle, or maybe even expecting the steering wheel to vibrate if you drive over the white lines. All of these 'technological advances', are replacing our need for awareness and therefore impacting our decision-making.

While we are gradually coming to terms with the idea of technology's ability to replicate our behaviour, and the prospect of our jobs becoming automated, what about the behaviour that technology is replacing, or removing?

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Technology has plenty of upside, but is over-reliance on it going to have a negative impact?

The cost of convenience

"Cognitive Bias - a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment."

In construction, the expectation of improved schedules and budgets can often lead to optimism bias and flawed solutions. When time and cost are driving our impetus to deliver more for less, do we have the time to check in with our own cognitive biases? As the technology that we interact with day to day eliminates the need to make decisions, what impact is this having on our ability to make quality decisions in a project environment? And how can we be sure of the quality of decisions being made by the technology itself?

"The fact that the programmers who build AI systems do not entirely know why the algorithms that power it make the decisions they do, is one of the biggest issues with the technology... As systems become more advanced, we will definitely have to develop new techniques to understand them" DeepMind, 2018

Tolerance takes (up) time

Tolerance to change takes time, but our tolerance of quality and competency are changing not least due to the fact that consumer lifecycles are getting shorter, and shortcuts, work arounds, or hacks now allow us to bypass technology problems in an instant, if we know how. Forming new habits takes no time at all, and accepting substandard systems because ultimately our end goal can be achieved even if incomplete, is becoming the new norm.

How can we be sure that these new habits are not impacting our decision making in a project environment, particularly if that decision lies with the technology itself. Are we enhancing indolence as a result of inadequate systems? Are we even aware the systems are inadequate? And if we are aware, are we prepared to question and challenge them?

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Convenience as a result of technological advancements can lead to an acceptance of sub-standard practices - as long as the end goal is reached

We don't talk anymore...

A particularly troubling and ironic result of increased connectivity is our decreasing ability to communicate effectively. With so many methods at our fingertips to instantly inquire, respond, express opinions, or simply check in, are we taking sufficient time to think about our communication, and the consequences of those decisions? What impact might this have on our ability to review and respond to change, or communicate appropriately?

As the majority of communication is now screen based, are we diminishing our ability and responsibility to read body language and other cues that develop empathy and help us translate and navigate negotiation, disputes, or just day to day communication?

Final thought

The purpose of this article was not to challenge biases, or incite anxiety, or indeed paint a 'Black Mirror' scenario that has us all throwing our technology into the nearest body of water, or switching off all the bells and whistles in our cars. As an academic in the built environment, even in the short time that I have been standing in front of the classroom I am becoming increasingly aware of the impact that technology is having on society.

As our personal and professional lives increase in fluidity, and complexity, are we conscious of the impact that change driven by technology is having on our workforce?