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Overcoming the aversion to risk key to innovation in construction

Ian Harvey
Overcoming the aversion to risk key to innovation in construction

Canada’s construction sector is slow to embrace innovation, is fearful of change and remains rooted in the past, says a World Economic Forum (WEF) report.

While almost every other sector has undergone disruptive changes over the last few decades, reaping the benefits of process and product innovations, the engineering and construction sector has been hesitant about fully embracing the latest technological opportunities and its labour productivity has stagnated, the report, Global Trends with Engineering and Construction, states.

Since the report was released two years ago, Canadian Construction Innovations (CCI), which consists of a group of about 40 industry leaders and related companies, has been trying to raise awareness around the need for innovation to drive productivity.

But CCI chair John Bockstael says it’s been difficult because by nature the sector is risk averse.

Compounding progress, CCI says, the “unimpressive track record can be attributed to various internal and external challenges: the persistent fragmentation of the industry, inadequate collaboration with suppliers and contractors, the difficulties in recruiting a talented workforce, and insufficient knowledge transfer from project to project, to name just a few.”

The WEF report notes: “Canada is a G8 country but ranks 15th out of 144 countries for business competitiveness, 17th in venture-capital availability, 23rd in business sophistication, 27th in corporate R&D spending, 26th in its capacity to innovate, 30th in being an early adopter of technologies and processes such as BIM.”

The chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada notes: “If we continue to discount or dismiss the productivity issue, Canadians future incomes will be threatened, particularly if there is a sustained downward adjustment in the price of key natural resources. If there was ever a time to take poor productivity growth seriously, that time has arrived.”

Part of the problem, says Bockstael, is the nature of the sector.


We’d like to see researchers co-ordinate and collaborate on projects

— John Bockstael

Canadian Construction Innovations


“We’re a large industry but rather fragmented when you consider most of the companies are small, in fact micro-sized sometimes,” he says.

Small companies don’t have the resources to invest in R&D, he says, whereas large global conglomerates are better positioned.

There’s also the issue of risk.

Neither the owners of structures, who are the buyers of construction services, want to be the first to try a new concept, while contractors also don’t want to risk their reputation and profit margins on untested ideas, especially when the life cycles are measured in decades.

“No one has the time to take a scientific approach and collect the data,” he says, noting many of the innovations that have found their way on to projects were developed through trial and error, not an iterative scientific approach of test and measure.

Playing into the lack of resources, while many companies are sponsoring research into materials, science and other innovations at universities across Canada, Bockstael says the research dollars are also somewhat fragmented.

“We’d like to see researchers co-ordinate and collaborate on projects and share their work, not just go out and get their own funding so you have four groups working on the same research,” he says. “This could be done regionally.”

Getting from the lab to the project level is another barrier, he says.

“It’s one of the things that plagues innovation,” he says. “We don’t tend to try new ideas on living, breathing projects.”

If private owners are reluctant, he says, it might be incumbent on government to underwrite the risk, either in partnership, as part of the investment in innovation, or using one of their own projects as a showcase for the new technology.

There are classic winners in construction technology advances, nonetheless, he says.

CarbonCure, for example, started in a laboratory at McGill University and has built a business across North America using its technology to inject and sequester CO2 in cement. This locks in the CO2 and aids in the curing of concrete, making it more resilient.

However, there are many more technologies and processes that are being integrated into construction and engineering around the world and Canada is lagging, he adds.

“Looking ahead, we’re going to continue to raise awareness, maybe integrate it as part of the Canadian Construction Association to give it more profile,” Bockstael says. “It’s critical we keep trying.”

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