Why society needs a critical approach to Modern Methods of Construction and technological innovation
Fred Sherratt (University of Colorado) responds to the recent Buildings & Cities special issue ‘Modern Methods of Construction: Beyond Productivity’. It is easy to be beguiled by the promise of new technologies and the notions of ‘technological progress’. However, an essential role for the research community is to critically and robustly explore the consequences of new technologies for their potential impacts. Does the technology even deliver what it promises? These questions deserve societal discussion.
As Stuart Green (2022) highlights in his editorial, the call for the Special Issue on Modern Methods of Construction: Beyond Productivity Improvement received a less-than-enthusiastic response. He concludes there is a ‘sparsity of research relating to MMC [modern methods of construction]’ (which Green expands to include Construction 4.0 technologies, and that broader definition is also adopted henceforth), and argues that ‘researchers have allowed themselves to become too constrained in the research questions that set out to be explored’ (Green 2022:660-1). He is quite right. And this lack of imagination and challenge to the status quo has been considered problematic before. Back in the 1960s, Noam Chomsky (1967) urged academics to ‘…expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions’ as part of their responsibility to society. And if this seems a little melodramatic for the current context, please meditate on both Green’s editorial comments on the Grenfell Tower fire (72 people dead) and the paper by Meacham (2022) within this Special Issue, which sets out likely consequences of continued regulatory neglect. Thus, in keeping with such responsibility, the call for papers asked authors to ‘…examine the assumptions underpinning MMC and the associated unintended consequences’ (Green 2022:654); to actually explore actions according to their motives and consider what may also happen, if what was intended to happen, actually does. The response was sparse, as there is actually little research asking this set of questions.
In reality, there is actually a not inconsiderable amount of research on MMC . But that research simply can’t answer the questions asked by Green. The sparsity noted earlier is not the result of a lack of volume, indeed very much the opposite. Sparsity lies in the amount of critical research of MMC. Because the current body of literature has other intentions and other motivations. In the vast majority it worships at the altar of technology without critique, but not without good reasons. For we live in a time where we must believe that technology is the answer to everything with an almost religious fervor, unintended consequences be damned. There are two key considerations to unpack here: the way technology builds its churches and the role of the academic therein.
Green rightly gives prominence to the notion of technological determinism, a concept older than many MMC and which through Ellul’s theory of technique (1954) swiftly removes all arguments against technology and technological progress. Rather than technology being a neutral tool mobilized by society, Ellul reveals society itself to be shaped and directed by technology– which is both amoral and autonomous, and through technique becomes utterly inevitable (see Sherratt et al. 2020 for a more detailed discussion of this theory within the Construction 4.0 context).
Put simply, technique is why we continue to let children use social media, despite ever-increasing evidence that it is causing significant harm (UK Government 2019). It’s why the UK Government implemented so-called ‘smart’ motorways (with all-lane running) that increase the risk of collision should you break down by 216% and have directly caused over 30 deaths to date (Automobile Association 2019). It’s why we let e-scooters clog our streets, and also injure and kill people (UK Government 2021), seemingly only because they now exist, and someone can make a profit from them. Technique, often accompanied by a generous dab of neoliberalism, readily enables the dismissal of all counter arguments as luddite challenges to progress, development, and innovation. There are indeed myriad unintended consequences, but despite death and injury, we must push forwards as illustrated by the title and content of this report: Modernize or Die (Farmer 2016).
As this technological optimism and determinism pervades all aspects of society, construction academics fail to robustly explore it. In fact, they are some of the most compliant, not least because academics will always ask the wrong questions when funding for research insists upon it. As Green also notes, UK funding calls for construction research in recent years have been strictly limited to those seeking to increase and enhance technology use. UKRI (2022) reported earlier this year on the Transforming Construction Challenge, a title that itself articulates utter distain for any incremental or cautious improvement, with the Minister for Construction reinforcing the UK’s ambition to: ‘…have the most efficient and technologically advanced construction sector in the world’ (UKRI 2022). When academic livelihoods depend on funding, publications and profile, critique can be a career killer.
However, this does not absolve academe entirely. It is also interesting to note that research questions currently not being asked include whether the technology does what the construction industry actually wants it to, in the ways they want – research which does have funding potential. Instead, questions are firmly aligned with the desires of those with more pecuniary interests in construction technologies (which unsurprisingly also align with the UK Government position, see Johnston (2022) reporting from the ‘Autodesk University’), seeking to unpack why technologies aren’t being adopted and how best to remove any barriers currently in place.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in contemporary research of construction health and safety, where wearable technologies are currently heralded as the next big thing in accident prevention. The market for such technologies is already significant, with firms such as Scan-Link (2022) and Triax (2022) offering construction specific options in worker wearable technologies – with systems that also include sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) for monitoring and control. You can now even hire a ‘safety technologist’ specially to help you navigate how to implement ALL the safety technologies! - should you so desire. Yet the vast majority of academic research of wearable technologies would find no place in this Special Issue. Unequivocally pro-technology and pro-innovation, presumptions of benefit are baked-in thorough examinations of barriers to use (e.g. Nnaji et al. 2021) and the potential of the massive amounts of data they can generate (e.g. Zhang et al. 2017). Rather depressingly, a not inconsiderable amount of research in this space is effectively a sales pitch, with frequent blurring of academic and grey literature used to provide the ‘context’ for empirical research. Whilst there may indeed be a lack of data on which to ground such studies, to present marketing materials as literature makes Green’s call for the examination of assumptions underpinning MMC seem almost quaint.
The situation around wearables for safety is even more egregious given that wearable technologies are certainly not uncontroversial and have well-documented unintended consequences. Any form of technological monitoring should raise immediate concerns around ethics, data protection, privacy, and secondary uses of the massive digital exhaust they will generate (Zuboff 2019). Research in other fields has already scientifically established the highly detrimental consequences of constantly monitoring and managing workers. Even the UK Government’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Work concluded: ‘Pervasive monitoring…[is] associated with pronounced negative impacts on mental and physical wellbeing’ (APPG on the Future of Work 2021:06). Yet such cautions can find no place in the contemporary construction safety literature (See Sherratt et al. 2023 for a more detailed discussion), and whether wearables, sensors and IoT technologies are the optimal way to keep your workers safer on site we simply do not know – because that research has not actually been carried out yet.
As Green states, there is an urgent need for robust research exploring the medium and long-term consequences of MMC, asking questions that do not simply respond to the desires of myopic funders and aggressive technology providers. Evidence-based research, underpinned by valid and reliable methodologies, would enhance the knowledge base much more effectively. Academics are not ‘too clever’ to be taken in by technique, it is far cleverer than any of us, but we do need to stop being quite such useful idiots and start being a bit more balanced in our research. And just one final point of melodrama: the situation in which we find ourselves may well be a more than a little depressing, but it is also not uninteresting. We are witnessing an industrial revolution accelerating at exponential rates (Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014) never been seen before in human society, and as academics we must endeavor to contribute in more meaningful ways.
1. I will not do the reader the insult of here providing some citations borne of a quick literature grab, instead I equate their very reading of this article with a certain level of familiarity with the current construction management research landscape.
APPG on the Future of Work. (2021). The New Frontier: Artificial Intelligence at Work. UK Government All-Party Parliamentary Group. www.futureworkappg.org.uk
Automobile Association. (2019). 17 Minutes To Spot A Live Lane Breakdown On Smart Motorways. https://www.theaa.com/about-us/newsroom/news/17-minutes-to-spot-a-live-lane-breakdown-on-smart-motorways
Brynjolfsson, E. and McAfee, A. (2014). The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. New York: Norton.
Chomsky, N. (1967). The Responsibility of Intellectuals. New York Review of Books, Feb 23rd.
Ellul, J. (1954). The Technological Society. Toronto: Vintage.
Farmer, M. (2016). The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model: Modernise or Die. UK: Construction Leadership Council.
Green, S. (2022). Modern methods of construction: reflections on the current research agenda, Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 653-662. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.265
Johnston, J. (2022). UK Government backs a Platform approach to industrialized construction. Autodesk University. https://www.autodesk.com/autodesk-university/class/UK-Government-backs-Platform-approach-industrialized-construction-2021
Meacham, B. (2022). Fire performance and regulatory considerations with modern methods of construction. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 464–487. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.201
Nnaji, C., Awolusi, I., Park, JW. & Albert, A. (2021). Wearable sensing devices: towards the development of a personalised system for construction safety and health risk mitigation. Sensors, 21, 682. DOI: http://doi.org/10.3390/s21030682
Scan-Link (2021). Industries-Construction. http://scan-link.com/construction/
Sherratt, F., Dowsett, R. &Sherratt, S. (2020). Construction 4.0 and its potential impact on people working in construction >Proceedings of the ICE: Management, Procurement and Law, 174(4), 145-152. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1680/jmapl.19.00053
Sherratt, F., Ivory, C. & Sherratt, S. (2023). The digitalisation of UK construction labour: Wearables and workers, but where is the wellbeing? in Manu, P., Bartolo, P., Francis, V. and Sawhney, A. (Eds) Handbook of Construction Safety, Health and Well-being in the Industry 4.0 Era. Abingdon: Taylor and Francis.
Triax. (2021). See
Your Entire Construction Site in One Intuitive Dashboard. https://www.triaxtec.com/construction/
UK Government (2019) Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health. Report of the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology,Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health - Science and Technology Committee - House of Commons. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmsctech/2120/212002.htm
UK Government (2021) Reported road casualties Great Britain: e-Scooter factsheet year ending June 2021. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/reported-road-casualties-great-britain-e-scooter-factsheet-year-ending-june-2022/reported-road-casualties-great-britain-e-scooter-factsheet-year-ending-june-2022
UKRI (2022) The impact of UKRI’s transforming construction challenge. https://www.ukri.org/news/the-impact-of-ukris-transforming-construction-challenge/
Zhang, M., Cao, T. & Zhao, X. (2017). Applying sensor-based technology to improve construction safety management. Sensors 17(8):1841.
Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Hachette Book Group.
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