New technologies can advance project outcomes in the construction industry. Governments are well-poised to cultivate greater adoption.
An industry notorious for cost and time overruns, the construction sector can capture significant efficiencies by adopting new technologies. While many executives acknowledge the potential of new technology, they often hesitate to risk multi-billion-dollar projects on applications they consider unproven. To create greater value from public and private spending on large capital projects, governments can help clear the path and bring new technologies to bear.
New technologies — advanced analytics, automation, machine learning, and the Internet of Things, for example — have delivered substantial benefits to industries at the forefront of adoption, particularly telecommunications and finance. And while these disruptive forces will eventually wash over every industry, the construction industry still lags.
Digital tools are already available, with $18 billion invested in construction technology between 2013 and early 2018. McKinsey research, however, finds that leaders struggle to adopt these applications — not because of cost concerns or lack of interest, but rather because of insufficient internal processes and risk aversion.
Pressing need for improvement
Using technologies to boost construction productivity can have a profound impact on public and private spending. In the United States alone, expenditures on construction reached $1.29 trillion in 2018, after rising an average of 7.4 percent annually over the previous five years.
The public sector accounts for a significant share of this total. Stripped of residential and private-use projects, construction expenditure on public infrastructure — for instance health care, education, and transportation — reached $334 billion in 2018 (Exhibit 1). Public spending will finance almost 80 percent of these infrastructure expenditures, by our estimates.
And the rise in construction spending is unlikely to abate soon. Increased urbanization is creating demand for projects that support denser population centers, such as transportation, power, and sewage. And in the United States, deteriorating public infrastructure must be addressed urgently. McKinsey research found that the country requires an additional $500 billion in infrastructure funding between 2017 and 2035 to meet its estimated requirements.
Amid this growing need, public and private projects have struggled to keep costs and construction times within original projections, especially for complex, high-cost projects. Early adopters have already begun to test new technologies to improve project outcomes. For instance, some companies are using wearable GPS devices or smartphone apps to optimize workflows and resources. Others have begun using virtual-reality systems for supervisors and crew to “walk through” processes to prepare sequencing, identify potential problems, and conduct safety trainings more efficiently.
Governments are well positioned to catalyze change
Despite these early efforts, many companies are reluctant to experiment in untested waters. This is understandable since billions of dollars and corporate reputations are at risk with these projects, and there is no room for do-overs. These hurdles, however, present a prime opportunity for governments to take the lead and break the inertia that slows the construction industry from entering a digital era.
Public expenditures account for a significant portion of non-residential, public-use construction projects, and government agencies work closely with private companies of all sizes to deliver these complex infrastructure projects. Such projects span a wide range of infrastructure, from roads to buildings to sewer systems (Exhibit 2). The government’s purchasing power touches every corner of the construction industry, while its regulatory power allows it to set standards that are most easily met using new technologies or even to mandate their use.
Our experience and research suggest five measures available to governments that can be powerful tools in accelerating adoption:
- Set bold aspirations
- Create meaningful incentives
- Manage risk
- Ensure transparency
- Build capabilities