Globally, the construction industry, by its very nature, is one of the largest users of natural resources and contributor of pollution. But with the increasing concern of the human race over environmental issues like climate change, there has been an ever-increasing pressure on the construction industry to reduce their environmental impact and move more-and-more towards sustainability.
What is sustainability?
With the passage of time, worries that rapidly consuming natural resources couldn’t meet the needs of mankind, and that community development and economic growth should be slowed down started plunging. This became the core issue of the Brundtland Report 1989 – which finally introduced the concept of ‘sustainability’ as a solution.
According to the Brundtland Report 1989, the concept of sustainability was defined as “meeting the needs and the expectations of the present without compromising future generations to meet their own needs and expectations”.
In a very general sense, sustainability denotes using the natural resources in such a way that it does not reach the decay, depletion and non-renewable point and at the same time handing over these resources to the next generations by developing them. The concept of sustainability thus, is not merely environmentalism, rather it is a holistic thought about the future. Therefore, sustainability actually foresees a continuous development by only changing the consumption habits without reduction in our present quality of life.
What does sustainability mean in the construction sector?
In recent times the idea of ‘sustainability in construction’ has gained great popularity. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), sustainable construction means “the practices of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally-responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction”. In this context, the Environmental, Social, & Governance (ESG) matrix has emerged as a buzzing sustainability scale for any sector/business, construction without being an exception.
The ESG metrics allow businesses to measure their environmental, social and governance performance in order for them to be transparent with consumers and stakeholders. The “E” (Environmental) factor measures a firm’s energy consumption, waste generation, use of natural resources and the consequences of its operations on the ecosystem and the habitats. The “S” (Social) factor assesses the engagement of a firm with its workers, customers, suppliers and the local community at large and covers a wide range of factors such as human rights, diversity and inclusion, health & safety and community impact. And the “G” (Governance) factor assesses the ways in which a firm uses policies and controls its business decisions, complies with the law of the land and meets obligations to the stakeholders.
However, the ESG scenario of the construction industry seems to be pathetic. According to the World Bank, 35% of the world’s industrial waste is solely generated by the construction industry. Further, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, each year 9.7 of every 100,000 construction workers suffer a fatal injury, which is the fourth highest rate of fatal injuries in any industry. Similarly, according to a study conducted by the Project Management Institute, nearly 15% of the construction projects fail completely, and even among those that succeed, approximately half fail to fulfill the commitments on time, 43% suffer from over-budget and 32% fall short in some aspects of product delivery.
The aforementioned data thus indicate some major sustainability issues in the construction industry. But thanks to modern technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and the like that are showing great potentiality in promoting sustainability in construction.
How can AI Promote a Multi-tier Sustainable Construction Ecosystem?
Artificial Intelligence or AI can help the construction industry to achieve sustainability in the the following five tiers:
- Work Sustainability
Work Sustainability basically relates to ‘safety in the workplace’. The construction industry is regarded as “the most dangerous industry” due to big numbers of fatal injuries taking place in the industry. Thus, building an accident-free construction environment constitutes one of the core concerns of the industry. This is where technology such as AI/ML and automation can play a crucial role. With proper training, AI can be made capable of detecting various mishappenings in the construction jobsites, say PPE non-compliance, danger zone intrusion, workers/objects falling down, high-rise work safety and the like. AI can therefore act as an ‘extra-eye’ in the construction jobsites , that can detect various safety non-compliances in the jobsites round-the-clock, that too in a way which is way more efficient than manual monitoring. With AI mishaps can be avoided before it is too late. Thus, AI can help the construction industry to build work sustainability by helping build a safe working environment which is insufficient to be achieved by manual monitoring.
- Psychological Sustainability
Psychological Sustainability talks about ‘psychological safety among construction workers’. It refers to a working environment wherein the workers have a sense of safety to take up the risky tasks of construction. Modern technologies such as AI/ML, computer vision and automation can play a profound role in boosting psychological safety in the construction workplace by acting as an ‘extra eye’ in the construction jobsite that looks into the safety of the workers round-the-clock. Workers working in such jobsites can have a sense of security that they are constantly under the supervision of an ‘extra eye’ that would detect any unsafe situation before it is too late. Similarly, the stakeholders can also have a sense of relief since they need not worry about the safety of the workers all the time and thus concentrate better on other tasks.
- Environmental Sustainability
The third tier is ‘environmental sustainability’. With AI the construction industry can ensure the ‘E’ aspect of ESG that measures a firm’s energy consumption, waste generation, use of natural resources and the consequences of its operations on the ecosystem and the habitats. By leveraging the power of AI, it is possible for the industry to manage construction & demolition wastes, check air quality, and manage waste waters. Not only this, it can also help them to undertake energy management; monitor, track and manage carbon footprints and accordingly take steps towards decarbonization. Thus, with AI, the traditionally non-eco friendly construction industry can be transformed into an environmentally sustainable one.
- Workforce Sustainability
Workforce Sustainability is another tier of sustainability that talks about increasing workforce productivity. Using the power of autonomous monitoring equipment like 360 degree cameras and automation through robotics, the construction stakeholders can optimize workers’ usage to overcome the problem of workers’ shortage. Moreover, with automated monitoring of the jobsites, the manpower can be oriented towards other tasks of higher ROI, thus increasing the productivity of the workforce and promoting workforce sustainability.
- Economic Sustainability
The last but not the least tier is ‘economic sustainability’. Construction jobsite involve millions in the way. Apart from the regular budget, the construction companies lose a lot of money on compensations and rework. Disputes and related compensations are a big headache to the construction stakeholders. But technologies such as AI and cloud repositories can facilitate the construction of stakeholders in the process of dispute resolution, with their power of automated monitoring, auto-record keeping, and auto-documentation. Future, with the power of auto-progress tracking the stakeholders can avoid rework, thus save costs of rework and make better economic planning.
Gary Ng – CEO & FOUNDER
Gary is a building engineer turned AIpreneur. Looking at the latency of technological innovations in the construction industry, he instituted his ConTech startup, viAct in 2016 to enhance safety and productivity in the construction ecosystem leveraging the power of AI. Under his supervision, viAct has been able to achieve several milestones. Being a tech-geek, Gary has published many research papers on behalf of viAct making viAct a transparent R&D backed start-up. Furthermore, Gary’s farsightedness have spread viAct from Hong Kong to Singapore, with its technology being trusted and deployed by 30+ construction companies of repute all across Asia & Europe.