Digital transformation in construction is accelerating, but rates of technology adoption across countries and regions vary widely. While some countries are embracing advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, 5G, robotics, and machine learning, others are progressing at a much slower pace, especially some emerging markets. For construction stakeholders in these markets, bridging the digital divide can be the key to addressing increased competition, urgent needs for housing and new development, and climate change.
It’s easy to presume that construction’s digital divide is the unavoidable result of limited infrastructure and connectivity. And as new technologies accelerate the pace of progress, it would seem only logical that for certain areas it would be even harder to make up ground. However, the new wave of construction technology can help address these barriers and enable stakeholders in emerging regions to catch up. With these new technologies, a shift in perspective, and support from the broader construction ecosystem, emerging markets can take advantage of the new opportunities construction tech offers.
How Perceptions Shape Construction’s Digital Divide
There’s a common perception that emerging markets need to follow the same digital transformation roadmap as developed countries. Globally, technology adoption in construction lags behind other industries. So for many in emerging markets, the idea of using advanced technologies like drones and artificial intelligence can seem like a far-off prospect.
What’s more, firms in developed countries are subject to fixed budgets, high labor costs, and strict oversight, which are key drivers for tech adoption. In emerging markets, the management of project budgets and schedules tends to be more fluid, and low-cost labor is more abundant. Without the same immediate pressures, construction stakeholders aren’t as compelled to seek out the latest technology.
Why Now Is the Perfect Moment to Make the Leap
Changing perceptions about construction technology in emerging markets is essential to meeting urgent demand for housing, infrastructure, and resilience to climate change. Construction must become more efficient, cost-effective, and better-informed. And stakeholders in emerging markets should be able to leverage the same tools as their counterparts in developed countries to realize these objectives.
Being able to seize the new opportunities stemming from construction’s digital transformation is essential to remain competitive. For example, some Latin American firms are using drones to perform supervision tasks on construction projects. Seventy-five percent of users report that the drones save time and reduce costs, with nearly half reporting that they reduced supervision costs by at least 10%.1 As global competition heats up, being able to identify efficiencies like these will become a key differentiator.
Promoting Enabling Factors to Bridge the Divide
Globally, the construction industry can help bridge the digital divide. Stakeholders throughout the construction ecosystem should invest in and promote the underlying factors that enable firms in emerging markets to accelerate digital progress. Multilateral development banks (MDBs) like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), World Bank, and the InterAmerican Development Bank, recognize these objectives and opportunities, and are taking the lead in championing construction technology. Infrastructure, urban development and climate change are key priorities for the MDBs, which are promoting the use of technology to deliver projects more efficiently and sustainably.
Promoting the use of cloud-based technologies, as another example, can lower barriers to tech adoption and foster collaboration throughout the construction lifecycle and across borders.
With open standards, such as those being set by the OpenBIM project, construction firms can reduce friction on their path to digital transformation. Led by buildingSMART, Trimble and numerous stakeholders from throughout the construction ecosystem are working to establish vendor-agnostic, standardized communication protocols. Whereas companies with legacy systems must make the transition to open standards, firms that are just beginning to adopt construction technology can sidestep that process by adopting open standards from the start.
The construction ecosystem can also work together to nurture the next generation of professionals. Through partnership programs like the Trimble Visiting Professionals Program and Technology Labs, technology providers, education institutions, industry organizations, and businesses can expose students to construction technology. These programs can help level the playing field by providing training on how to use the latest construction technology in real-world applications.
Closing the Gap with Cutting-Edge Tech
Despite perceptions about the path to tech adoption in emerging markets, the pandemic highlighted that many countries have the capacity to rapidly digitize construction processes. For example, Yangon, Myanmar expanded its use of digital construction permits and Benin launched a digital application portal in 2020.2
Example technologies emerging markets can embrace today
Technological advances are more accessible than many realize. With the latest wave of construction tech, stakeholders can quickly reap the rewards of technology without having to go through the same phases of adoption and acceptance as their counterparts in developed countries:
- RTK technology is the underlying mechanism behind many positioning technologies. In construction, it’s most commonly used in surveying and machine control technology to provide real-time validation of positioning data. As urban environments grow more regulated, achieving pinpoint accuracy is increasingly important. Typically, RTK technology requires setting up base stations which rely on radio or cellular signals for accurate positioning. RTX eliminates the need for base stations and terrestrial communication channels by using a global network of GNSS reference stations and satellite communications. With this flexibility (and less equipment), construction firms can perform positioning tasks in challenging and remote environments.
- Machine control technology itself has matured, leading to better affordability and ease-of-use. Through integrations with other systems, such as jobsite management software, firms in emerging countries can reap the rewards of increased precision, including reduced fuel consumption, rework, and equipment wear and tear.
- Easy-to-use, low-cost design software like SketchUp offers a wide range of tools for 3D modeling and allows designers to design to the latest standards. To help support problem-solving, these tools also can incorporate considerations like environmental factors into the design process.
- Collaborative technologies, such as common data environments and project management systems, are key to connecting people and technologies throughout the entire project lifecycle. For example, model sharing can be the catalyst for implementing technologies like machine control and virtual reality. It can also support the digitization of paper-based workflows like bidding and estimating. Collaborative technologies also meet the need for greater transparency and accountability by making it easy for diverse stakeholders to access accurate, up-to-date information.
Improving Technology Adoption for All
Construction technology will play a central role in solving the challenges of emerging markets. By shifting perceptions and continuing to reduce barriers to entry, we can accelerate the pace of adoption. Digital transformation is connecting the construction industry on a global scale and players from throughout the ecosystem — inside and outside emerging markets — can help to make the leap.
Albert H. Anoubon Momo, Vice President and Executive Director of Emerging Markets and Funded Projects at Trimble Inc.