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Building Singapore's Future: Embracing Technology for Safer and Smarter Construction

By Haresh Khoobchandani

The story of Singapore’s urban development is nothing short of astonishing.

From what was a small fishing village just under 60 years ago, the country’s remarkable transformation into a vibrant metropolis with innovative infrastructure, stunning skyscrapers, and clever land optimisation has been an inspiration for many countries and a testament to Singapore’s relentless pursuit of excellence. 

As the city-state continues to progress, many factors and trends will shape further development. From increasing environmental, social, and governance regulations to the application of digital technologies across the value chain, to contending with the challenges of an economic downturn, the construction industry is at the forefront of a new evolution. Tasked with building smart, sustainable, and resilient structures that will shape the nation's future, the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) ambitious Industry Transformation Map, launched in 2017, earmarked digitalisation as a key plank of this journey to boost productivity, reduce costs, and create better job opportunities for Singaporeans. 

With any progress comes the management of associated risks. The construction industry operates on razor-thin margins, leaving little room for unforeseen challenges and disruptions. Embracing technology is not only crucial for enhancing construction processes but also for fostering innovation, creativity, and adaptability in the workforce, preparing them for the challenges of the future.
Risk factors and considerations in construction

A convergence of factors, including labour shortages, supply chain disruptions, and escalating material costs, has created a perfect storm of pressure on construction companies. In recent times, there has also been a concerning spate of workplace accidents and fatalities in Singapore, leading to greater calls for attention on worker safety. The Ministry of Manpower’s last annual Workplace Safety and Health Report revealed the construction sector accounted for the most significant number of cases in 2022, with basic safety lapses being identified as a major cause. 

Singapore's climate change challenges add another layer of complexity to construction projects. The urban heat island effect, with temperature differences of up to 7 degrees Celsius between urban and less built-up areas, calls for innovative strategies to cool down the city. In response, the government has called for the use of cool materials in buildings and construction projects. But it’s not just governments that can make a difference; architects and designers are increasingly being tasked to mitigate urban heat islands, from optimising a building’s orientation to something as simple as adding more water features to green spaces or using lighter colours for painting rooftops so that they reflect heat.

There’s also the issue of containing spiralling costs. According to Turner & Townsend, construction costs in Singapore currently average more than US$3,000 per square metre. This makes Singapore the fourth most expensive market in Asia, with the trend of increasing costs forecasted to continue into 2023. In most projects, internal resources are stretched thin and project managers struggle to consistently deliver the necessary performance and control assessments. Just to keep projects moving, many companies aim to control and manage construction risks within reasonable limits only—still leaving much open to ambiguity. 

Regardless, a solid risk management strategy is critical to the security of your company and project. So, how do you know where to appropriately invest your time and resources to minimise major construction risks and control what often feels uncontrollable?

To navigate these challenges successfully, construction companies are increasingly embracing technology as a promising solution. One area that has received considerable attention is the adoption of construction software to enhance risk management practices. For instance, to address some of the challenges highlighted earlier, construction companies should consider technologies that factor in environmental considerations to build eco-friendly and climate-resilient structures. Likewise, safety planning and control measures, along with strict compliance with safety protocols should be prioritised. 

By classifying risks into areas such as finance, schedule, and design, project managers gain better insights into potential obstacles and can develop precise strategies to mitigate them. Tackling crucial risks like labour shortages, safety hazards, coordination difficulties, inadequate documentation, inconsistent reporting, and errors can proactively prevent costly delays and rework. To optimise bottom lines without putting their businesses at risk, contractors must find innovative solutions that drive efficiency, productivity, and accountability across the project lifecycle.

A new way to build

Despite the potential benefits, the construction industry has traditionally been one of the least digitised sectors globally. As projects become more complex—physically, commercially, environmentally, and societally—the traditional process of construction struggles to deliver acceptable outcomes. These traditional processes are dominated by pencil and paper, siloed technology, and gaps in communication across the project lifecycle. As officials point out, the digitalisation of the built-environment sector is necessary not only to improve construction processes but also to create new and better jobs for Singaporeans. 

Technology has been at the forefront of the construction industry's digital transformation, providing powerful tools and solutions that enable professionals to harness the full potential of their data. As complexity increases in construction, two technology shifts are connecting teams in critical ways: collaboration in the cloud and the use of big data.

A primary focus for construction companies is to make data-driven decisions that enhance project performance and outcomes. It was recently revealed that one-third of poor decisions in construction were the result of bad data, leading to avoidable rework and significant financial losses. Construction intelligence, fuelled by large volumes of highly structured data generated through Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other project technologies, is becoming a game-changer; mining this data for insights will ensure construction professionals can predict potential challenges and streamline project execution. 

With the adoption of common data environments, connected construction processes, and fostering collaboration, teams can break down silos, streamline communication, and improve efficiency. Innovative platforms empower construction professionals to make informed decisions, optimise resource allocation, and enhance project performance, ultimately contributing to improved project delivery and client satisfaction.

Disney serves as a prime example of an organisation that has successfully embraced a technology-first approach to construction, specifically within its theme parks. Storytelling is central to any of Disney’s theme parks, to captivate visitors and provide an unforgettable immersive experience. As you can imagine, achieving this requires a tightly coordinated effort of architects, artists, technologists, and engineers - and BIM is key to coordinating these diverse disciplines for the design, fabrication, and installation of Disney theme parks and attractions. 

The future of construction in Singapore is technology-led 

Singapore's construction industry stands at a crucial juncture in its evolution, the adoption of technology offers a transformative path forward.  Figures from Singapore’s Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) point to year-on-year growth of 6.8 per cent in Q2 2023. Supported by a strong pipeline of public sector projects expected to contribute about 60 per cent of total construction demand, the sector’s growth momentum is forecasted to continue into the foreseeable future.

There is also growing recognition that Artificial Intelligence (AI) holds the key to overcoming some of the industry's most significant challenges. AI's capabilities in streamlining processes and minimising onsite hazards have been recognised, leading many organisations to integrate AI into construction planning for project control, budget estimations, scheduling, and onsite management. A wealth of knowledge exists in the construction industry, but it often remains confined to the experience of seasoned superintendents with decades of expertise. The challenge lies in unlocking this knowledge and transforming it into an assistive application that can be passed on. By doing so, we can set up the industry for the next generation and address prevailing labour shortage issues.

By embracing innovation, digitalisation, and construction intelligence, contractors can navigate the challenges of the modern era, build safer and more efficient structures, and contribute to the sustainable development of the nation.

The future of Singapore's built environment lies in harnessing the power of technology. With strategic adoption and collaborative partnerships, the industry will be in a stronger position to build Singapore's future, one smart, safe, and resilient structure at a time.
 

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