Despite low levels of adoption, the potential for digital technology to deliver significant improvements in efficiency, build quality and worker safety, is becoming increasingly understood by the region’s construction industry.
In a poll of 50 GCC construction professionals conducted by MEED in the first quarter of 2021, 100 per cent of respondents said that digital technology improves project delivery.
About 58 per cent of respondents said that digital transformation would have the biggest impact on overall project management and performance, while 29 per cent felt that the most benefits would be seen in speed of delivery, accuracy and collaboration.
But while there is widespread acceptance of the value of digital technology across the construction industry, its deployment is uneven.
Asked to provide feedback on the extent of digitalisation of the construction industry in each of the GCC markets, along with Egypt, survey respondents reported that the UAE is leading the way in the region’s construction industry technology transformation.
This is perhaps unsurprising. Building information modelling (BIM) was first mandated by Dubai Municipality in 2013 and an increasing number of companies in the UAE are using drones to map, survey and monitor construction projects.
In 2019, Dubai became the home to the world’s first 3D printed building.
Not far behind however is the region’s biggest construction market.
With some $1,137bn of construction and transport projects planned or underway, including a $298bn pipeline of future projects.
Saudi Arabia accounts for about 45 per cent of the value of construction market in the GCC and Egypt.
And with high-profile projects such as Neom future-city, Qiddiya entertainment city, and the Red Sea Project being used to showcase the Saudi Arabia Vision 2030 agenda to transform the kingdom into a globally competitive technology hub, Saudi Arabia is set to be a major driver of construction digitalisation in the region.
“The appetite for the use of digital techniques in the delivery of gigaprojects is high,” says David Glennon, digital delivery director at the Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC).
“These are ambitious projects that cannot be effectively delivered through traditional methods,” says Glennon. “The time, cost, quality and sustainability improvements offered through digital ways of working at scale becomes a very compelling reason for change.”
With an eye to diversifying economies and positioning themselves on the world stage, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have an incentive to promote digitalisation in their high-profile tourism developments.
In other markets however, where economic development plans are focused more on traditional transport and infrastructure projects, there is less appetite to explore new digital solutions.
Over 41 per cent of respondents to the MEED survey stated that they used BIM on less than 25 per cent of their projects in the region.
“The UAE is the early adopter of technology in the construction sector [in the GCC], but the others will follow,” says Maged el-Hawary, CIO at Dubai-based construction company ASGC. “This is the cycle of technology. You have leaders in adoption and the others follow at a later stage.”
In the cloud
Despite early concerns in the region about data security, especially in government projects, cloud computing is gaining traction.
The MEED survey shows that while BIM is the most widely adopted digital technology on construction projects in the GCC and Egypt, cloud computing is now a close second.
“Since 2018, the market has improved,” says El-Hawary, “especially since Covid.”
This confirms the findings of a 2020 Trends Insight survey on construction technologies conducted by data analytics and research firm GlobalData, which found that, of all the technologies analysed, cloud computing received the highest proportion of respondents confirming that they had already invested in this and had further investment planned within two years.
“Companies are starting to move from a capital expenditure model to an operational expenditure model,” says El-Hawary.
“So instead of acquiring new technologies, they use subscription services,” he says.
He further explains that software as a service (SaaS) can deliver applications over the internet, which is easier for a company than installing and maintaining their own software.
“Software as a service, storage as a service, infrastructure as a service is the easiest way, and the most secure way to do this is to go to the cloud.”
Anas Bataw, director at the Centre of Excellence in Smart Construction at Heriot-Watt University Dubai says that cloud-based technologies are the most important digital investment opportunities for companies today.
“They offer a host of benefits – flexibility, security, cost effectiveness, mobility of use and are future-proof,” says Bataw.
“Most importantly, as this pandemic has shown us, the economic damage caused by long-term lockdowns and reduced personnel on work sites, means that the infrastructure that support remote working is critical and cloud-based technologies fulfil this need.”
In the UAE, BIM has been used on a number of projects as far back as 2008 and by 2014, major projects such as Al-Maktoum International Airport, Palm Jumeirah and Expo 2020 were mandating the use of BIM 3D, later updated to BIM 4D.
In Saudi Arabia, the use of BIM is also becoming more widespread.
“BIM been very successfully embedded at the Red Sea Development Company,” says Glennon. “We have seen a shift to a ‘model first’ working practice which has allowed us to automate a number of tasks, driving efficiency and data to improve decision making.”
“We are increasingly seeing this approach being adopted on other projects,” he says.
Glennon says that data capture and data visualisation are growing areas of digitalisation in construction in the kingdom, with the use of drones becoming common place.
He also says that Geographical Information Mapping is particularly strong in Saudi Arabia.
“There is a lot of high-quality local talent driving value from the tools,” says Glennon. “This is a skillset that is important when working on projects of this scale and will continue to grow in importance as we create our first ‘digital twins’ in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Even before the Covid- 19 pandemic, the digital transformation of construction was already well underway in the region. But the pandemic has accelerated the process.
Practices forced on companies during the global lockdown are demonstrating the power of technology to enable remote work and collaboration, to streamline operations, and to automate manual processes.
Companies that have not yet leveraged technology in their businesses are likely to fall behind.
“Digital transformation in the construction industry means that all construction companies are now under pressure to evolve and adapt or lose out,” says Bataw. “And for the ones who have taken up the challenge, they are realising several benefits such as increased operational efficiency, lower costs, improved coordination between project delivery teams and much more.”