Academia supports industry reform

16 December 2020
Academic and research organisations can work together to help the UAE construction industry recover in the aftermath of Covid-19
In conversation with Ammar Kaka, provost and vice-principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Based on an interview conducted in June 2020

Q. What will the role of higher education institutions be in the post-Covid-19 world? 

Higher education institutes will continue to play an important role in the post-Covid-19 world. It is likely there may be changes in the way education is delivered, with several universities looking to adopt a blended learning approach, at least in the short term. Regardless, higher education institutions will continue to stay relevant, identify skills gaps and help people build the right skills to help countries improve economic prosperity – something perhaps more important than ever before.

Additionally, we will also see an increased trend of upskilling. With jobs under threat as a result of the pandemic, we will see candidates looking to learn new skills in order to stay relevant in a very competitive marketplace – an example is acquiring the skills now needed to harness the power of the latest digital technologies. Upskilling can also help future-proof jobs by increasing employee value to the employer. Equally for employers, upskilling employees is a far simpler way to retain employees in a changing environment than to hire new talent. 

Finally, innovation and entrepreneurship will become more important than ever before as they will play a crucial role in economic recovery. 

This article is extracted from the report 'UAE Construction After Covid-19'

Q. Is HWUD gearing up to train its engineering and architecture students to be cognisant of the impact of Covid-19?

Best practice post-Covid-19 is still an unknown. However, Heriot-Watt is conducting research into Covid-19 across a variety of domains, including building design and associated utilities. 

Our programmes are constantly evolving and revised based on the needs of the market and requirements of future employers, and we will adapt and change programmes to ensure all engineering and architecture students are fully prepared and cognisant of a post-Covid-19 built environment. 

Additionally, we also emphasise the need to develop soft skills such as creative thinking, problem solving, developing a positive mindset and resilience in times of uncertainty, all of which are as critical to success as job-related skills themselves. 

Q. Do academic and research organisations have a role to play in helping the construction industry cope with the risks of Covid-19?

They most definitely do. We believe it is more important than ever that academic and research organisations work together to help assist the construction industry recover in the aftermath of Covid-19. 

Industry partners possess practical experience but are also the ones faced with challenges including those brought on by the pandemic. For example, they need to be far more efficient and competitive in order to secure work during a downturn. They should be able to demonstrate to clients that they possess resilient supply chains and can manage worker welfare to sustain work without delays. They should be globally connected to grab opportunities in wider markets and will have to be highly innovative to drive demand for their products and services.


Academic organisations on the other hand have the ability to study and come up with solutions to overcome these challenges as well as prepare the next generation of qualified construction professionals. Therefore, academic and research organisations are perfectly positioned to drive internationally recognised research and industry engagement as well as provide a creative environment for collaboration between multi-disciplinary research teams, industry and the UAE government to solve challenges facing the construction sector.

Q. Tell us more about the Heriot-Watt Centre of Excellence in Smart Construction (CESC).

CESC was set up in September 2019 to provide a creative environment for collaboration between multidisciplinary research teams, industry and UAE government to react to and solve challenges facing the construction sector. Research and industry engagement is even more prevalent as we move towards the post Covid-19 world. Our industry-led research will focus on three themes:

  • Enabling technologies: Post Covid-19, remote working and digital collaboration tools will become the norm. CESC will promote and share information relating to the latest trends and technological developments leading to improvements in productivity, quality, health & wellbeing and reductions in project variations, duration and cost.
  • Sustainability: Prior to Covid-19, close to 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions being released from buildings, (Source: World Green Building Council). However, this figure has dropped during the lockdowns imposed due to the pandemic. CESC will continue to work with the construction industry post Covid-19 to improve social, economic and environmental sustainability of the construction industry.
  • Health and safety: The wellbeing of all employees post Covid-19 is even more essential through social distancing, providing the highest standards of hygiene and cleanliness along with safety equipment protocols. CESC will help drive forward the importance of these changes.

...Academic and research organisations are perfectly positioned to drive internationally recognised research and industry engagement as well as provide a creative environment for collaboration between multi-disciplinary research teams, industry and the UAE government to solve challenges facing the construction sector.

Q. Could this crisis present an opportunity for the construction industry to redefine the way it delivers projects?

Yes, despite the unprecedented times Covid-19 has presented the construction industry with an opportunity to drive much-needed change.

Traditionally, the construction industry has been slow to adopt digital transformation, but post-Covid-19, this transformation will no longer be an option but a necessity.

Restrictions on movement put in place in order to counter the pandemic have also accelerated the digital transformation process itself, as people strive to achieve the same productivity and outcomes as they work remotely rather than from office. 

Digital collaboration tools such as building information modelling (BIM), 4D and 5D simulation and integrated digital-twin solutions are more likely to be used from development of project concept to commissioning.

Going digital also presents the industry with opportunities for a more innovative approach to building design considering requirements such as social distancing and building capacity, not just for new builds but also adapting current buildings to ensure guidelines are met. 

This report is produced under the MEED Mashreq Construction Partnership.To learn more about the report or the partnership, log on to:

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