The UK is facing an affordable homes crisis. The government has committed £7.2bn ($9.4bn) to build 1.5 million homes by 2022.

In Scotland, the Scottish government’s affordable housing supply programme has targeted the delivery of 50,000 homes by 2021, a 67 per cent increase over the previous five-year target of 30,000 homes.  

Delivering this significant increase in volume cannot be achieved using traditional construction processes, thus opening up huge opportunities for advanced offsite solutions and mass-customisation approaches to design that can be a catalyst for change.

Shared challenges

Many of the challenges facing the construction industry in Scotland will be familiar to construction stakeholders in the Middle East. 

Productivity growth in Scotland’s construction industry is about one-third of that in the wider UK economy. Scottish construction also suffers from low investment in innovation, research and development and technology. Where other sectors have embraced digital and technological advances, construction in Scotland remains principally analogue and paper-based, with limited smart connectivity between activities on and offsite.

Scotland’s construction industry is highly fragmented and sees limited collaboration. In addition, an already significant skills shortage is set to get worse. It is estimated about 30 per cent of the UK construction workforce will retire in the next decade.

Additionally, outmoded procurement practices are undermining industry performance. The conventional, layered contracting model is proving increasingly unfit for purpose as demonstrated by the recent collapse of large contractors such as Carillion, ROK and Connaught.

Innovation centre

In a drive to tackle the deep-rooted issues facing construction, the Scottish government established the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC) in 2014 to build a culture of innovation that drives transformational change and delivers economic impact for Scotland.

CSIC is one of eight industry-led innovation centres in Scotland that aim to bridge the gap between industry, academics and the public sector. The Scottish Innovation Centres programme is operated through Scotland’s universities and CSIC is hosted by Edinburgh Napier University. The other seven innovation centres are hosted by other Scottish universities. The aims of the innovation centres are:

■ To offer collaborative knowledge exchange to address industry problems; 

■ To provide an environment to support innovators, academics and entrepreneurs;

■ To simplify the innovation landscape. 

Since its launch, CSIC has engaged 226 partner organisations, including 152 industry partners, 11 housing associations, 36 public sector partners, 14 Scottish university partners and 13 Scottish college partners. By the end of January 2019, it had supported 236 projects that over the coming five years are predicted to deliver £738m in additional revenues, including £204m in exports to 47 new international markets, safeguard 3,252 existing jobs, create 1,383 new jobs, and deliver 117 new products and 81 new services.

In September 2017, CSIC launched the ‘Innovation Factory’, a £2m, 35,000-square-foot facility furnished with state-of-the-art technology and equipment that has created a physical hub for construction innovation activity in Scotland. This facility has also been hailed as the UK’s first digital manufacturing, prototyping and future skills centre of excellence.

At a connected ecosystem level, all seminars, workshops and such have been provided free of charge to the industry to date to assist in stimulating innovation.

CSIC’s proprietary Collaborative Innovation Project Funding funds up to 100 per cent of academic input to a project that is delivered by one of CSIC’s 14 Scottish university partners, including Heriot Watt University, which has a campus in Dubai. 

Access to the CSIC Innovation Factory is on a commercial model. It is therefore open to industry and academia both inside and outside Scotland through different means. This model also allows UK and international firms to use the Innovation Factory on a subcontract basis to deliver projects funded privately or through other innovation funding programmes.

Raising awareness in the construction sector is an ongoing challenge, as is increasing engagement with small and medium-sized enterprises, which make up the majority of the industry and supply chain. 

Pushing stakeholders

Another challenge is to encourage stakeholders to understand innovation and include it on their agendas. Many firms lack resources to support the project and are focused on short-term management. They often view innovation as an aspirational activity.

CSIC’s ability to operate as a catalyst, building open communities and fostering partnerships around common issues is transforming the connectivity of the sector. There is no reason why, with key government backing and potentially financial support, this model cannot be delivered within the Middle East.

Numerous reports stretching back generations have dissected the industry, exposed its flaws and suggested what should be done differently. What has been consistently lacking, however, is a recognition that for industry change to be effective, clients, both public and private, must change the way they contract with the industry too. When clear objectives are identified, industry must also have access to the necessary facilities and expertise that can help translate good intentions into tangible outcomes. 

About the author

Lucy Black is head of business relationships at Construction Scotland Innovation CentreLucy Black is head of business relationships at the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre