Drivers, Challenges and Approaches to Innovation in the Construction Sector

18 March 2011


On 17 March 2011, Professor Jeremy Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Communities and Local Government (and Global Research Director of Arup), came to Cambridge to deliver the talk “Drivers, Challenges and Approaches to Innovation in the Construction Sector” as part of the CONNECTIONS Lecture Series, organised by the Darwin College Students Association and sponsored by CSaP.

Professor Watson introduced the topic by reviewing key concepts about innovation. He emphasised that innovation is more than invention or creativity: commercialisation, implementation and entrepreneurship are all part of the innovation process, and a culture that promotes innovation is critical. Senior management support, dedicated funds and staff, lead users, a balanced risk mix, and adequate incentives are all important in fostering innovation.

Moving on to the challenges for innovation in the built environment, Professor Watson discussed the rise in carbon emissions and the associated increase in global temperatures, and explained that buildings account for 40% of the total energy consumption in the European Union. He listed three priorities for the built environment:

  • the design of buildings with passive cooling as part of an adaptation strategy
  • the reduction of energy consumption in buildings in response to potential energy shortages
  • the need to design carbon neutral or carbon negative buildings.

Professor Watson went on to discuss policies and regulations adopted by the UK in relation to the built environment, in the context of the government’s commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. 45% of carbon emissions in Britain are generated from the existing building stock (of which 27% come from residential households); 85% of these buildings will remain standing in 2050, making retrofit the main challenge in the sector. This implies that about 22 million homes are to be retrofitted by 2050, at an average of 1,500 per day, and a total cost in the range of £220 to £440 billion. If this challenge is to be met, finding new economic and business models, developing the skill base, ensuring accurate energy measurement and monitoring, and removing social and behavioural barriers, are some of the issues that need to be tackled.

Turning to key technologies that will be part of the solution, Professor Watson identified three categories: materials (including insulation technologies, thermal mass and phase-change heat storage); energy conversion technologies (such as solar thermal, photovoltaic, micro-generation, heat pumps and biomass combustion from renewable sources); and ICT (including intelligent controls). Architectural design innovations will also be required in situational design, facades, natural ventilation and air conditioning, high-efficiency lighting and city-level integrated design.

Professor Watson then described various models employed by Arup to support innovation. In particular, he highlighted the significance of collaborative networks, which can be leveraged through methods such as open innovation, micro-innovation, open source solutions, road mapping and value mapping. Importantly, Arup’s strategic approach to collaborative networks is underpinned by a knowledge supply chain. This comprises foresight exercises, research strategy development in conjunction with business units and clients, research execution in partnership with universities, validation and deployment, and in-house capability deployment.

To deliver innovative solutions in the short-term, Arup focuses on skills and networks, commercialisation, operational excellence and project delivery; to prepare for the mid-term, its efforts are directed at research, knowledge generation, interpretation of needs and intellectual property delivery. Finally, for long-term challenges, Arup carries out foresight activities, seeks to distil emerging trends and drivers of change, and works to shape the agenda. Across all these activities, mixed-sector and regional partners – such as universities, government research, funding agencies and private research partners – present opportunities for global innovation based on collaborative networks.

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