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As the Digital International Built Environment Week (IBEW) 2020 drew to a close, thought leaders and captains of Singapore’s built environment sector came together in various sessions to give their take on the future of the industry.

Key themes in the discussion include how new technologies and digitalisation can be leveraged to deliver greater productivity, more skilled workers and safer workplaces.

Charting the Way Forward

Mr Tan Kiat How, Minister of State (MOS), Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of National Development, delivered the opening address at CEOs in Conversation, urging built environment firms to embrace industry transformation and build future business resilience from lessons learnt in the pandemic.

MOS Tan also spoke of several new initiatives which have been launched to increase the industry’s competitive advantage.  These included the new, one-stop BE Living Laboratory Framework (BE LLF), which was introduced to support Singapore construction companies keen to pilot innovative proposals and trial new technologies in a real-world setting.  Essentially, BE LLF provides an encouraging regulatory and enterprise environment that gives companies  “room to play” as they testbed innovations in our urban and living spaces.

Another key priority was equipping workers with relevant skills to meet the industry’s future needs. The BE Skills Framework, jointly developed by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), SkillsFuture Singapore and Workforce Singapore (WSG) together with the industry, trade associations and chambers, unions and education institutions, will provide key information such as career pathways, occupations and job roles, as well as the skills required for the sector.

CEOs In Conversation: Building a Stronger, more Resilient Built Environment Sector

Moderated by Mr Mukund Sridhar, Partner, McKinsey & Company, CEOS in Conversation brought together key industry and thought leaders Mr Lim Ming Yan, Chairman of Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and WSG; Mr Hugh Lim, CEO, BCA; Mr Neil Yong, Executive Director, Woh Hup; and Mr Frank Khoo, Group Chief Investment Officer, City Developments Limited.

The session opened with a cautiously optimistic stocktake of Singapore’s construction industry. While a recent SBF survey of local Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) showed construction and engineering registering the steepest fall in business sentiments, an upstick is expected as the sector restarts in the midst of the pandemic.

The panellists agreed unanimously that COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of new ways of thinking and doing in the local built environment sector. Mr Yong pointed out that responding to the pandemic situation has required private enterprises like Woh Hup to become more strategic in thinking and more deliberate in action.

Mr Hugh Lim asserted that a good example is adopting Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA) to give companies’ further competitive edge. Firms using advanced methods like Prefabricated Prefinished Volumetric Construction (PPVC) deliver high quality products in a shorter amount of time.

In embracing new technology and innovation, Mr Khoo’s opined that a mindset change on the part of industry players and customers is key to unlocking the twin targets of increased productivity and reduced reliance of labour.

Mr Lim Ming Yan added that digitalisation will need to happen across the whole value chain to reap its full benefits. A good example is how smart facilities management can help create higher-skilled jobs on top of meeting sustainability goals.

Mr Hugh Lim stressed the importance of creating an ecosystem which allows entrepreneurs and innovators in the Buildtech space to thrive. Platforms such as the LLF, Built Environment Accelerate to Market Programme (BEAMP) and facilities like SkyLab have been put in place by BCA to help incubate potential ideas and bring them to life.

Wrapping up the session with a nod to the future, the panellists envisioned an industry where digitalisation and advanced construction methods permeating the entire built environment value chain in Singapore. With the optimisation of technology, the construction sector will also see a shift towards a highly-skilled workforce and safer workplace.

Reimagining the Built Environment in the Post-pandemic Era

At the Leadership Plenary, Ar. Tai Lee Siang, Executive Director, BCA, led a thought-provoking, wide-ranging discussion on the future of the built environment with guest speakers Ar. Seah Chee Huang, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, DP Architects; Prof Dr Chris Luebkeman, Director of Strategic Foresight, Office of the President, ETH Zurich; and Mr Matt Gough, Innovation Director, Mace.

Ar. Seah pointed out that COVID-19 has revealed the flaws in the current system. In designing future cities, the industry will need to return to the fundamentals of building for human health and wellness.

Prof Luebkeman added that the pandemic has brought to light new challenges for the construction sector. To overcome these challenges, the industry needs to be clear in their objectives, that is whether they are building for longevity, health, to minimise waste or to lower carbon emissions.

The global nature of the pandemic is also an urgent reminder of the larger impending climate crisis. Architects, engineers and builders have a responsibility to factor planetary health in their decisions. To do so, Mr Gough opined that the industry will need greater diversity in thinking to meet new challenges, and to seize opportunities for collaboration using technology.

As concluding note, the speakers agreed that the sector must take an active role in tackling the climate emergency, and in doing so, create spaces and places where humans can thrive. 

What’s Next? Future Proofing with Emerging BuildTech

Emerging innovations and technologies in construction were presented at this session moderated by Mr Liong Yuen Ming, Chief Technology Officer, Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

According to Prof Andrew Harris, Director, Laing O’Rourke, the world including the construction industry is on the cusp of the next big technological revolution. At Laing O’Rourke, cutting-edge innovations in digital engineering, Design for Manufacturing and Assembly (DfMA), 3D printing and robotics are already being applied to real life projects on the ground.

Prof Miroslaw Skibniewski, Professor of Construction Engineering and Project Management, University of Maryland showed examples of how remote control drones and semi-autonomous robots are already ubiquitous at construction sites, taking over a fair amount of high risk, high volume and highly repetitive tasks currently performed by humans. He also provided a snapshot of how construction of the future could look like.

Er. Winston Toh, Principal Engineer, Housing and Development Board (HDB) presented the research on 3D printing by HDB. More research will be carried out with the aim of deploying such 3D printed Prefabricated and Prefinished Volumetric Construction (PPVC) structures for future construction of public housing in Singapore.

BE Sparks – Supporting Start-ups in the BuildTech Space

This initiative by the Ministry of National Development brought together a broad spectrum of corporate venture capitalists (VC), public policy makers and start-ups in the construction space for a panel discussion, moderated by Mr Khoo Teng Lip, Head, ST Engineering Ventures.

Mr Darren Bechtel, Founder and Managing Partner, Brick and Mortar Ventures opened the session by highlighting how the pandemic has accelerated the transformation of the global construction landscape by compressing the industry’s digitalisation process into a very short time. Fellow VC Mr Tyson Woeste, Partner, Fifth Wall predicted that sustainability technology will return to the forefront post-pandemic due to the existential threats posed by climate change.

When sharing their respective journeys in the construction tech space, start-up CEOs and founders Mr Lin Shijing, Hubble, and Mr Anthony Chow, Igloohome, emphasised the importance of localising one’s product to achieve a good market fit and staying true to their value propositions. These values have enabled both companies to rapidly scale their businesses across the region and globally.

Mr Cheng Tai Fatt, Managing Director, Built Environment and Research Institute, BCA, and Ms Yang Yanyi, Deputy Director, Enterprise Singapore shared perspectives on how government agencies are helping local start-ups grow. Mr Cheng shared how BCA drives research and innovation in built environment by setting a clear direction for the industry based on the focus areas of green buildings, design for manufacturing & assembly, and integrated digital delivery. Ms Yang stressed that a collaborative multi-agency approach is key to building up a strong start-up ecosystem. This approach has enabled 3,800 local start-ups to raise S$10.9bn in funding to date.