In April and May 2020, during the first coronavirus state of emergency in Japan, 51.8% of Tokyo’s office workers worked remotely, and up to 68.9% fewer people used the Tokyo subway system. On January 13, 2021, Japan’s government extended the second state of emergency into seven prefectures, including Tokyo and Osaka. Under this accelerating trend, the construction industry strives to strengthen the choice to work remotely.
Japanese construction sites comprise a majority of skilled workers: 35.3% of construction workers were over fifty-five years of age in 2019. Although the aging workforce remains a huge issue, the industry’s time-served and monolingual communication has supported the qualified craftsmanship. Crafters often advise the architects at the site for better detailing or material selection: such a collaborative attitude is, as Fumihiko Maki stated, appreciated as the “the effort towards the crystallization.” The market steadily recovered after the recession; the Japanese construction investment in 2019 hit the highest in the last decade. Alternatively, the industry has not keenly recognized the urgency for updating conventional workflow. Until today, productivity has remained stagnated since the economic bubble in the early 1990s.
For continual site activity, a digital-based environment seems to best contribute to public health. Like the energy-saving whose nationwide need was triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima No.1 nuclear power plant accident, it makes sense to consider the situation as an opportunity to spread the digital transformation across the disciplinary.
The Japanese construction industry has energetically adopted labor-saving efforts, including off-site fabrication and precasting for a half-century. Nevertheless, many companies show reluctance to implement contemporary design and production toolsets, such as BIM and computational design, mainly because they have seen little benefit so far. In the current work environment, a single source of project truth on the cloud can enhance the quality of remote work, and thus, will save people’s lives. Having the ability to explore this option will determine survivability in today’s business environment.
Manage the talents
Working from home has not only hampered our design reviews and daily meetings. Sharing and transferring knowledge have been severely impaired too. You may lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink — project expertise must come at the exact moment it is wanted. The question is whether we can provide such access.
Japan’s big five general contractors have been operating for over a century, employs over 10,000 staff, provides all services of design, construction, operations, and R&D. This cross-functional project delivery, supported by their long-lasting business, grants the companies a significant advantage in the accumulation of know-how.
However, the transactive memory, know-who within the corporate, has relied on internal human networks so far. When we rebuild an office building with a rooftop shrine, how should we temporarily remove the shrine pavilion? — the difficulty exists in reaching the person who experienced such an extraordinary situation before. Finding the path of knowledge across hundreds of departments becomes a more significant problem without the serendipitous encounters. Because of the miscellaneous information the industry deals with, the cases will not be handled like other industries such as pharmaceuticals and patents, where the metadata is firmly established and stringently applied.
One potential solution is to archive as many project narratives as possible. We can search for keywords from the accumulated and tagged text; that is likely a shortcut to access the topic. Video interview of experienced staff is one of the low-hanging fruits. We will obtain the documentary movies, narration texts, and speech audio to train the speech recognition AI at once.
Mirror the World
With limited physical access to places, the need for digital cities has never been greater. Not only the accurate geo-data is essential for elaborate proposals and plans for locations we cannot visit, but also leveraging the data to tackle broader problems, like public health and climate change, is pivotal today. The Japanese government revised the Act on National Strategic Special Zones in May 2020. The act alleviates existing regulations to realize Super Cities, smart cities that significantly benefit citizens leveraging the open data environment. The urban scale model is no longer a 3D representation of building volumes but is expected to tie up with various databases to form a common ground for cutting-edge services.
The challenge of urban data lies in its ownership. The data itself underlying the mirror world does not always have specific customers. If we try to fulfill every possible demand, the platform instantly becomes indefinite. It would be somewhat realistic if such a mass of data were compositely held by multiple entities, in a decentralized fashion, and utilized on an ad hoc basis.
While the building project data, including BIM, is undoubtedly an essential element of the built environment, its utilization has yet to be established. The information sought in the operation and facility management phase seems mostly incompatible with the one needed on the city scale. On the other hand, it is becoming clear that the availability of trustable open city data is fundamental to overcome pandemics and build a better future environment. Besides, the digital revenue from such data, including the application to energy models, tourism, and entertainment, is yet to be fully explored. In particular, as we in Japan are experiencing a population decline, embracing such diverse visions will be a watershed for the industry’s future.