Designing for disruption: Exploring how digital technologies affect the future of construction

Sidsel Katrine Ernstsen

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesisResearch

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Rapid technological developments change our ways of collaborating, communicating,producing, and doing business across a large number of sectors. New technologies, such as robots, internet of things, virtual reality, 3D printing and artificial intelligence, break down the barriers between industries, change market landscapes and disrupt established companies. This thesis studies one of the least digital sectors of society, namely the construction sector (Gandhi et al. 2016). The construction sector is large and societally important, offering schools, hospitals, offices, railway, roads and more. Although the sector has great improvement potential, it struggles to implement digital technologies and obtain productivity improvements in a scale that are comparable to those of other sectors (Barbosa et al. 2017; Lavikka et al. 2018; Winch 2003a; World Economic Forum 2016).

This thesis applies the lens of disruption theory (Christensen 1997; Gans 2016a) to explore how digital technologies may affect the construction sector in the future. The thesis builds on four distinct, yet interconnected, studies:
• In the Disruption Paper (Ernstsen et al. 2018a), we dive into disruption literature and strive to answer three questions: Why should construction be ripe for disruption? When will disruption potentially occur? How will disruption likely manifest? By comparing
construction to healthcare (another large and societally important sector that is considered ripe for disruption), we discuss limitations and benefits of using disruption theory to anticipate future changes in the construction sector.

• In the Horizon Scan Paper (Ernstsen et al. 2018b), we use a specific foresight method, horizon scanning, to identify 133 emerging technologies from across sectors. We find that the majority of these technologies are digital and that few focus on construction

• In the Vision Paper (Ernstsen et al. 2021), we investigate how innovation champions of the construction sector envision the future of the sector. Through qualitative interviews with 13 construction professionals in the UK, we identify three visions for the future of
the sector, which we name efficient construction, user-data-driven built environment, and value-driven computational design. The three visions highlight the potential of different technologies and trends and may be used as a frame of reference in strategic
dialogues that explore multiple, possible, digital futures of construction.

• In the Technology Cards Paper (Ernstsen et al. n.d., under review) we present a design game that we developed, which can help business managers grasp the potential implications of digitalisation. The game is called the Technology Cards, and is a deck of
cards that presents 22 technologies of importance to the construction sector. The design game was validated by means of 17 Tech Session workshops with 257 participants, revealing that the cards provide an inclusive approach for engaging multiple stakeholders in strategic dialogues on technology-enhanced futures. Synthesising the four studies, the thesis

• explores the applicability of disruption theory to a construction context,

• identifies a list of potentially disruptive technologies,

• envisions how digitalisation may affect the future of construction, and

• provides recommendations for established companies to navigate in digital futures.

The thesis highlights the importance of engaging multiple stakeholders in envisioning the future and argues that our (often unspoken) ideas of the future affect our present-day strategic choices. Moreover, the thesis emphasises the importance of considering the implications of a combination of multiple technologies rather than applying a single-technology perspective on
digitalisation. The thesis proposes that the Technology Cards design game can help stakeholders, such as business managers, engage in future-oriented dialogues about the disruptive potential of digital technologies.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages172
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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