The Middle East is undeniably a global hub of innovation. Home to many of the world's largest construction projects, the region is stretching the limits of what’s possible and raising the bar in terms of project complexity and quality of output. All this suggests a promising future for construction in the region.
However, an important question remains at the forefront of many minds: ‘is construction – a historically traditional industry – technologically up to speed to meet the requirements of such lofty ambitions?’
Gulf Construction recently sat down with Mohamed Swidan, Senior Director and Head of Middle East and North Africa at Procore Technologies, to gain an insight.
GC: Tell us a bit about yourself and Procore.
Swidan: I lead the MENA team at Procore Technologies. Having spent nearly two decades working with multinational technology companies, including leadership roles at Cisco, LinkedIn, SAP and Uber, I came to Procore tasked with strengthening the brand and its presence across the region.
Procore’s mission is simple: to provide construction professionals with a comprehensive, yet easy-to-use platform that connects the entire project team in one place, empowering them to do what they do best – build.
In view of the new urbanisation initiatives being introduced to the region – Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, Kuwait’s National Masterplan 2040 and the UAE’s Projects of the 50, to name a few – where does the construction industry currently stand technologically?
Technological adoption varies from one business to another, however generally speaking, the industry is currently digitally transforming at an unprecedented rate. Prior to the pandemic, technology was viewed as a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a necessity, with many contractors managing the frustrations and inefficiencies of a pen-and-paper operation. Today, it is being viewed as an enabler for growth. The shift in this mindset and its continuation has, undoubtedly, been influenced from the ‘top’. Governments are actively promoting the benefits of digitalisation which is helping to maintain the momentum built up over the last couple of years. An example of this is the UAE Digital Economy Strategy, which is pushing stakeholders across all sectors to embrace technology more openly. That said, we still have a few barriers to overcome in order to facilitate the level of excellence dictated by the region’s urbanisation goals.
What are some of the barriers to technology adoption in the construction industry?
Most construction companies are presently under time and cost pressures, causing many of them to postpone their digital transformation journeys. Instead of being technologically proactive, they become reactive, posing a real barrier not only to their adoption of technology but also their ability to be a part of the region’s biggest and most exciting construction projects. That’s because, whilst ‘workarounds’ or ‘quick fixes’ help in the short term, they can cause companies to become complacent with their technology adoption strategy. In the long term, this will eat away at project quality as well as company profitability and reputation.
Additionally, another big hurdle to tech adoption is talent attraction. Millennials and Gen Z-ers are innately tech savvy and will look for roles within sectors that are embracing technologies and making them an integral part of their roles. The construction industry is in need of this talent, but unless the sector begins to make technology an innate part of its culture, it will fail to attract a new generation of talent. The giga-projects have timelines of more than a decade; to ensure companies can continue to be a part of these exciting builds they will have no choice but consider the longevity of their workforce and what is required to meet the expectations of the upcoming generation of workers.
There is often a lack of visibility into project status and progress. What innovations have you seen that support visibility of project performance?
I’d start by saying that there is no shortage of data, with the challenge being not in capturing the information but extracting valuable insight from it. Recent research commissioned by Procore found that over two-thirds (71 per cent) of construction managers surveyed in the UAE are still using outdated manual tools, like spreadsheets, to measure performance1. With larger projects in particular, this is a really hard approach to sustain. The projects are simply too complicated to have people working at cross-purposes and using disconnected technology solutions. This is, therefore, stressing the need for a platform solution whereby all data and information is brought into one place to drive actionable insight. It is worth noting, however, that when we refer to ‘platform’ as an innovation driving visibility of performance, we are clear on what a true platform is. The word ‘platform’ has become a bit of a buzzword in many ways, and this can cause some misunderstanding. Many software providers will claim to offer cloud-based, connected construction solutions but when we strip that back, what they actually provide is somewhat of a connection between point solutions. This cobbling together of solutions will, in fact, force users to copy and paste data and information from one application to the next, leaving insights vulnerable to human error and inaccuracy.
For construction CIOs with a horizon of 5-10 years, where should they be prioritising their investments in order to position their companies well to capitalise on the region's urbanisation plans?
We need to keep in mind that what got us here won’t get us where we need to go. For companies to fully capitalise on the region’s urbanisation plans, they need to align themselves to that same level of innovation. Finding the right partner that can support your digital journey can be challenging but it’s important if you want to fully realise the true benefits of construction technology. My advice is to really assess what’s on the market before committing to a long-term purchase. The right software may not solve all your problems but it should offer a more open and integrated arena for the future, bringing together key data and information to form actionable insight. This shouldn’t be difficult to achieve either, with the best partners offering a solution that is easy to use and continually invested in.
Clearly, sustainability is currently a major priority in project development. How does investing in technology help to support sustainability goals?
To grow more sustainable as an industry, we need quality data. As I’ve said, data is key to driving more informed decision-making and our ability to become ‘greener’. BW: Workplace Experts, a UK-based Procore customer, is a strong example of a company leveraging platform technology and its data insights to better their environmental footprint. Having identified defects to be the main contributor to carbon emissions in construction, they set about delivering every project defect free. They successfully leaned into their data to remain agile, productive and insightful and drove towards positive change by accurately pinpointing weaknesses, building upon strengths and strategising with clarity when needed.
How can companies ensure their investment in technology will meet their needs in years to come?
Procore is a solution built for the future. Some organisations opt to take software development in-house and bear the heavy burden of upkeep. Others find themselves patching together a quilt of point solutions designed to address a subset of use cases but cannot integrate information. In both cases, the upkeep of complex technology stacks is time-consuming. It can cause an organisation to spend too much time in maintenance mode and not enough time building a competitive advantage through technology. To maintain their competitive edge and feel confident in the longevity of their technology, construction companies need to ensure their software vendors are committed to a long-term development plan. That’s why I stress the need to be picky when it comes to who you partner with. Look for a track record of ongoing investment in product innovation and a contract model that has the flexibility for the future.
Further details about Procore Technologies and the benefits of a ‘true’ construction platform, can be found at www.procore.com/en-ae/lp/smarter-construction.
1. Sapio Research conducted an international online survey in January 2021 among 820 middle managers and above, working for construction companies of 100 employees or more. Respondents of this survey were based in the UAE as well as the UK and Ireland, France, Netherlands, Germany, and Canada.