Wise Howell: The future of construction

Wise Howell: The future of construction

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This month, Jeff Howell’s Wise Howell column for Professional Builder looks back to look ahead, touching on everything from bicycles to jet packs – and everything in between!

We are living in a time of immense change. Every generation has thought that, of course. But in our case it is demonstrably true. The sheer rate of change can, at times, seem mind-boggling.

Back in the 1970s I attended a talk by the famous statistician Ernst Schumacher – the man who invented the concept of “Intermediate Technology” – something that is now attracting a lot of attention.

Anyway, at the start of his talk, Schumacher recalled a story that his grandmother had told him. When she was a little girl in Germany in the 1880s, she had been playing in the garden, and had been puzzled to see a man’s head travelling at speed, in a straight line, above the garden hedge.

What Schumacher’s grandmother had witnessed that day was a demonstration of the early bicycle freewheel. Prior to that invention, a cyclist’s head – seen from the viewpoint of Frauline Schumacher’s garden – would have been bobbing up and down, as he pedalled furiously to keep his legs in time with the wheels.

However, before she died – and this was the point of Ernst Schumacher’s story – his grandmother had seen the first man walk on the Moon.

So, from witnessing the invention of the bicycle freewheel mechanism to watching Neil Armstrong step onto the lunar surface – in one person’s lifetime – that’s quite a phenomenal rate of change.

But today the rate of change is even faster. When some of us were growing up, computers were something that featured only in Science-Fiction movies. Now, most of us don’t just have computers on our desks, but we have them in our pockets.

We might soon be moving around in self-driving cars. And you can even tell your radio to change stations by just shouting at it, (now that is something that my grumpy old Dad would have really appreciated, had he lived long enough!)

The latest news story is AI – or Artificial Intelligence. It’s either going to take over the world and kill us all, or else it’s going to bring world peace, and enable us all to live forever – depending on which account you read.

So how does this affect us as builders? Well, in whatever way we allow it to, I guess. I have always said that builders are the most resourceful group of people I know. We cope with changes in technology, in Building Regulations, in traffic and parking restrictions, and we still come out on top, turning a profit.

All I can predict is, that the rate of change will not slow down. It will get faster and faster. But you know what? – people will always need homes to live in and buildings to work in. Even when they are flying around strapped to Sci-Fi jet packs!

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