Sidewalk Labs

This is the sort of headline that should be at the top of any minister’s inbox who has responsibility for overseeing Australia’s future in a rapidly changing construction world. But alas, they don’t hang around that long. Meanwhile, the global construction juggernaut gathers pace and our local industry misses huge opportunities. This will end up costing our economy and future jobs dearly as more and more construction is delivered in a box each day.

It may mean that local industry governance becomes less relevant as new governance and assurance interests are assumed by global companies like Google as they see the market share potential of being the first movers in creating new customer facing solutions.

Sidewalk Labs is a Google initiative – a bit like city in a box. Sidewalk Labs describes its business as an infrastructure company where joining up technology is the key.

The company is designing a district in Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to tackle the challenges of urban growth, working in partnership with the tri-government agency Waterfront Toronto and the local community. This joint effort, called Sidewalk Toronto, aims to make Toronto the global hub for urban innovation. Forget the faux-hubs claimed downunder.

Sidewalk Lab’s Karim Khalifa gave a captivating presentation at PrefabAUS 2018 Conference in Brisbane last week. For example there is a lot of industry conjecture about the challenges of using BIM. At Sidewalk Labs, BIM use is by a single interest team, so no disconnects between designers, constructors, makers and regulators.

Google has purchased all the businesses involved so it controls all IP. All thinking is then based on looking at everything as a connected platform – physical, human services, sustainability, affordability, viability, technology, off-site manufacture, regulation and compliance. Advanced system thinking.

In essence Google becomes the system governor and while it deals with local regulators for now, you can see that Google’s effectiveness is far more impactful than the fragmented regulators and disaggregated standards that governments around the world have created with their progressive dismantling.

Google could become a global system compliance default option for the making of future cities.

Khalifa presented Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project. This is a large scale “proof of concept”. Google has all the skin in the game. The project is V 1.0. You can see where this is going. It involves a huge team including planners, ethicists, futurists, technicians and more. These are the early steps as Sidewalk Labs becomes a vertically integrated infrastructure company.

You can imagine this model being rolled out as a city or community building tool world-wide. I sense this project has its origins in the Google Flux platform, where it resides today.

While Google has made all its offers feel free, just remember they own a huge paywall.

All a bit scary and exciting at the same time. All this while Australia’s political deckchairs shuffle and our local industry is left with no domestic counter to these developments.

There now seems to be wide recognition that the built world that will be delivered by 2050 will be bigger than everything built in history to date. This recognises the impact of massive populations becoming urbanised especially in developing countries like India, Indonesia and Africa – huge potential for thousands of new “cities in a box”. The global market place for making tomorrow’s built world is already running at more than US$15 trillion each year.

Google also recognises that there is massive public/government market failure and value destruction in construction. Just like Airbnb, an opportunity to fill holes in the market by collaborations that respond to prior market dissatisfaction and failed institutions. Google is responding to this vacuum. It will make a lot of money out of this. Google is big enough to turn unsatisfied public (society + industry) frustrations into amazing new solutions.

Think of new global governance choices to displace ineffectual local agencies. Google tools will put the power to shape, organise, deliver and operate integrated community infrastructure in the hands of collaborating communities.

Imagine the waste, cost and risk that will be avoided. Why would Google be interested? My sense is that it is not in this race alone. I am sure other Technos will respond and copy. New investment in global construction-tech is at an all time high. It’s a global race and not one we are in, yet.

This all puts the current governance breakdown by our local regulators in planning, compliance in stark perspective. Of course most at the PrefabAUS Conference were mesmerised by the Prefab potential.

What they perhaps missed was that Google is planning to do what Amazon is doing for retail, Apple for Apps, Uber for mobility and the burgeoning fulfilment enterprises popping up world-wide every day. This not a time to be asleep at the wheel. But the good news for Australian construction is that the consumer experience will be better regardless as sustainability and trust will come in the box for free. (After the paywall).

The changing deckchairs in Canberra are a national construction tragedy

Meanwhile how’s this for deckchairs in the relevant ministerial portfolios? Former Jobs and Innovation Minister Michaelia Cash has just been appointed Australia’s new Small Business Minister following the reshuffle after the Turnbull leadership demise. Former Small Business Minister Craig Laundy has moved to the backbench. Laundy was Small Business Minister for around eight months, gaining the position after a cabinet reshuffle last year.

Cash’s appointment to the ministry marks the fifth ministerial change in the small business portfolio in just three years, following the departure of Bruce Billson in September 2015. Billson was replaced by Kelly O’Dwyer, before the post was taken up by Michael McCormack and then Laundy. So much for the stream of industry groups that spend half their lives trucking to meetings like the August 12, COAG Building Ministers Forum.

This Forum discussed the failure of Australia’s multi-jurisdictional construction compliance and regulatory framework and the industry’s continued Security of payments problems.

At the centre of these discussions was the Shergold Wier Report’s 24 recommendations in response to the widely reported building cladding and non-compliant building works failures that plague the industry and its customers.

The report is titled Building Confidence – improving the effectiveness of compliance and enforcement systems for the building and construction industry across Australia. It’s a go nowhere document, in the current setting.

Michaelia Cash will hardly get her knees under the desk before the circus goes around again sometime before May next year. And, in a ministerial reshuffle in December 2017, Michael Keenan was promoted to cabinet as Minister for Human Services and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Digital Transformation following the last elections in 2016. How can there be any useful continuity in these portfolios as the passing parade of ministers and their often inexperienced advisors follow them from one office to another.

As a result, Australia’s construction industry lacks leadership at every level. The industry has never been more fragmented. Construction costs are going through the roof, the industry’s productivity levels are in long term decline, investment in new research is at an all time low, our public education institutions fail to see the importance of a resilient construction and engineering sector as a national economic pillar and public confidence in our institutions falls.

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