Speech by SDEV at First Construction Innovation Conference (English only)

Following is the speech by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, at the First Construction Innovation Conference organised by the University of Hong Kong today (December 16):

Professor (Peter) Mathieson (President and Vice-Chancellor, the University of Hong Kong), Professor (Thomas) Ng (Co-chair of the Conference), distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning.

I would like to thank the University of Hong Kong and the Construction Industry Council for giving us an interactive platform to showcase construction innovation in Hong Kong, and to encourage our construction industry to "Explore", "Exchange" and "Excel". I would also like to congratulate the Organising Committee for a conference ably planned and well received.

May I start by first inviting our audience to help me with some brainstorming? Can you name a few uses for a piece of stone? Yes, stone, natural stone. What immediately come to mind must be: "a tool for lighting a fire", "for building a fireplace", "for painting" (yes, before the paint brush was invented), "as a paper weight". And how about "as a weapon"? So you see, for something as simple as stone, the scope for innovation is boundless. The story did not end there.

The turn of the first millennium saw the use of stones to build altars, aqueducts and cathedrals. By the turn of the second millennium, stones were crushed and mixed with steel to build taller and stronger structures, high rise buildings and bridges.

We benefit from innovation sometimes without ourselves even noticing it. Innovation is the impetus for mankind to move forward, but innovation is often preceded by something not so successful. Thomas Edison once said "I haven't failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won't work."

The title of today's conference is "Construction Innovation - Explore, Exchange and Excel". Come to think of it - construction and innovation should come hand in hand. But is this actually happening? Have we done enough? How well are we doing, compared with the other industries? For people in the information technology business, innovation is defined and measured in terms of the version number of hardware and software. Take i-phone as an example, i-phone 1 and i-phone 6 are only 8 years apart; and we all know how i-phone 6 is different from i-phone 1, markedly. By the way, we all may recall how i-phone 4 "revolutionised" the traditional perception of a mobile phone, and that was only 5 years ago.

Now coming back to our industry, construction, when was the last time when something happened and we could really call it a "revolution"? Okay, it may not be fair to compare us with IT. But, how about this - a leaking window is often a nuisance in your apartment, but why don't you see a leaking window as often in your car?

Again, we all in the industry know, and we argue, that it is not a fair comparison. We build under adverse conditions: bad weather; unforeseen underground rock; unsteady supply of work and labour; multi-layer sub-contracting; and we can't put "the parts" to the assembly machines, as they manage to do in the car manufacturing industry; we can only bring the machines and have them work around "the parts".

All these reasons may be real, but the more we accept that these reasons are valid, the more complacent we become, and the less ready we are to innovate. When innovation is the issue, there is no excuse, there must be no excuse.

So, I applaud the three E's that you have declared for today's conference. "Explore" "Exchange" and "Excel". Just that there must no place for the other E: "Excuse".

I will now go through the three E's, starting with "Explore".

Cavern Development

The Hong Kong University Centennial Campus building, which is just a few blocks away from this theatre, was opened in 2012. It is now a new landmark of the University of Hong Kong providing teaching and research facilities. Not many of us are aware that the construction of the Campus was only made possible by relocating the salt water service reservoirs, which occupied the original site, to a cavern nearby. The relocation allows spaces to be created for three buildings providing a total construction floor area of 84,000 square metres. In addition, the landscaped deck of the Centennial Campus now sits above a fresh water service reservoir. A lot of planning, technological and co-ordination efforts have been involved to bring about this success.

In the Civil Engineering and Development Department, we are carrying out studies on the long term strategy for cavern development and drawing up what we call cavern master plans. Government facilities which are suitable for relocation to caverns are being identified. At the same time, related technical guidelines are being prepared. We are making progress in overcoming technical issues such as natural lighting, ventilation and fire codes. Quite a lot of work is still required to deal with issues such as land lease, finance and procurement models. We will not underestimate the difficulties that we still need to overcome.

For now, I think we have put stones to one more good use: "To trade stones for spaces".

Kowloon East

To achieve optimum use of space is another dimension of innovation. In a presentation later today, Ir. CK Hon, the Permanent Secretary for Development (Works), will share with you the Development Bureau's experience in the overall planning and development of Kowloon East. You will hear more about the new approaches and techniques that are being adopted in micro-climate planning, public transport information, low carbon construction and district cooling.

An interactive approach is adopted so that the Conceptual Master Plan evolves through continuous dialogues with the community. "Walkabillity" is a much talked-about term that we use at Kowloon East. Through careful planning and arrangement of pedestrian and traffic flow, people will find leisure in strolling the streets and discovering the place. It is planned to create a pedestrian environment that is "walkable", "stayable" and "sittable" and easily accessible by vehicular traffic, in order to transform the area into another central business district of Hong Kong.

Again, this is an illustration of innovation being achieved through simple ideas. Perhaps through "walkability" we have also found another good use of stones, just this time it is not a physical use. Instead, through careful and wise arrangement of the stones we find our way and optimise our enjoyment.

As technology advances, work flow inevitably becomes more complicated. When work becomes more specialised, more parties are involved. There is an increasing need for knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer. I now come to the second E, "Exchange".
Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Real time communication among various stakeholders is not easy. Coupled with the ever-changing site circumstances, we might not have the first-hand information to initiate or carry out creative proposals. Thanks to Building Information Modelling (BIM), we benefit from sharing planning and design information and passing it from clients to architects to engineers; and construction information from contractors to subcontractors and suppliers. We verify data, identify conflicts and resolve problems in a virtual 3D environment prior to physical construction.

The term BIM is often associated with "sleek design" and "novel shaped" buildings, some famous examples being:

Well, while it is true that BIM contributes a lot to design layout, planning and co-ordination, we tend to see the benefit of BIM from a wider perspective. We see that all projects and all parties stand to benefit from BIM. The real benefit lies in many parties being able to share information through a common platform and being able to contribute and "add value" to the design-construction-and-maintenance chain.

We do acknowledge that during this introductory phase of BIM, some consultants and contractors, especially those SME's (Small and Medium Enterprises), may have concern over investment cost, both in terms of equipment and personnel. Who will take the first plunge when the "value chain" is still being built and when the benefit of BIM capturing the collective input by all has yet to fully materialise? To those "undecided", our message is clear: Government has a firm commitment to implementing BIM. We are rolling out various types of projects and getting ourselves prepared for systematic application of BIM. So far we have 34 construction projects using BIM (20 in design stage and 14 in construction stage) and the number is growing fast. We are also coordinating with industry stakeholders to facilitate the setting up of standards and enhancing interoperability among systems.

I am pleased to note there will be two presentations today on the application of BIM, and we look forward to learning more from our expert speakers, Ms. Ada Fung and Professor Huang.

Now we come to the third E - "Excel".

Automation and Robotics

I mentioned earlier that, unlike the manufacturing industry, we struggle with adverse and uncertain conditions. That contributes to concerns of quality and safety. Mechanisation and prefabrication have helped off-load some manual labour work to machines; however, much on-site assembly work is still required, and it is being undertaken by labour. With design precision now made possible by BIM, we see some preliminary success in introducing robotics to the assembly processes on construction sites. This is welcoming news. Robotics will not only enhance productivity and quality, but it will also make construction sites much cleaner and safer, resulting in a boost to our overall image, and consequently attracting more talents to join our industry. We look forward to hearing more from Professor Skibniewski and Professor Bock, who will later give presentations on automation and robotics.

Incentivising Innovation

Government plays a pivotal role in co-ordinating and facilitating innovation, and providing all necessary incentives to make it happen. Under the conventional contract, we carry out design of the works before tendering. However, once a tender has been issued and accepted, it is difficult for the client to liaise with the contractor for design improvement. The Government is reviewing our procurement system to allow tenderers to submit alternative design to match their capabilities (including labour, equipment, expertise or design concepts) at tender or an earlier time. Each tenderer's advantage in their unique experience and technical competence could then be fully unleashed. Such a system will enhance design quality and buildability, and bring about win-win solutions for all. We look forward to hearing more from Professor Kumaraswamy, who will later give a presentation on procurement and project delivery.

Ladies and gentlemen, as we just said, innovation is a collective process involving all stakeholders. There is no place for complacence or excuse.

Reading through the programme for today, there are many interesting topics by many eminent speakers whom I may not be able to acknowledge one by one. I appeal to you to seize this precious opportunity to learn, interact, ask questions, give comments and share experience. I hope everyone will have a fulfilling day in the continuing quest for improvement and innovation.

Thank you very much.

Ends/Wednesday, December 16, 2015