DCW - Solving challenges through live construction events

The Event Director and co-founder of Digital Construction Week, Oliver Hughes, shares his thoughts on events and technology adoption.

Payapp’s From Surviving to Thriving initiative provides a vital platform to ‘knowledge share’ in support of the industry’s evolution. Oliver, who is also the Event Director of GEO Business, agrees that change can happen when people get together to talk to one another.  

In the interview we explore:

  • How he sees the show developing over the next few years
  • The adoption of digital technology in the pandemic
  • If the wealth of information now available during a build will change the way companies approach the build process
  • How Ollie himself approached the ever changing situation during the pandemic
  • Any tips and tricks he has found from this time to share with the industry

Surviving To Thriving: DCW Transcript

Everything from work to sport, shopping or exercise was disrupted by the COVID pandemic and the 2020 lockdowns. And whilst carried out in the interest of safety and public health, factors such as productivity, collaboration and social interactions took a hit.

But now, as we emerge from the other side of a rollercoaster couple of years, conferences are back, and we’re all the better for it. The latest instalment of our Surviving to Thriving series sees us explore more about the impact COVID had on spaces related to construction.

Explaining more about navigating a treacherous time for the events industry, what comes next for conferences, and the role technology can play in reshaping the construction sector, we were delighted to be joined by Oliver Hughes, the event director and co-founder of Digital Construction Week (DCW).

Anthony Puma: Thanks for joining us today. Would you mind giving us a quick introduction to who you are, what you do and a bit about your background, please?

Oliver Hughes: I'm Oli Hughes, the event director and co-founder of DCW, and the event director of Geo Business, which sits just behind us.

I launched DCW in 2015 with a view of looking at everything innovation and tech for the built environment. It felt like there was a real need to widen the community and get involved in what construction could look like if we do it a little better and smarter.

Anthony Puma: And here we are. It's great to be back at Digital Construction Week, finally.

Oliver Hughes: Yeah, it's been a while!

Anthony Puma: This year, there are 300 speakers across both days, with 5,500 professionals expected to attend the show, showing just how much interest there is in the digital uptake in this industry. I think it's apparent with how much buzz there is around the event and how busy it is. Why do you feel it's important to bring people together to discuss digitisation broadly?

Oliver Hughes: Yeah, I think it's hugely important. It's the reason we launched the show when we did. It's all about sharing ideas and exploring different ways of working, but there is also trepidation and challenges.

When we launched, there was a tight-knit community of BIM managers and people involved in BIM who weren't necessarily getting the attention they should. They had come together with a plan - and hope - of improving the industry and changing the way we work, and that's only possible when people talk and see each other. With COVID especially, we experienced a real challenge to that. It's no secret that it's a lot harder to collaborate, engage and share ideas on Teams, Zoom or the other conference calling systems available - you can't get the same interaction.

And so DCW has always been an annual meeting of minds, offering a chance to discuss ideas, share where people are at or what they've been working on - and do it quite openly. And then also, have a few beers together and enjoy everyone's company.

Anthony Puma: So now we can look forwards, how do you see the show developing in the future, say in the next few years?

Oliver Hughes: There's a bit of a rebuilding of the event needed after two years of COVID. I think there are a few things - there are some interesting shifts. We talked about it on the information management stage behind me, it’s that shift from BIM to information management, what we do with that kind of information, the data piece, how that's seen, and how we look at that to solve some of the more prominent issues, I suppose.

When we were first running the event, it was a lot around the 'how' of the tech via in-depth discussions about for example IFC, Kobe, all sorts of really important topics. But now that we've had some of those conversations and there's kind of a digital maturity that's coming through, I think what we can start to do is look at how that can help solve some of build environment's larger challenges, net zero being a great example. We've had a great session on the main stage around ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance issues] and what that looks like.

We know about the skills shortage, the training issues and everything else that's long plagued the sector. Rather than being just a techy technical show, actually, we ask, what is our impact? What's our influence on making a real change? We're seeing that in the presentations we've got, we're seeing that in the exhibitors - there are guys from ZERO Construct down here, their whole pitch is around moving towards more carbon neutral built environments and using technology to help push that.

So, I think that's why I'd like to see - and that was always the ambition - the move to, "Okay, how can we solve some of these bigger challenges, and how does digitalisation technology help us achieve that?"

Anthony Puma: Obviously, the last couple of years have had a profound effect on the industry, but, factually, you take the positives, what we've learned from it and how we've moved forward. And there has been a greater adoption - I think you agree - of digital technology, which businesses have had to embrace.

But, just looking at the reasons why there are still barriers to adopting the digital process, and in your experience, are they starting to be broken down, do you think?

Oliver Hughes: Yeah, I think so. People smarter than me here will tell you what it's like at the site level. But the barriers you've got are still around projects being all quite different, with a unique supply chain for each and having quite a lot of players within any given project.

But that's changing, as seen in the work the construction innovation hub is doing through a platform approach. We've had Jaimie Johnston on stage from Bryden Wood talking about how they're working around that. It enables construction to be a little bit less different every time and get a bit more certainty and assurance with build assets, for example. That'll help break down some barriers to adoption and get everyone working from the same hymn sheet.

So, there's that, there's the obvious cost of the technology curve, which every industry's seeing. I remember over the last few years, some of the technologies that you might've deemed as 'sci-fi' are now becoming commonplace - whether that's augmented and virtual reality or some of the robotics stuff we've seen going on. The cost and the fear of adoption exist, but people have started to see genuine returns on investment value, making discussions about tech adoption easier.

Ultimately, that's why we do it. It's nice to have something shiny, but how does it impact my bottom line? Does it allow me to build safer? Does it offer greater productivity on site? We're starting to see that, and I think you'll see it in the exhibitors here. It's solving those problems and meeting the outcomes that the built environment needs. That change is happening right now.

Anthony Puma: Absolutely. At Payapps, being able to see that information, what we find is that transparency and collaboration are the hot topics. Across the supply chains, there's a demand to access information at any time, ensuring that businesses can be more informed about their decisions and quicken up how instantly they can make decisions. So, with all this information now, and we're in this era of so much information available, do you think the wealth of information can significantly help businesses approach construction?

Oliver Hughes: Yeah. If anything, the ambition is to be more informed and have improved visibility. That's something many of our speakers and exhibitors talk about, knowing where we are. There was probably an element of too much information and not knowing how to share it, or what insights we need and what's valuable. But tools, such as Payapps, allow you to do those things and get certainty on your projects, better outcomes and better visibility.

So, I think that's changing, and people understand that. I think about, again, talking about the type of people that were coming to the show initially, and it was very much that BIM manager role. Several people have graduated into much bigger roles, and we can see that in the job titles of people that come. We get data scientists coming to the show, which, if you spoke to most contractors, wasn't a job role that they'd have had within their business 5-10 years ago.

We've seen that change in companies as they flex and shift to understand where they can get value and what resources and requirements there are. So we've seen the landscape change, I think. The conversations happen at a much more mature level for people to build better and get better outcomes.

Anthony Puma: Personally, how did you approach the ever-changing situation over the last few years? And how did that impact Digital Construction Week?

Oliver Hughes: It was a challenge. Working in events was not a great place to be when you've got a pandemic on and your sole ambition is to get 5-6,000 people into a hall, but most people aren't able to leave their kitchen table.

We looked at a few different things, but we knew that the heart of DCW was bringing people together. That was our end goal, and it involved loads of discussions about what we should and shouldn't do, health and safety measures, and we looked at it and just thought, if we can't bring people together, let's not try and do that, let's not try and force it. A wide range of things was discussed, such as removing seats from theatres because we didn't want anyone to spend too long in one place - even though that's what an event's about, right? You want people to come to sit, listen and take time.

My favourite was fogging, where we would come and spray down the venues. So there were many wild ideas early on in the pandemic. But we decided that it's about people meeting and collaborating, to your point earlier, and if we can't do that, let's not force it. So we took a bit of a step back. We did look at, "Okay, what do we do digitally? How do we communicate online?" So we supported a lot of the work that our exhibitors, sponsors and speakers were doing with webinars and other sessions like that, and it was good, but I think we all had probably a bit of overload with that.

So yeah, for us, it was following the market, seeing what was happening and preparing for the show to come back. But we're here, and we've run the show twice in six months, which was ambitious. I'm grateful to say we'll be doing it every year from now. But we've had more people in the last two days compared with November 2021's event. I'm just glad to be back if I'm honest.

Anthony Puma: Second that, absolutely, it's great to be back! On reflection, would you do anything differently?

Oliver Hughes: Oh, loads. If I'm honest, we've had a few sessions here talking about wellbeing and mental health, and it's something that, as a show, we're keen to support. On a personal level, that's something I'm passionate about too.

I think having the time to appreciate too, which was a challenge with COVID. Initially, it was two weeks, then it turned into two years, so how do you manage that back and forth? I think just people being kind to themselves, taking more care of their wellbeing and everything else probably would've helped, alongside a bit less pressure to try and deliver.

I could probably do a PhD in how to try and run an event and then find out you're not going to do it! We had quite a few false starts. It's a great show driven by other people who have supported it and got involved. We'd have given ourselves the time… and I'd probably have gone on holiday if I was allowed, rather than postponing the event three times!

Anthony Puma: That's fantastic. It's great to talk to you, Oli. That just leaves me to say thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

Oliver Hughes: Yeah. Thank you very much. It's been brilliant speaking to you.