[Column] Andrew Skudder: Digital trends that will shape the construction industry in 2020

From cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI), to 5G and mobility, a key trend in 2020 is the accelerated digitization of construction companies.

This is critical for future proofing their businesses and maximizing efficiency and profitability.

As one of the least digitized industries in the world, with about 1.5% of revenue spent on IT compared to an average spend of about 3% across all industries, the construction industry has suffered a notable lack of growth in productivity. This is in contrast to the manufacturing industry, which has embraced technology significantly – relative to construction – and recorded a consequent increase in productivity.

By embracing digital technology, construction companies will have more efficient control over their costs and be able to collaborate more effectively on projects, especially mega projects.

The power of cloud computing

Digitisation requires an enormous amount of computing power. A good example of this is the design phase of a project. Over the years, the design process has evolved from designs being created on paper, to the use of CAD tools and, today, through 5D BIM modelling.

Now, with virtual reality, the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) also coming into play, the design aspect requires vast computing capacity. Setting the computing infrastructure up and employing the right skills to maintain it would be an expensive – and unnecessary – exercise for a single company.

The likes of Azure, AWS and Google Cloud have made large amounts of computing power easily accessible to companies around the globe. It is accessible, safe, relatively cheap and maintained by experts.

This allows users to handle much more data, more efficiently and more securely. Once construction companies have garnered big data in the cloud, it can be converted to smart data, allowing them to access comprehensive analytics and use these to make informed and more real-time decisions about current and future projects.

Artificial intelligence and leveraging big data

AI allows construction companies to harness big data and make sense of it. New algorithms are written every day to analyse big data and leverage it in an effective and productive way.

There are numerous use cases for AI in construction. For example, CCS has initiated a proof of concept (POC), using robotic process automation (RPA), to design and build a software robot that is able to read an organisation’s mobile phone statement and process it in conjunction with the invoices in its ERP solution, BuildSmart.

Previously, this process could take an accountant up to two days to complete. The robot, however, is able to read the statement and invoices, extract all the required data and process the purchase order along with various Excel reports in just over eight minutes, with a 100% accuracy every time. This allows the accounting team to focus on work that adds more value to the business.

In the construction industry, hundreds of deliveries from multiple suppliers are made to construction sites every day. Traditionally, a clerk would capture every delivery note manually, a labour-intensive and time-consuming process. AI allows this to be done rapidly and accurately, freeing employees up to interrogate the quality, quantity and relevance of the products ordered.

AI is also highly effective in interrogating past projects. One of the big opportunities in the industry is for estimators and project managers to learn from past projects. Much of the knowledge rests in their heads, which is then used to improve the scheduling and costing and estimated for upcoming projects. If all historical data is stored on a database, AI will be able to prepare more accurate predictive models, making future projects more productive and predictable.

Another higher use case for AI is in 3D modelling. A big issue in planning and designing projects relates to design clashes between different engineers or stakeholders. When something is being built, there will typically be several designs for different aspects of the project – architectural, mechanical, electrical, amongst others. Often, when they are overlaid, there are clashes. AI has the ability to help detect these clashes and adjust designs quickly.

The holy grail of construction is to have 100% design before construction commences, that is, no changes during the course of a project. Of course, this rarely happens, but it’s what everyone strives for. AI enables users to simulate a 3D model to determine whether it is constructible and can be constructed cost effectively and within the clients construction deadlines. By exploring different scenarios, in terms of what happens first, second or third, AI can help optimise the construction process. This saves time and money, something that can have far-reaching benefits for a country like South Africa where changes to projects such as Medupi and Kusile have resulted in an enormous amount of cost and time overruns.

Yet another use case for AI is risk management. By harnessing historical data, it allows for greater understanding of project complexity. It can analyse complexity factors around issues such as design complexity, labour availability and weather patterns and place them into risk management models, allowing for greater risk mitigation.

Greater connectivity with 5G

5G gives everyone access to greater connectivity. It offers higher speeds and a more reliable and bigger capacity, which ties in with construction companies’ need to harness big data. Once they start digitising their business processes, construction companies will create huge amounts of data.

One of the major constraints for site-based solutions has been a lack of connectivity to construction sites. 5G will take it to the next level in terms of reliability, speed and capacity. This will allow for more data collection, data management and data analysis on site, which will allow project managers to make informed decisions, more quickly.


Mobility has already taken hold on construction sites, with laptops, smart phones and tablets allowing people to conduct work in remote areas, capture data and complete tasks that were ordinarily paper based.

One example is clock carding or time and attendance-type systems. In the past and at many sites today, attendance at construction sites is recorded on paper, which then gets captured into some system. Today, this can be done more accurately and effectively via mobile phones or tablets.

The next level of mobility relates to wearable technology. Think Microsoft’s HoloLens, which offers the ability to mix virtual reality with reality on the construction site. With the lenses, users are able to see the design and if they look into a room, they are able to see how it is meant to be constructed. It allows users to detect defects and pull up diagrams showing the correct design. While it may not manifest in the construction industry in 2020, wearable technology is definitely the next big leap forward.

3D scanners are another form of mobile technology that are invaluable for the construction industry. When a building is being constructed, 3D scanners can be used to scan rooms, measure them and create as-built drawings.

Drones are becoming increasingly popular for various construction projects, especially roads. By flying a drone over a construction site every day, users can see what progress has been made in every phase of a project and deliver progress reports to relatively accurate tolerances.

Virtual and physical, side by side

Ultimately, the increased use of digitisation will mean construction companies can create virtual projects alongside their physical projects, allowing them to be more efficient in the way they construct their projects. This is because they will be able to build their construction projects in the virtual world up front, ensuring they are well planned when they begin construction in the physical world. It also allows them to monitor their progress against the virtual plan every step of the way and address issues as soon as they crop up.

Andrew Skudder is the CEO of Construction Computer Software

IBM Expands its AI and Cloud Technology for Agriculture to Africa and other global markets

For the first time, IBM says it is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

IBM has announced that it is expanding its Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI and cloud technology tailored for new crops to Africa and other markets around the world. For the first time, IBM says it is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase of arable land. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in new markets across Africa, Europe, and Australia. It will also be available in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Brazil.

“These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment,” said Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions, IBM. “Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analyzed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.”

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers.

The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerialflights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with startup Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Companydata, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops.

IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.


[Column] Mariam Abdullahi: Building the Intelligent Telco Enterprise -growth opportunities for African telecoms operators

While the telco industry may have seen its traditional revenue streams decline further in 2018, thanks in part to the popularity of over-the-top (OTT) services such as WhatsApp that offer low-cost alternatives to messaging and voice calling, the industry is still set for growth. According to the Africa Digital Outlook 2019 report by Ovum, mobile revenue in Africa is set to grow from $54.9-billion in 2017to $68-billion in 2022. While voice revenues are predictably declining as cheaper OTT services continue to gain popularity among cost-conscious consumers, mobile broadband and digital services revenue are set to more than double over the same period (from $13.1-billion in 2017 to $32.1-billion in 2022).

The pressures on traditional revenue streams has initiated an industry-wide goldrush for new innovations that can leverage the extensive infrastructure and data sets most telcos have access to. Modern consumers are demanding greater convenience and improved experiences from the brands and companies they support at a time when those same consumers are permitting brands to become more intimate with them through increasingly sophisticated omni-channel marketing initiatives. 

However, without a well thought-out and future-focused digital strategy in place, Telcos will struggle to adapt to their changing consumer and business landscape. In fact, I’d be so bold as to say that, unless Telcos can move fast to drive operational efficiencies, modernise and update their business models, we may very well see some of those slower on the uptake exit the market soon.

For African Telcos that have the correct digital tools and strategies in place, there are immense growth opportunities. In 2019 we will see more focus in four key areas, namely Digital Experience Management, Artificial Intelligence, Data and Analytics, and Cloud.

Digital Experience Management 

Customer experience will play a leading role in shaping the 21st century Experience Economy. Walker research even found that customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiators by 2020. 

To meet the modern customer’s expectations regarding customer experience, Telcos should integrate the back-office with the front office and deploy the technology tools that will enable them to marry experiential data with operational data. In 2019, Telcos need to ensure they have a holistic view of their customers across the marketing, sales and service departments, and develop a deeper understanding of individual and B2B customers, their needs and expectations. 

Measuring end-to-end experiential data is an emerging discipline, with new innovative tools giving organisations unprecedented access to measurable experiential data. Qualtrics, which was acquired by SAP in 2018, is an experience management platform that enables the integration of operational and experiential data to give organisations real-time feedback from customers on key activities. Callidus Cloud’s DataHug, a forecasting and pipeline management solution that provides data insights into the likelihood of success in a sales cycle, also tracks the engagement levels of prospects to give sales teams actionable intelligence about how and where they can optimise sales activities.

Artificial Intelligence

The world witnessed an acceleration in artificial intelligence capabilities in 2018 as the much-hyped technology finally entered the mainstream. With AI now widely available and its maturity levels making it suitable for a range of industries, organisations are now faced with the task of determining where AI can add the most value, how to deploy and integrate it, and how to build toward a long-term horizon. To truly harness the power of AI, organisations need to set goals and objectives as well as continuously measuring effectiveness rigorously. 

In the telco industry, AI is useful in areas such as network optimisation (using AI to analyse the network status and implement predictive maintenance when needed); customer service (AI-enabled chatbots such as those on the SAP Conversational AI platform easing operational pressures by assisting customers with a range of well-defined interactions); and customer experience (an exciting and emerging application of AI, which can assist with integrating front-office and back-office records, pulling in external data sets, and developing offers – such as device or contract upgrades – tailored specifically to an individual customer’s preferences). 

AI can also point the way to new, non-traditional revenue streams. Kenya’s Safaricom has started setting itself up as a platform for a range of consumer and business services, for example by launching a new ride-hailing service called Little Cab that offers free Wi-Fi for passengers and offering M-Pesa users to access credit lines via Fuliza, an overdraft facility in partnership with banks which reported a borrowing of 6.2B Kenyan Shillings in just one month. By leveraging customer data and behaviour, the telco can introduce a broad range of non-traditional telco services that add value and convenience to the customer experience.

Big Data and Analytics

Mobile handsets are arguably the greatest sources of individual customer data available today. And Telcos are at the forefront of Big Data custodianship as subscribers use an array of data-generating apps and services all linked to their mobile phone. These present huge opportunities to Telcos who can quickly analyse vast amounts of individual customer data, build complex and multidimensional customer profiles, and develop individualised customer offers and experiences to deepen brand affinity and increase share of wallet. 

The Vodafone Group is a great example of a telco taking advantage of its Big Data opportunities following a recent partnership with SAP to co-innovate in a Big Data Margin Assurance project. By using value proposition, customer usage data and analytics, Vodafone operating companies are now able to identify margin leakages on products and services and optimise margin instead of following the older ‘Average Revenue Per User’ metric. 

However, it is worth noting the importance of trust. If Telcos are to take advantage of their Big Data opportunities, they must give customers assurance that they fully appreciate the responsibility of being custodian to customers’ most personal habits and preferences and take the necessary measures to protect and manage their data.

Cloud Computing

Cloud market giants had phenomenal 2018s, with Amazon cloud revenue up 49% in Q2 2018, slightly lagging market-leader Microsoft. This year looks no less exciting: Gartner predicts the global public cloud services market will grow by 17.3% in 2019 to reach $206.2 billion. Organisations are accessing more SaaS, PaaS, IaaS and other as-a-service offerings than ever before as they shift away from capital expenditure and reorder their IT spend as operational expenditure to enjoy cloud’s cost containment and convenience benefits. 

One of the key challenges of cloud adoption in Africa is related to the matter of data residency vs data sovereignty; in other words, who owns that data, and where is it allowed to be stored? This has made it critical that cloud services providers have in-depth in-country experience of the data sovereignty and residency laws of various African countries and regions. 

Telcos have a mandate to provide near-100% uptime, have extensive infrastructure and understanding of the various regulatory aspects that could impact cloud services. There is immense potential for Telcos to become private-managed cloud providers for data that is bound by data residency and sovereignty laws and enable Africa’s high-growth businesses to more easily scale to new markets or geographies without transgressing any local laws.

Mariam Abdullahi is the telco industry Lead at SAP Africa