Maria Smith puts the industry on the couch

This is a cry for help. I’m worried that the construction industry is suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. 

I find myself increasingly concerned that the risk-averse behaviour patterns we’re witnessing aren’t the strategic solutions they profess to be but are symptoms of a system in crisis. Procurement processes involve endless repetitive checks. Very specific methods of measuring and ordering are followed in pursuit of the fabled safe pair of hands. Inflexible rituals deny opportunity and experience to newer and smaller practices, feeding a dire skills shortage. This is exacerbated as practices hoard their knowledge out of a disproportionate sense of rivalry. Fear of failure favours competitions over engaged, iterative design processes. Fear of regret favours facade-retaining, apologetic, conservative design. As our industry becomes increasingly unviable, who can blame it for presenting signs of distress? But have we overshot prudent self-preservation and entered self-destructive neurosis?

Operating successfully as a human involves a lot of risk management. We need to assess the severity and likelihood of a plethora of risks and take proportionate precautions to prevent harm coming to ourselves or others. This requires creative risk mitigation, and critically, tolerance of some uncertainty.

But sometimes uncertainty is intolerable. This can lead to obsessive compulsive behaviours such as checking, cleaning, repetitive acts, mental rituals, ordering, hoarding, counting and so on. OCD sufferers employ these behaviours to reassure themselves that nothing bad will happen. Overcoming OCD is difficult because the sufferer must increase their tolerance for uncertainty. They must accept that what will come with recovery is not peace of mind and security, but almost its opposite: accepting that this is unattainable. 

Operating successfully within the construction industry is similarly characterised by risk management. The large sums of money, large numbers of people, and very real risks of physical and economic harm demand reasonable assessment of danger, creative approaches to risk mitigation, and tolerance of a level of uncertainty.

As with individuals who find themselves unable to tolerate uncertainty, an industry with an untenably low tolerance for uncertainty could also tie itself in knots with obsessive compulsive behaviours that appear superficially justifiable in the short term, but can mutate into disproportionate avoidance and absurd safety-seeking. And just as sufferers of OCD must learn to live with a level of uncertainty in order to free themselves from the all-consuming, debilitating pursuit of a hopeless quest, so must an industry find ways to cope with uncertainty or it will incapacitate itself by withdrawing into an ever-more constricted realm.

As our industry becomes increasingly unviable, who can blame it for presenting signs of distress?

Cognitive behavioural therapists advise sufferers of OCD to combat their condition by undertaking a process of exposure and response prevention, ie deliberately and repeatedly facing their fears and not responding to urges to use safety-seeking behaviours. Overcoming OCD requires giving up feeling ‘comfortable’ and making decisions based on external evidence despite feeling uncertain. Resisting developing alternative, even secret, safety-seeking behaviours is critical.

Can an industry suffering from a collective form of OCD also heal with a process of exposure and response prevention? Can it also improve its tolerance for uncertainty?

Outside the construction industry there’s a ground-swell afoot that is realising the limitations of seeking quantitative perfection. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review proposed that seeking ever tighter efficiencies, ever tinier margins of error or waste, might show up as marginal economic growth but cost our ability to innovate – to do things better, not just more cheaply. In March, The Economist published an article on the impending end to Moore’s Law, which stated that computer power would double every two years. Not surprisingly, this is proving unsustainable and as the incentives for such linear progress wane, such radical innovations as intuitive data analytics, the internet of things and approximate computing are emerging. 

The days of hiding behind the comfortable quantitative that feels like certainty are coming to the end. Granted, it’s a desperate end: we’re kicking and screaming and gripping tightly to ever madder behaviours that temporarily reassure. This is all too familiar for our beloved industry that is so often late to the party. But maybe this time we needn’t be. Everybody’s talking about ‘design thinking’. Our industry must be predisposed to such ‘design thinking’ – a set of principles promoting empathy, trial and error, and tolerance for divergent ideas and iterative ‘failures’. Can we embrace our innate ‘design thinking’ to help us face our fears and resist fruitless, damaging safety-seeking? 

What are we really afraid of? I saw the film of JG Ballard’s High-Rise and it’s a fun power trip to imagine that we really have this level of influence but the ‘failure’ of a building can’t really cause such diabolical results. By the way, an inflated sense of your own power is also a symptom of OCD.  •

Maria Smith is a director of architecture and engineering practice Interrobang and curator of Turncoats