Jan Van Steirteghem, (BESIX) on the need to rethink the principles of the construction industry.

The construction industry faces huge challenges. As a sector and depending on the sources you use, we are responsible for 40% of the waste in the world, and close to 40% of the carbon emission. Add to this shrinking margins and the ‘cut-throat-mentality’ as every big project is coveted by all the major players, and you have an industry that must rethink its future to stay relevant. 

“Of course, we will always be building and maintaining infrastructure, but I firmly believe that we have to change our most fundamental working principles” states Jan Van Steirteghem (General Manager Europe, BESIX). “We live and work in a tremendously interesting sector. We shape and connect communities, by means of infrastructure and assets. But until now, we have never really given more than a thought about resources. You might say that we used them in a linear, not so intelligent way. We exploit a mine, dig out the resources we need and use them in a building or any other way we see fit. The repurposing, the upcycling, recycling was never our first concern. Fortunately (and it was high time!), this is changing, obviously because of scarcity of resources, environmental, political and societal pressure, and a growing mentality shift towards much more sustainable business practices.” 

“The talented profiles who have joined the industry in the last couple of years find these ‘old school methods’ appalling, revolting, or simply not very intelligent. They want to do it in another way, and they’re right. For them it’s natural to actively think about sustainability, whereas for the previous generation it almost involves change management.”

Of course, he puts it bluntly and admits that there are interesting initiatives in the steel and aluminium business, like the production of carbon-neutral steel, and in various other aspects of his industry, but nevertheless, a turning point has been reached. 

“We have an obligation towards society, towards our children and grandchildren, we cannot fight climate emergency without efforts and fundamental rethinking of what we do. It’s not about marginal changes, but about fundamental ones. And I see opportunities for companies like ours, and like Neanex. Because digitalization and data insights will become more and more important in fighting climate emergency.”

“Take the example of the tunnels in Brussels, mostly built in the 1950s. The whole documentation – which could have prevented some of the problems we have now – were transferred from the national government to a local level. Since that archive was on paper, it was basically useless and served no purpose whatsoever. Nowadays we want smart, accessible and actionable insights from the data and the tracking of the assets in any company.” 

“The key to a more sustainable functioning of the construction industry is encapsulated in that digitalization process. If you don’t have a clear view on your assets, on the resources you’ve used, you cannot possibly expect serious efforts in terms of circularity and sustainability. We are not involved in digitalization per se, we firmly believe it’s the enabler for the whole process of making our industry more sustainable.” 

“This is an irreversible trend. For once I am also very happy to acknowledge the impact of politics and government. 50% of our projects situate themselves in the public sector. They follow European and federal regulation which means that we also must comply. But it could go faster. We could follow the example of the Dutch, where you do not even get a chance to participate in a tender if your sustainability approach is not clearly stated and defined.” 

“Moreover, our biggest private clients also evolve towards a more sustainable approach because their clients in turn are very aware of the importance of those decisions. So, I am convinced that we should and can speed up the process.  Neanex is one of the building blocks in that approach. Rather than keeping it as a useful digital tool for asset management and business intelligence, I firmly believe that it has a future in decision support and know-how with regard to sustainability, the reuse of assets and materials, and all other aspects that are involved.” 

“It is no longer a question of ‘when’ but rather ‘how fast’ and this involves a fundamental mind shift. Those who still not believe this mentality shift are doomed to fail. This is also why I am so interested in the development of a engaged mindset regarding materials and construction method that differ from our traditional approach. Make no mistake, the clients will also have to do their share, this is not a responsibility for the construction business alone, it’s a shared responsibility.” 

“Of course, we need to be realistic. Only a few companies are already on the stage where they can use the digitalisation of assets to make that ‘quantum leap’ towards circularity. Especially in Belgium, the need for a solid digital backbone in asset management is still very high. That is the first level of digitalisation and it’s the core business for Neanex. Only when you’ve successfully implemented and familiarised yourself with it, comes the second step: using the business intelligence of data and digital resources. Sustainability, circularity, is the third level. Each step carries a lever for growth and profitability, you cannot go towards a sustainable and proactive asset management culture if your basics aren’t right.  It’s as simple as that.”  

Neanex is very well placed to become a world player in that market, because of its vendor independence, because of its open standards and the basic philosophy which implies dealing with all data and assets to serve a well-defined purpose: using technology to fight climate emergency. The sooner the market matures on the aspects of circularity, the more outstanding and sustainable the company will become. There’s simply no other way. 


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