How do players in US construction innovate?
Interview with Viviane André, an analyst at Winnovation, a Bouygues Group subsidiary.
Created in the 2000s, Winnovation is a San Francisco-based subsidiary established by the Telecoms division. It was subsequently extended to all the Group’s businesses, including construction. Analyst Viviane André introduces us to this American watchdog office, identifying trends and major issues in one of the leading countries in terms of innovation.
What are Winnovation’s main missions?
Viviane André (V.A) – Winnovation works on subjects specific to the sectors covered by the entire Bouygues Group (Telecom, Construction, Real Estate, Media). My own role focuses on trends in construction, real estate, roads and the city in general. Three main missions :
1. Analysing trends. These analyses can be focused on a specific topic and/or on companies seeking to revolutionise the sector, such as Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google, which responded to a call for proposals from the Smart City in Toronto.
2. Networking, which enables us to develop an ecosystem by meeting American players in the construction industry and offers a forum for discussing innovation, strategy, etc.
3. Learning expeditions, which are at the intersection of the two previous missions and provide a physical and intellectual link between the Bouygues group – and Bouygues Construction in particular – and our work here in the United States. Using the results of our analyses, we identify a key sector in which to hold a “learning expedition”, providing inspiration for employees in France.
In your opinion, what are the specific characteristics of the construction markets and players in the US?
V.A – My previous experience in the construction sector in France enables me to build bridges between the subjects, the actors and the actual global situation in the world of construction between France, Europe and the United States.
I have identified three main issues related to the US construction sector:
Climate: an issue that is becoming increasingly important in the United States. There is an explosion of investment on carbon issues, energy efficiency and new mobility. In this respect, Third Sphere – a Venture Capital organisation – offers a 100% climate investment fund.
Industrialised construction: this means building better, faster and cheaper. This involves “productisation”, as in the case of Elon Musk’s company, The Boring Company, which offers a very specific product: a tunnel with a fairly small diameter through which only a single vehicle can travel. The company does not make customised products, which enables it to reduce its costs. This is not the only example. We can also mention RAD URBAN, Cloud Appartments and Veev, who have created products for residential use.
Towns and cities in general. One of the specific US characteristics revolves around the issue of mobility: the car is still the preferred mode of travel. This is why the US is a cradle of innovation in the development of self-driving cars. Alphabet, Amazon, GM (and others) are investing heavily in this sphere.
In summary, the US in general – and the West Coast in particular – is an exceptional hotbed of start-ups with great investment opportunities.
Regarding cities, you have conducted a study on the Smart City. Could you give us the latest news on the concept in the United States?
V.A – A mere ten years ago, the Smart City topic was very important in American cities, and companies began to invest heavily in technological innovations. The Smart City is based on three key areas: improving the quality of life, being sustainable and promoting digital technology. While these pillars are still relevant, the way in which they are implemented in towns and cities, thanks in particular to technological innovations, has changed considerably.
There had been a lack of transparency and communication between cities and residents on the Smart City pilot projects, which had created a real “bad buzz”… Some of the solutions developed – such as facial recognition – were decried by citizens, who saw the Smart City as an invasion of privacy and an unnecessary addition of technology.
Currently, the term “Smart City” has a bad press, and local authorities prefer to use other expressions such as the Clever City, the Future Ready City or the Digital City, like San Francisco. What cities want is a more human form of contact, with a stronger focus on inhabitants and their needs. This has a huge impact on the way they design solutions. In the past, high-tech was in vogue. Constant innovation was needed to respond to citizens’ issues. Today, cities have understood that the solution can sometimes be based on low-tech methods, with a constant effort to adapt to user practices.
For example, the city of Boston has written its “Smart City Playbook” manifesto for all Smart City stakeholders. The six areas of change it mentions include some key themes. Making good use of data, promoting the right to privacy and developing innovations that respond to societal issues are all areas in which the Smart City is evolving, in order to reconnect with the needs of local communities and inhabitants.
What future topics and projects will Winnovation address?
V.A – A major subject that is increasingly emerging, a little late compared to Europe, is the climate. In the United States, weather conditions are worsening and becoming alarming, which is affecting public opinion and raising awareness. It’s not a trend in the sense that it’s not hot global news, but the United States is finally getting the message, with innovations on the subject and a lot of fundraising.
This links in to the second topic, which is investment. The US is the home of venture capital. In addition to meeting companies and start-ups in the construction sector, I often meet investors, which something really specific to here. It’s important to note that in the United States, fundraising is of a very different scale and the values are of a different order of magnitude, enabling the high-tech side to develop rapidly. These are large sums of money that are allowing the construction sector to accelerate its transformation.
After telecoms and media, it is now the turn of the construction industry to undergo a revolution, and this is particularly dynamic in the United States. Hence the Bouygues Group is developing and investing in its ecosystem, as shown by its recent interest in the Californian start-up, Alice Technologies.
 Venture Capital is an investment fund for young innovative companies. Such funds are used to finance start-ups by participating in their capital increase.