Bringing quantity surveyors into the 21st century

Dr Ajibade Aibinu is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. His research focuses on helping the construction industry use machine learning and artificial intelligence to find efficient solutions to cost blowouts. His international research standing comprises over 80 research papers in international peer-reviewed journals, and won numerous gongs, including the Melbourne School of Design Teaching Excellence Award.

The problem I am trying to solve with my research is the unpredictable cost blowouts that commonly happen on construction projects. This industry generates $360 billion of revenue a year in Australia only, but projects can have about 30 per cent deviation from their estimated cost. A very good example is the Melbourne Metro Tunnel project. It was initially estimated to be a $10 billion project, but now it’s generating up to a $3 billion cost blowout. So why are estimations of project costs so often inaccurate? The reason is clear – it’s because of the unknown project risks and uncertainties that we experience. My research has been looking at how we can make estimates more accurate.

Ajibade Aibinu

I come from a quantity surveying background. Quantity surveyors are responsible for providing cost advisory services including cost prediction for projects and the method hasn’t changed over the past 80 years. While we use many cost management solutions, we still juggle multiple spreadsheets, so our cost predictions are hampered by the limitation of the insights generated from data. If you look at the entire process, it’s tedious, it’s time consuming; it can take days or weeks or more. All of this puts quantity surveyors under time pressure and it can also impact on the quality of cost advice they give to their clients.

Because of my research, I have come up with a better way of predicting costs, using machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence). My work is bringing quantity surveyors into the 21st century. I’m developing a digital solution, which uses historical data and is called the Intelligent Cost Manager. I would describe it as cloud-based software that produces cost estimates with a higher degree of accuracy and certainty and faster response times to clients – because cost insights can be gained in minutes, rather than days and weeks. It’s the right moment for us because machine learning, AI, is just starting to take off in our industry.

This will be the first project I’ll be commercialising, but it’s coming from 20 years of research. Often, we hardly communicate the impact of our research where it is most needed. You just do it, you generate the output, you put the results in journal or conference papers. They sit on the internet, and people cite your work – you even get an award for your papers. But how do you package that outcome and get people to use it, not just learn about it? This is an opportunity to give back tangible outcomes funded by society – in the form of research.

Academics are very curious beings – we like to dig into issues and ask questions, and think. We want to contribute to knowledge. But the problem is we also need to consider how this thinking, this curiosity, can be translated to benefit society or the planet. If we spend money on research, in my view we should be thinking about how the research might solve or mitigate an existing problem? How does it relieve pain for someone out there? How does it bring efficiency or better productivity and social impact? Or, how does it influence policy and consumer protection?

This area of research is something I’ve always wanted to do. Thinking back, during my undergraduate degree back in Africa, my dissertation was about costing: how do we develop models to produce better cost estimates? It’s always been my passion.

My undergraduate degree was taken in Nigeria, followed by my master’s degree, and a PhD in Singapore. Then I moved to Australia in 2006 to work at the University of Melbourne because my values aligned with the Australian way of life. The University of Melbourne is a fantastic space, a great environment enabling both research and entrepreneurship – especially the kind of research that I like to do! I’ve been part of TRaM (Translating Research at Melbourne, the University’s research impact accelerator) since 2019 and it’s been a very important part of my journey so far, especially in understanding the translation of research. They helped me to change my mindset and think about how my research can have a direct impact, right from the start. They also introduced me to the Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship where I met my co-founder, Dr Willian Korim. I think the University of Melbourne is the best environment for innovation. There's a plethora of professionals there to support you and work with you.

Over the past one-and-a-half years, my co-founder – Dr Willian Korim and I have understood who are our users, what painful problems in cost estimation within the construction industry, and the potential impact of our solution. We originally developed a mock-up of the tool, and we used that mock-up to test the market. Now, having done all of that, we just recently secured $100,000 from the University of Melbourne Research Innovation and Commercialisation (RIC) to develop the proof of concept, a prototype.

I am particularly passionate about this problem because I am a quantity surveyor and have lived with this pain. I feel like I can provide greater efficiency and productivity to the construction industry – by reducing waste. I therefore feel like I’m contributing to society by making infrastructure more affordable due to lower risk and higher efficiency. In other words, if you can help manage costs better on construction projects, that means we can provide better housing. Alternatively, imagine – in case of government projects – building more and better schools or hospitals and better infrastructure.

My long-term goal is to make ‘Intelligent Cost Manager’ a better way to manage project costs in the construction industry, globally, with a few clicks of a button.

As told to Larissa Ham

The University of Melbourne has announced the establishment of two new major investment funds dedicated to supporting Melbourne’s world-leading researchers to turn their extraordinary discoveries and innovation into commercial reality. Find out more about the University of Melbourne Genesis Pre-Seed Fund and Tin Alley Ventures.

First published on 30 March 2022.

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