Fitzrovia, the construction industry and social media

Social media may bring people from the construction industry together in a virtual space, but face-to-face contact is still important. The construction industry still likes Fitzrovia’s real meeting places, says Paul Wilkinson. The world’s first awards for social media in the built environment will be held on 9 February 2011 at the Building Centre, Store Street, London WC1E 7BT

By Paul Wilkinson

The Building Centre on Store Street will host the world’s first awards for social media in the built environment.

The Building Centre on Store Street will host the world’s first awards for social media in the built environment.

My personal connections with Fitzrovia date back to the early 1980s when I got my first job in London, working at a legal charity in Fitzroy Square. I was then pursuing a PhD in criminology at the London School of Economics, and was only dimly aware of the construction industry. I noticed that multi-disciplinary design consultancy Arup seemed to occupy large parts of the Square, plus buildings in nearby streets, for example, but my awareness soon grew.

I left Fitzroy Square to find part-time work while I did my PhD fieldwork and ended up in a firm of consulting civil engineers, starting a career long affinity with the construction industry. When Margaret Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society, I was glad that I had some construction experience to fall back on, having landed a full-time PR and marketing role with the Halcrow group.

One of my jobs at Halcrow was to take photographs for publications, and the Eisenhower Centre in Chenies Street (providing entrance to deep tunnel shelters designed by the firm) was one of the structures I snapped to illustrate a page in Halcrow’s 125th Anniversary book — which, incidentally, was designed by a graphic design agency formerly based in Whitfield Street.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and I am still working in construction, PR and marketing, and regularly walking through or around Fitzrovia. At least once a month, I can be found in the Building Centre in Store Street. This is one of construction’s main meeting places, hosting several industry organisations with space for exhibitions and conferences — and its ground-floor cafe does great coffee!

And I now sometimes visit those Arup offices I used to walk past, as well as their modern HQ in Fitzroy Street. I have also been able to look down on Fitzrovia from the London office of consultancy WS Atkins on the 29th floor of the Euston Tower. And let’s not forget the Whitfield Street offices of Make Architects.

I know a couple of the Make team through their involvement with Woobius, a company developing construction collaboration applications. Since 1999, I have specialised in collaborative IT solutions, and Woobius Eye is one of the most innovative mobile applications. It lets people simultaneously talk, share a photograph or drawing, and sketch on that photo or drawing via their smartphone in real-time — you can literally “see what I mean”.

The ‘Woobians’ were also ahead of the game in adopting social media — another of my passions. My social media journey started with Wikipedia in 2003 (I started the article on Sir William Halcrow, contributed to the Fitzroy Square article, and — 11,000 edits later — I’m still going strong), and I have been blogging since 2005 and Tweeting almost three years. I’ve now combined my interests, too. I organised the first construction social media “unconference” at the Building Centre in October 2008, and have been organising the world’s first social media awards for the built environment. The Be2Awards and ConstrucTALKs will be held at the Building Centre on the afternoon of 9 February 2011.

Users of the FourSquare application may therefore find that the Building Centre becomes a popular destination that day. This is an interesting aspect of social media: despite having almost the whole world at our finger-tips we still feel the need to meet face-to-face, but we can also open conversations with people we’ve never met — through Twitter or blogs, for example — and then meet.

Historically, practitioners of particular professions or trades used to occupy offices close to each other, but this is less common today. However, if we are web-savvy, we can use electronic media to keep in regular contact with associates, customers and suppliers, near or far, and still get those all-important recommendations — though these are now as likely to be via “word of mouse” as “word of mouth”.

This article testifies to that ability to connect. By sharing a photograph of the College Arms on Flickr, I opened the door to a contact from Linus, assistant editor Fitzrovia News, who read my blog and learned of my connections to Fitzrovia. I have construction clients doing the same: sharing their ideas and knowledge online and opening up conversations with people who subsequently become customers. But face-to-face remains important: I have “met” clients through Twitter, but the deals were clinched over a coffee or a beer in Store Street.

Paul Wilkinson is a construction PR and marketing specialist. He is currently helping businesses learn and apply AECweb2.0 – social media (Web 2.0) for the architectural, engineering and construction sector; and is the UK’s leading authority on construction collaboration technologies. He writes a PR blog http://www.pwcom.wordpress.com/ and a tech blog http://www.extranetevolution.com/

Be2Awards 2011 the world’s first awards for social media in the built environment will be presented on 9 February 2011 at the Building Centre, Store Street, London WC1E 7BT Be2Awards 2011

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