Learn how a user-first mentality has been embedded into startup, Qflow, as a result of co-founder Brittany’s experience with Engineers Without Borders UK.
Qflow helps companies in the construction industry to reduce waste by using only the resources they need – in the most efficient way possible. Qflow aims to deliver a built environment that meets the needs of society without compromising future generations.
In line with her mission, Brittany continues to volunteer for EcoSwell and act as a guest lecturer, STEM ambassador and mentor for multiple organisations including the Institution of Civil Engineers and the University of Bristol. She also sits on the board of Cambridge Wireless, is an Enterprise Fellow at the Royal Academy of Engineering and alumni of Entrepreneur First.
Tell us about Qflow:
Qflow is a data tool that automates the tracking of all the materials which come onto a construction site – everything from the big bulk items like concrete and aggregates, all the way down to nuts, bolts and packets of biscuits! We then digitise and analyse that data to check that it meets the project’s requirements. Critically, we also track all the waste being removed from a site – how much is produced, and how it is handled. We analyse the data to find solutions for improvement.
One of the core reasons that clients use Qflow at the moment is to be able to ensure that they’re meeting project specifications for attaining BREEAM or LEED sustainable certifications. Qflow is also used for responsible sourcing – for example, to ensure that you’re using FSC-certified timber which isn’t procured from a virgin rainforest source. The tool also tracks the waste going offsite, so clients know that any waste is being handled correctly and legally. The tool allows any issues with deliveries/waste to be identified and flagged to the project manager immediately so action can be taken then and there.
We started out with a sustainability focus, trying to ensure that materials were being used responsibly and that we were reducing the amount of waste being generated. But as we’ve been capturing more and more data around these two core areas in construction, we’ve realised that there’s a lot of value in having that data from a commercial and quality perspective too. The analysis we provide goes beyond an audit to check that project specifications are being met; there is the opportunity to reduce each project’s carbon footprint too, by mapping where waste is going by volume and distance. By using Qflow, we can pull out key insights that are valuable both from a commercial and environmental perspective.
Qflow is one of those critical tools that’s going to enable companies in the industry to measure where they are now and then give them a data-driven, targeted approach to get to them where they need to be. We can show them how they can chip away to hit those net-zero targets.
Qflow appears to be very impact led in terms of its overarching goals for the construction sector, would you agree with that?
Definitely, my co-founder Jade and I have a love-hate relationship with construction: it’s an amazing industry that quite literally builds the world around us, but it’s also so wasteful and is often not managed responsibly. Qflow was born out of an intense desire to make the construction industry more sustainable and to enable it to realise its true potential. Everything we’ve done with Qflow is centred around sustainability and our values reflect that. When we set it up, Jade and I chose to form an innovative profit-driven company instead of an NGO. We felt that the not-for-profit model doesn’t have a sustainable, economic model behind it. I’ve worked in the not-for-profit space and it is actually really hard work generating enough cash to keep everything going, let alone scaling the impact you’re having. So Qflow was formed as a profit-with-a-purpose company in order to enable us to grow and increase our impact over time – achieving the sort of exponential growth that new tech start-ups aim for.
What is your organisation doing to mainstream globally responsible engineering?
When we started Qflow in 2018, sustainability in construction was still just seen as a ‘nice to have’ and it was also very much regarded as an overhead – something that a construction company would only address if they had an aspirational client with the time and budget. We’ve seen a huge shift in that thinking, particularly in the last six months. In fact, the global transition towards targets like net-zero has encouraged the construction industry as a whole to really take stock and now the momentum is really picking up.
Qflow has created a tool that simultaneously benefits the environment (by reducing waste) in addition to providing a commercial benefit for construction companies. By offering two benefits, we’re able to appeal to a much larger pool of clients. I think the ‘profit-for-a-purpose’ model is key to this, and it’s applicable to so many other industries. Utilising this method is a great way to mainstream globally responsible engineering.
What is Qflow doing differently from its competitors?
We don’t actually have many direct competitors. The software space in the industry currently focuses a lot on reporting, but not on using the data, and many of the existing tools in the marketplace require a lot of manual data entry. So what’s unique about Qflow is that firstly, we automate the data capture, but secondly, we’re independent of the supply chain, which is really important. This is because a lot of the existing tools require the hundreds of suppliers on a project to manually input data into the reporting tool. The result is that 60% of this information either goes missing, or is input incorrectly. It can also take up to two months to get the information into these tools so you don’t have a real-time overview of what’s going on. If you have had the wrong material delivered on-site, you wouldn’t realise until it’s installed in the building. Therefore, the fact that Qflow can capture that information without requiring manual input from the supply chain means that we have a close to real-time digital, audited list of what’s happening as soon as it’s come on to the project. This is extremely valuable, particularly if you’re looking at big commercial developments.
How has the Engineers Without Borders movement supported the development, growth and achievement of Qflow?
Engineers Without Borders UK shaped my education, which has in turn shaped Qflow. It taught me to focus on the user and the infrastructure, as opposed to thinking about engineering as a hard technological solution. I learnt to think about engineering as discovering a social requirement, and in delivering a solution to that requirement, you may have to build something, or you may come up with an alternative option. For example, in the classroom, I was taught that if someone wanted to cross a river, you built them a bridge. Engineers Without Borders UK showed me that if someone wants to cross a river, there are likely several ways to get them to the other side. So, what is the best solution? That’s a really different way of looking at it.
I think that really influenced how we designed and built Qflow. The start-ups that we’ve seen succeed in this space didn’t start with a technological solution; they started with a clearly defined problem and then developed a solution. We took the same approach with Qflow.
Our first client was Canary Wharf Contractors, whom we spent a lot of time with to understand their pain points. By mapping these out, we realised that it would only take a relatively simple technological solution to fix their problems on a particular site. Once we’d built that and tested it, we realised that it would take more sophisticated technology to scale the solution but the user interface would need to be very simple in order to be accepted and adopted by the user. We definitely got that ‘user first’ mentality from working with Engineers Without Borders UK.
The culture in organisations working in globally responsible engineering is often very different to that in mainstream engineering. How would you describe the culture of Qflow and do you see a link between this culture and the change you’re trying to create?
Our organisational culture is really important to us. Our core values were written together as a team and one of them is radical transparency. I think that when people join Qflow, it freaks them out at first because we are very honest about everything that’s going on. We show people what’s going on with our cash flow and when our burnout point is which is something a lot of companies wouldn’t do.
Radical transparency to us goes beyond our team; we ask our clients to be radically transparent about their impact as an industry. When we started the company and were talking to contractors about things like waste, material compliance, air quality and noise levels, some of them told us that they wouldn’t want their clients or the public to have insight into those details. We challenged them on this! If a piece of timber comes onto a project which isn’t FSC-compliant, Qflow will flag it, and you can’t delete that record. You can however attach evidence to show how you’ve corrected this issue – for example, the materials were replaced (with documentation to prove this).
In that respect, radical transparency is built into our products, as well as being ingrained in the way that our team thinks and works. As a society we’re on a journey to become sustainable and transparent, we’ve all got to acknowledge that we’re not perfect yet. If we’re going to drive change in the industry, we must acknowledge when we make mistakes and then try to address them.
What was the main challenge in creating Qflow?
There have been many challenges but the biggest one for me was probably getting over the mental barrier that it’s impossible to drive change. In the construction industry, there’s the mindset that people are so embedded in their ways, you’ll never get them to change. But if you can break free from that mindset and try to do something small, then that might just take off. Taking that first step is difficult but it is important to do it so you can start to drive that change.
I think what puts people off doing this is the perception that it will be too hard and it won’t have an impact because no one will ever change. However, when you find someone who will give your idea a go, the realisation that you really can have an impact is enormous.
What advice would you give organisations trying to mainstream globally responsible engineering?
Believe that change IS possible! The biggest barrier to driving change to be more responsible, more accountable and more transparent is that we are so afraid of the negative consequences that we don’t see the positive opportunities. So my advice would be not to fear the negative so much that you don’t even begin to explore the positive. You can make a difference!
Brittany Harris is a civil engineer, former Vice President of Engineers Without Borders UK’s University of Bristol Chapter and the co-founder and CEO of Qualisflow (Qflow).
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