By Ricardo J. Rodríguez De Santiago, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C
Do you think contemporary architectural practice is averse to the digital realm? Our profession portrays itself as being highly creative, however, its business practices are decidedly analog. This article provokes the status quo and introduces the technological advances that set the stage for business models rooted in 21st century solutions.
An inconvenient truth – A critical look at our profession’s role
A Fast Company article asked a cross-section of innovation and technology sector leadership, which would be the jobs design professionals would have in the next decade? The list read like something straight out of Blade Runner: augmented reality designer, avatar programmer, chief design officer, chief drone experience designer, digital conductor, embodied interactions designer, human organ designer, machine-learning designer, real-time 3D designer, simulation designer, etc. Noticing the lack of Architects within the list, I questioned how did the industry that was so enamored by object-oriented and data-enabled design, namely BIM, not appear in a list of the “it” professions of the future? Some would argue that their responses are indicative of not only an industrywide problem of adaptation speed, but that of relevance.
The main concern, regarding relevance, is that architectural firms tend to lack control, confidence, or even competence over the critical metrics which define its’ practice. The low margin/productivity/scalability nature of their work and a highly segmented knowledge framework are a detriment to their scope, stability, connectedness, effectiveness, and resiliency of their businesses. While I am critical of how we practice our craft, I’ve always pushed firms to embrace the use of emerging technology, not only for 3D development, but to allow them to understand design problems more comprehensively. An expanded view of practice would allow for open collaboration, processes aligned with key performance indicators, and to empower professionals in tangibly communicating the undeniable value they bring to communities. So, beyond the discussion on “what” would be possible in the immediate future, we should be more interested on the “how” we will practice. This is especially important considering that nearly all the technological toolkit required already exists.
Is the end near? – Technological disruptions in the AEC industry
Much of the technology required to provide a wide-range of intelligent design solutions is now reaching consumer-level maturity. It’s thus not a matter of questioning if “the end” for the traditional architecture profession is here or not, the end IS here, it’s just that a great number of us do not have a seat at the proverbial table. To relate the technological singularity theory – where inventions which will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization - to the architecture professions, there’s a real opportunity to develop a myriad of practice models fully-empowered by their digital arsenal.
The fourth industrial revolution – also referred to as Industry 4.0 or X.0 - is upon us, with it we are at the end of the first information age. As nearly every other industry, except hunting & agriculture, have plunged into a new era, the tools required to navigate in it have the promise of disrupting our practice beyond what the current inherent growth within traditional firms would allow to cope with. User-experience design, generative design, coding and augmented / virtual / mixed reality (AR, VR, & MR respectively), will give way to a fundamental industry shift. Advancements in machine learning and computational design will allow for on-the-fly building-code research, and automatic space planning. Likewise, data analytics will permit us to both quantify and qualify the impact of our work. In this new era, through documented R&D, “standard-of-care” will finally be focused on creating human-centric and environmentally responsible spaces.
As a means of understanding the major changes affecting AEC practice, let’s summarize the main disruption influences and their potential impact to our businesses: 
- Personalization—Personalization is a common vector in the internet-of-things (IoT) discussion. However, as applied to easily-accessible tools, it may allow for customers to potentially circumvent and challenge the Architect’s usual role.
- Usage-based pricing—Customers benefit by being charged only for their actual use. Allows companies to eliminate “broad strokes” and provide alternative services at varying increments.
- Closed-loop systems—using business data and establishing partnerships across the value-chain, firms may reduce operational costs, repurpose assets, and services. With smarter tools, such as automated image processing AI, practices shall challenge commonplace ideas that computers can’t be creative or empathize.
- Collaborative ecosystems—Establish partnerships with value-chain stakeholders and adapt current processes to maximize market engagement. Leverage opportunity with non-traditional partners by identifying key opportunities as manufacturing converges with the AEC industry.
- Software as a Service (SaaS)—Companies shall revolutionize contractual documents authentication and procurement processes by unlocking the access-economy through asset sharing platforms, cloud-deployed services, computational design, and even Blockchain technology. Firms and clients alike shall interpret data assets and analyze these strategically.
- Agility through data analytics—Develop new business applications, which support real-time adaptation and decision-making. AEC firms sit on a mountain of untapped data, that could give them a competitive edge over competitors.
- Haptic interfaces—How AR/VR/MR environments allow users to interact within the system using bodily movements or sensations. As passive gestural controls, voice-activated solutions, and facial recognition technology matures, the AEC industry will have broader means to interact with its stakeholders.
- Smart materials—The development of self-healing concrete, kinetic paving, 4D structures (which reshape over specified conditions), photo-catalysts (smog inhibitors), will afford additional life-cycle benefits.
Considering the disruptors mentioned above, we should consider that despite our profession portraying itself as being highly creative, its business practices are decidedly analog. As we weigh the benefits/risks of operating in a fully-digital environment, our strength-weaknesses–opportunities–threats (SWOT) analysis should also consider the cost of obsolescence, loss of competitive advantage, and market irrelevance into the equation. At the current rate of emerging technology adoption, an unknown third-party (mainly software developers), will have a transformative impact on our workflow, greater than the 2D-3D (CAD to BIM) transition. Either by poaching talent from architecture firms (brain-drain being a measurable concern), or expanding their value chain, commercial real estate professionals and general contractors will dedicate more resources to expand their sphere of influence over the traditional boundaries of typical design practice.
While job-stealing-robots are not yet at our doors, architects should consider themselves temporarily safe; on the other hand, “architectural drafters”, consider yourself warned. As AEC firms find their technological beachheads and develop more adaptive workflows, their decisions should account for the incorporation of technology currently in the development pipeline. Should we want to be at the virtual design & construction technology table, we must challenge the status quo by embracing design-thinking, Agile / Lean processes, and adaptive innovation. Taking emerging technology adoption into account, implementation should done in conjunction with a more robust internal development process, coupled with data-driven research to identify new services, products, methodologies and markets.
|Source: WillRobotsTakeMyJob.com (April 2018) | Photo Credit: Copyright Dreamtrue.net, All rights reserved
||Source: WillRobotsTakeMyJob.com (April 2018) | Photo Credit: Copyright Dreamtrue.net, All rights reserved
The emerging value chain: Navigating new business models
In a recent special report by Kermit Baker, Hon. AIA - the Institute’s Chief Economist - he discusses the “perennial concern” of our profession regarding the availability of sufficient architects to serve the economy’s needs. While the report does note that, “Many of the fastest-growing occupations will be in the areas of technology (e.g., software developers)…” and concludes indicating “A 2015 AIA survey of firms looking to fill architectural positions found that more than half reported that finding candidates with either the required technical skills… was a major problem, …. And this concern does not appear to be easing.” When one considers the jobs emerging in the next decade, it doesn’t take too much analysis to see how a professional equipped with an architectural, spatial, and design thinking background could thrive in, instead of relying on the technology sector to, at best employ, and at worst replace us.
As a profession, BIM was pursued and implemented with the promise of creating a more coordinated, organized, and collaborative project. However, architecture firms were seduced by the 3D model and documentative aspect of it, and ultimately ignored the “i” in BIM. Up until very recently we did not harvest nor analyze the data we generated, and when we did, it probably was because some jurisdictional agency required it, and not necessarily with the goal of gathering insights for our business practices. Should BIM be approached as a methodology, rather than a software, several viable opportunities would arise and allow the promise of developing the framework by which the 4.0 revolution interfaces building data with everything. What’s in question is whether we will be the ones to lead this effort.
Is design, in the most comprehensive and ample sense, what’s essential to the profession? Or is it our destiny to become operators of building documentation? Are irrelevance and obsolescence in our immediate future? They well might be, and maybe “the end” wouldn’t be so bad for architectural practice. When recently discussing emerging technology trends with firm stakeholders, most seem to think that most of the technology required to fundamentally disrupt architectural business is a couple of decades down the road, without realizing that they use most of the technology required daily through their smartphones, streaming a movie, or even configuring their dream ride online.
I do not have the definitive answer to any of these huge questions, but from my perspective, what’s important is that we continue to challenge the notion of what it is to be an architect sans archaic labels, expanding their digital toolkit, providing cross-disciplinary services, and driving value through insights on the data they already have access to. The positive outcome is that the industry might take a turn into providing more comprehensive solutions grounded in digital humanism, which are anchored by experience metrics, rather than arbitrary parameters. In the “data is king” world the physical, cultural, environmental, technological, and even personal contexts can be mapped out to inform design decisions and quantify the intrinsic value proposition of their ventures. At the beginning of February 2018, Microsoft deployed a series of TV ads focusing on their AI platform, “Microsoft AI + Iconem: Preserving History”, I’ll let those curious to guess which industry does the ad focus on.
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Ricardo pursued a Bachelor of Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico and later worked alongside industry leaders at Gensler, NIKA Solutions (formerly NIKA Architects + Engineers), and an Associate / Project Manager at WDG Architecture. Ricardo recently transitioned into a Global Virtual Design & Construction / BIM Specialist role at BASF and presented Rage Against the Machines: Surviving the End of Architecture at AIA’s Conference on Architecture in June 2018. For comments & contributions, you can reach Ricardo via email@example.com
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