Keeping obsolescence from becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy

This month Boeing announced that it plans to eliminate about four thousand jobs by midyear as a part of a broader effort to reduce costs and be more competitive. Their technologies and systems, they report, are getting stronger by the year. They are rightfully proud of their new productivity levels. However, there is human cost; the engineers and technical staff are threatened by the new machines and efficiency advancements.

Professionals can and do become obsolete. In some cases it’s self-inflicted as choices are made about how one spends time. Acquiring new knowledge and developing creative and problem solving skills is one key. Another is relationship building. Sometimes the obsolescence becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. But sometimes it’s just being in the wrong organization. Or in a quality organization at the wrong time.

In my travels I see firms that are growing and those that are experiencing decline. The experience of delight and wonder hits me when I visit successful organizations. Firms can summarize the innovative advancements and the accelerating evolution in offices, studios, and construction sites. Drones, bots, iPads, mobile devices of all sorts. In these organizations I experience firsthand that the new 3D printers are operating 24/7. New technologies bring either disruption or opportunity. You don’t have to look hard to find examples today proving that technology has caused failure. But why waste your time? We say, celebrate the new tools.

Design-Build Robots

On a recent visit to a leading brand well known in our industry, I experienced the new robotic solutions that we’ve been hearing so much about. While I thought I was prepared for what would be a routine tour of a new design and manufacturing center, I discovered extreme innovation in robot technology. New robots are now replacing the old robots. Robots started replacing human factory workers decades ago, but they were expensive and could only operate in predictable environments. But new robots can learn — and they are getting cheaper, faster and smarter. The new machines are doing the work that seven used to accomplish. With the ability to adapt and react to the unexpected, they are entering productivity zones previously thought to be immune from automation. The old machines are being pushed aside and now look like artifacts from previous epoch of manufacturing experiments.

Regarding the human condition and how it is faring during all this disruption, one question we hear often is, “are architects and engineers going to be obsolete?” This is a question we have been and will be discussing further this fall at the Design Futures Council meetings in North America and Europe.

Architects & Engineers Going Obsolete?

No, not in any of our lifetimes anyway, but it’s a good question. Obsolescence is a fear for all generations of professionals. It’s more top of mind than at any other time I can remember. We’ve found that becoming obsolete it is a concern of over half of young practitioners under the age of 40. Millennials too are asking smart questions about their own future.

The paradox is that while design thinking and application gets stronger, the production of design requires less traditional professional attention. Software and machines are picking up the levels of productivity in areas thought previously to require an inordinate time in a typical scope of work.

Leaders in organizations of all sizes are moving quickly with anticipation into the arenas of productivity benchmarking recognizing that we are in a fast evolutionary period; to challenge tendencies toward devolution.

Opportunity or Disruption?

As I read the surveys as they are received in our research studios here in Atlanta, I keep a running list of the signal changes with regard to the questions professionals have about the future. From our most recent technology survey, I have compiled a few takeaways. While one can focus on threats from these developments, it is healthier to imagine smart responses and opportunities for growth.

1. The most exciting tech trends today that are transforming our industry are virtual and augmented reality, 3D modeling, BIM, 3D printing, cloud services and flexible workplace/mobility.

2. Tech expenses in most firms are increasing. 49 percent of professional practices spend more than $4,000 per employee on technology software and hardware and 62 percent of firms expect tech expenses to further increase; moreover to be a higher percentage in their total budgets.

3. The professional practices most admired for their leadership in technology innovation are:

1. Gensler
2. HOK
3. (tied) SOM and Perkins + Will
5. SHoP

4. The fastest moving trends in professional practices today are:

  1. Energy modeling
  2. Parametric design
  3. Predictive analytics
  4. Virtual reality

5. Today’s top tech brands — the most trusted being used by professional practices are:

  1. Autodesk/Revit
  2. Sketchup
  3. Rhino

6. Nine in 10 firms now use project management software.

7. BIM is pervasive on mid-size to larger projects and are facilitating firms as they become more profitable. Communication and documentation is improved significantly. The only firms who are not profiting from BIM are those slow to change to the new technology. Those who are still somewhat lost and behind in the learning curve.

8. Virtually all firms (92 percent) use social media as a professional tool. 30 percent believe it has directly led to new business.

9. While most firms value innovation and expect significant changes in the future, nearly 71 percent do not have a formal innovation program. Many say that visionary leadership is the most important ingredient for successful innovation in the workplace culture.

10. The paradigm shift is complete: 98 percent of firms use design software today.

What’s next? Some say algorithm design and artificial intelligence. But relationships of quality continues to be the strongest strategy advancing professional practices.

We have tracked trends and changes over the last several years and have pages upon pages of useful charts and graphs. We have editorial insight on how technology is of exponential economic value to architects and engineers and why this will further accelerate. Technology will further expand the influence of the architect and engineer.

Here at DesignIntelligence, we also are looking at artificial intelligence and its potential applications. One of the reasons that professionals in the design professions are more successful is because they are becoming economic multipliers to their clients businesses and organizations. In the areas of artificial intelligence professionals today are using Alexa, M, Now, and Siri. But the movement will be much bigger.

Pause for a moment to consider IBM Watson’s capabilities. Watson is a technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of unstructured data. To paraphrase Dan Burrus (who spoke at the DFC Leadership Summit on Innovation and Technology in La Jolla), Watson may learn more about the profession of architecture than a human architect after it learns from the entire history of architecture data and research. Burrus says there are both predictable problems as well as amazing opportunities from the Watson model of artificial intelligence.

These changes are just around the corner. At our think tank and roundtable meetings we are reminded that there are almost limitless opportunities ahead. These will enable architects and engineers to discover new zones of service through the use of new technologies. The tools of the future can exploit natural human creativity.

What’s next? For starters, you can make a decision to keep pace with the changes unfolding before us. You can make yourself increasingly valuable during disruptive times. How? Keep learning. Commit to staying relevant. New tools are coming. Take an enterprise building approach with all the change options you will have. At the same time, why not energize your interpersonal, social, and communication skills?


James P. Cramer is the chairman and co-founder of the Design Futures Council. He is chairman of the Greenway Group and author of three books on professional practice leadership.