In his brief but influential book Who Moved My Cheese? (originally published in 1998) Spencer Johnson made some simple and powerful observations.

His message can be boiled down to three essential points. First, change happens all the time. Second, get used to it, because it’s going to happen again (and again). Third: Get over any feelings of entitlement. Bemoaning what could or should have happened is a waste of time; it’s far better to deal straight up with what is really going on and how we can respond effectively to new realities. This requires a keen eye and an open mind, as well as the imagination to grasp the true implications of change, which are staring us right in the face.

Consider the self-driving car, for example. Not too many years ago, this idea would have been considered science fiction. Until recently, it would have been technically impossible given the enormous computing power required. Now self-driving cars have been legalized in California, and it has been predicted that within the next few decades, they will outnumber, and perhaps entirely replace, conventionally driven vehicles. Some have even argued that since self-driving cars are inherently so much safer, human-driven vehicles could eventually become illegal. If you’re running an insurance company, this notion makes a great deal of sense, since more than 33,000 people are killed each year by traffic accidents in the United States alone, and property damage runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The implications are staggering. If cars can be driverless, why not trucks, trains, ships, or even airliners? Combine driverless cars with Uber’s model of transportation on demand, and it’s not hard to imagine that the need for personal car ownership could shrink dramatically or perhaps disappear entirely. Under this scenario, houses would no longer need garages, parking lots could become obsolete, traffic jams would be a thing of the past, and gasoline consumption would plummet. And that’s just for starters.

What’s this got to do with the AEC industry? Plenty. The underlying idea of self-driving cars is that personal transportation could be programmed and systemized for maximum efficiency. This very same concept can also be applied to design and construction. Imagine a building site where materials are delivered by driverless trucks or drones, and waste (if there is any) is removed the same way. Cranes could be operated from remote locations by joysticks, not much different than playing a video game. Building components, most of them pre-fabbed off site, could be assembled with great precision using GPS coordinates. The work would be done by constructor robots which never get tired, never take a coffee break, and don’t need healthcare insurance. The constructor ’bots could be very big, thus dispensing with the need for ladders or scaffolding, or very small, able to work in tight spaces such as shafts or even in wall cavities. Work could proceed 24 hours per day, regardless of the weather, and construction accidents could well become a thing of the past, thus reducing risk (and insurance premiums).

The design, construction, and operation of buildings represent a huge market opportunity, and the good news is that there is plenty of room for improvement. Every person in the United States inhabits multiple buildings every day. At approximately $1 trillion per year, the AEC industry is one of the largest segments of the economy, and it’s widely acknowledged to be systemically inefficient. Some 30 percent of projects fail to meet budget or schedule and more than 35 percent of all construction materials winding up as waste. Buildings also account for close to 50 percent of all carbon emissions. Furthermore, the cost to operate and maintain a building over its useful life exceeds the capital cost by a wide margin. Hence, if we could find a way to make the design, delivery, and occupancy of buildings as efficient as hailing an Uber cab, there is enormous upside. Put another way, if we can have self-driving cars, why not “self-driving buildings”? This would change the nature of the AEC industry in ways that are both profound and permanent.

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, just consider the recent transformation that has taken place in the film industry. In the remote city of Wellington, New Zealand (about as far away from Hollywood as you can get), Peter Jackson created one of the most successful film series of all times (the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies). His innovative production techniques helped transform the entire industry. Digital special effects, green screens, and amazingly realistic characters which are “voiced” by human actors have since become standard practice. There is no longer a need to build elaborate sets out of wood — they can be made out of pixels instead, far faster and at much lower cost. Even the basic business model of film making has changed. As marketing and distribution have gone global, as much or more profit can be made from spinoffs, t-shirts, souvenirs, books, and toys as from the movies themselves. Just ask George Lucas.

If radical reinvention can happen in transportation or entertainment, it can also happen in design and construction. As with driverless cars or computer-generated films, the pieces are already in place. Computer-aided design has been around for decades, and in a very short time, BIM has become the industry standard for documentation. Technology has changed not just how we draw, but also the sociology of the entire process. By providing a common platform for information transfer that is equally accessible to owners, architects, engineers, constructors, subcontractors, and suppliers, it has leveled the playing field, dissolving the silos of expertise that for far too long have inhibited cross-communication among the various disciplines. The next obvious step is design by algorithm, which will make it possible to generate thousands of possible design options in a matter of seconds rather than weeks or months. Sound crazy? Some firms (like Beck, based in Dallas) have been working in this mode for several years. It’s time for the rest of the industry to catch up.

Another radical transformation that has been in the works for long time is what might be called “buildings that talk back.” The key is to think of buildings not as static environments, but rather adaptive systems that can interact with their occupants on an ongoing basis. Once this leap is made, it changes everything about the role of the designer. Consider the humble thermostat; all it does is adjust temperature on demand. The advent of the Nest thermostat has taken this idea to a whole new level. Nest actually “learns” about our preferences and our patterns, and responds accordingly, whether or not we are physically present in the space. It also provides a great amount of data about how space is actually occupied, and it can help reduce energy cost in the bargain. This same basic concept can be applied not only to heating and cooling systems but also lighting, acoustics, elevators, plumbing, security systems, and so forth.

Once again, the car serves as a useful reference point. In addition to keeping us informed of our speed, travel distance, inside and outside temperatures, and even tire pressure, today’s cars can also adjust our seats to pre-set personal preferences, program our music, give us directions, activate cruise control, deploy airbags in an emergency, and even park themselves. There are media screens for back seat passengers and foot-activated tailgates for people lugging packages. Our cars tell us when they are low on gas, when the oil needs to be changed, if a headlight bulb needs to be replaced, and when the next service appointment is due. This begs the question: why can’t we design buildings that are as smart as cars?

Once the leap is made from static to interactive design, a whole new business model opens up for design professionals. Instead of getting paid once for services rendered before the ribbon on the building is cut, the designer’s value proposition would extend throughout the useful life of the structure. Those who can create healthy, productive, efficient, and adaptive buildings that are delivered on time and within budget could then be compensated for the real-world value that accrues to the owner and consumer over many years. This value can be objectively measured, and the earnings stream could last as long as the building. While this may sound fanciful, it’s actually quite conventional. Recording artists are routinely paid on this basis (and Elvis Pressley’s estate continues to earn annual royalties even long after he’s passed away).

What does all this suggest for tomorrow’s design firms? That they should redefine what they do and how they do it. Rather than dealing primarily with nouns (places) they should expand their reach to include verbs (processes). They should embrace the entire lifecycle of design, from conception through documentation through delivery through occupancy. They should partner with software firms, social scientists, and public health officials to create truly interactive environments that are safe, healthy and productive. They should change their business models to embrace risk and get paid based on value actually delivered. Designers should be strategic thinkers and leaders, not only in the community but in corporate boardrooms. Where there is a CEO, a COO, a CIO, and a CFO, there should also be a CDO — Chief Design Officer. That person might also be called Le Grande Fromage (or Big Cheese). After all, it’s been moved.


Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Counci and a member of its executive board. He is a senior principal consultant with the Greenway Group. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.