New Technologies Transforming the Practice of Design and Architecture

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?
 

—Bob Dylan

Once upon a time, refrigerators were cooled by blocks of ice, telephones had rotary dials, and television sets had only three channels. Today that seems quaint, but at the time it was the epitome of high tech. Of course, we are still keeping food fresh, making phone calls, and watching TV, but in very different ways. A brief glance back at the 19th and 20th centuries tells us that we live in an age of disruptive technology. Steam engines made possible a vast railroad system that opened up an entire continent to development. The invention of the automobile, quickly followed by the airplane, changed the nature of transportation in even more astonishing ways. Today, technical innovation is so rapid and pervasive that new industries are springing up all the time, and old ones are disappearing just as quickly.

Take photography, for example. Early cameras were finicky, bulky contraptions that required long exposure times and produced blurry images. Rapid innovation made the process cheaper and easier, popularizing picture-taking to the point where “Kodak moment” became a figure of speech. Then came instant film. In a flash, Polaroid became a huge success technically, commercially and financially. It was the forerunner of today’s high-tech firms, driven by a culture of innovation that was personified by its founder, Dr. Edwin Land. With the advent of smart phones, photography was transformed yet again, this time with pixels replacing film. With photographic, video, and audio capability, plus apps like Instagram, smart phones enable us to record, customize and transmit images instantly all over the globe. Essentially we are all carrying miniature TV stations in our pockets. While all this was happening, both Kodak and Polaroid went bankrupt.

What’s even more interesting is the social impact that this technology has wrought. Cell phones have changed the very nature of how we view personal privacy and how we network with others. They have even played a pivotal role in the rise and fall of governments.  

There are many other examples of disruptive change. Automobiles are undergoing rapid technical evolution, from gasoline to hybrid to electric models. Driverless cars are already on the road and have the potential to replace human drivers in the foreseeable future. Zipcar and Uber are changing how we feel about car ownership. Who needs to buy a car if one will show up on demand, without the hassle of monthly payments, insurance, and parking fees?  Amazon, originally started as an online bookseller, has morphed into an “everything store” that is open 24/7 and delivers on demand. This means that we no longer have to go shopping; the store will come to us. Even the hotel business, which has been around for centuries, is being disrupted. In ten years, which will be the bigger player: Hilton or Airbnb?

What’s going on, and what does this mean for the design professions?

Plenty, as it turns out. The first thing to recognize is that “design” has always been both a noun and a verb; it deals with both the things we make and how we make them. While architects have traditionally seen themselves primarily as creators of static objects called buildings, buildings are never really static. They are teeming with human activity, constantly changing and adapting to the needs of their occupants. Disruptive technology opens up all kinds of opportunities for architects and engineers to be the designers of processes as well as places.

New technology will allow buildings and occupants to interact in more robust ways. Sensors can track occupancy and movement, program elevators, monitor water usage, adjust the lights, monitor safety conditions and even remind us when and how to take care of routine maintenance. In short, buildings can be programmed to be as responsive and interactive as we would like, and just like driverless cars, they will become more so over time.

Technology also changes the very nature of the space that we need.  Most new offices are now organized around team-based interaction, with very few, if any, private offices, lots of collaboration space, and highly sophisticated IT and AV systems. Personal space is being replaced by communal areas that can be used in a variety of different ways, day and night. This changes how we think about floor plates, column grids, ceiling heights, lighting, acoustics, and furniture, as well as color, texture, and basic planning layouts. As a result, in recent years there has been a dramatic decrease the average square footage per employee. It could be argued that the traditional office will eventually be replaced altogether by Google glasses, just as bank buildings have been rendered obsolete by ATMs and on-line financial services.

As the ways we use offices, hospitals, classrooms, schools, and stores change, many existing structures will need to be re-tooled or replaced entirely. New buildings will be built to different standards, designed to fulfill a wide variety of functions over their useful lives, thus putting a premium on “downstream design.” Since the lion’s share of a building’s actual ownership cost relates to operations and maintenance rather than initial capital outlay, architects and engineers will be asked to design for the entire life cycle of a building with the expectation that it will likely be re-purposed several times over. In addition to aesthetics, modeling building performance will become a standard part of the design process, as will tracking actual post-occupancy performance.  All this changes the nature of design in a fundamental way, shifting it from a cost to an investment. In the process, tremendous new opportunities will open up, including:

Residential

The trend toward “re-urbanization”, especially among Baby Boomers and Millennials, has created a surge of new apartment and condominium construction. As “micro-units” become more mainstream, expect buildings to include full service amenities such as business centers, meeting rooms, healthclubs, swimming pools, and even party rooms for social functions, which can be accessed and paid for on an as-needed basis.

Hospitality

With on-line booking, instant check-in, and automatic billing, who needs a reception desk? Traditional room configurations are changing to incorporate more open bath/bedroom arrangements and enhanced business services. Lobby spaces are becoming more like social clubs. It’s not too hard to imagine that future hotel rooms will be pre-programmed to suit individual tastes prior to arrival, including making sure that the room is well stocked with your favorite drinks and snacks.

Retail

Shopping is still an important part of the experience economy, so stores are not likely to disappear entirely. That said, the vast majority of retail activity could very well morph into cyberspace, with most goods ordered from on-line catalogues and delivered via express mail.  What Walmart did to Main Street, Amazon can do to Walmart.

Schools

The full impact of MOOCs (massively open online courses) has yet to be felt, but the implications are clear: the need for large lecture halls could go away entirely, and seminars could be conducted in electronic chat rooms that include real-time digital interaction by the faculty. As for traditional libraries, who needs ‘em? Book storage will be on line and the space can be converted to “interactive learning centers.”

Laboratories

Big data analytics will require ever more computing power with connectivity to data centers.  Expect to see fewer wet labs and more dry labs. In short: less plumbing and more electricity, with computational research (probably conducted by robots) on a 24/7 basis. If we can have driverless cars, can we also have “driverless labs”.

Hospitals

New regulations require that reimbursement will be based on outcomes rather than traditional pay-for-procedure, so hospitals will move to lower cost, more easily accessible settings, with a higher percentage of outpatient care, laboratory, diagnostic and imaging services provided on a stop-and-shop basis. Older hospitals will need to be thoroughly renovated or demolished and replaced.

These are just a few examples. The design and construction process itself will also be disrupted, with complex structures modeled and optimized by algorithms at lightning speed, 3-D printers both in the office and on the construction site, new nano-tech and totally biodegradable materials that eliminate waste, off-site prefabrication, and construction robots that will do difficult tasks on a 24/7 basis much more safely and efficiently than human labor, greatly accelerating construction schedules. And just like the steam engine and transcontinental railroad, in just a few years all of this will seem like yesterday’s news.


Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.