It’s easy to imagine a future that either terrifies or excites; or perhaps even a bit of both. All too often, we continue thinking on the trajectory we know. We want business as usual. However, the design profession is facing a cusp where the disruptors to our industry are not coming from within.

IT’S EVOLUTIONARY

Our tools, techniques and materials have evolved over time; some quickly and some very slowly. When steel was first introduced, it was used as if it was wood with wedged connections. When concrete was introduced, it was used as if it was steel. New materials and tools always imitate what is to hand. Then they find their own path and explode into realms never imagined.

Our tools today help us design in ways that were fantasy a generation ago. This is timely, since society in our resource-constrained world is placing demands on us which earlier generations never imagined. Our tools, materials and knowledge help us not just envision our tomorrow, but also to evolve it. We need synthetic thinking and new tools to create designs that efficiently husband our resources better, and to create the spaces and places that we need in order for society not just to survive, but thrive.

Other evolutions are taking place in our industry. Because money is essentially free (at the moment), it is easy to leverage purchases so that there is a consolidation of smaller firms into larger entities which are merging aspects of the design-procure-build-operate chain which were, up until recently, quite segregated. It is an ownership structure benefiting a few with a deep dependency upon cheap money. There is also generational transition afoot. Many senior partners are looking at the new marketplace and deciding it is time to transition; engineers and architects are cashing out, either selling to their employees or being bought out.

Interest rates will eventually increase as will society’s need for resilient, systemically sound and efficient built environments. This points to a fragile future for those who depend on free money, but a very robust future for our profession as a whole.

The Human Touch

We stand before times of tremendous transition.

Data, and the tools to translate it, will reveal behavior and performance patterns that will give us new insight into the way in which we not only need to design future buildings, roads, streets and cities, but also help us understand how to retrofit what we have in ways we cannot imagine at the moment. Continuing to peer down the trajectory of artificial intelligence, machine learning and smart tools, it is foreseeable (and somewhat horrific to imagine) that soon a search engine could design a better building, or at least a better mousetrap, than a human could. Just as the ice deliveryman could never have imagined metal boxes which kept things frozen for months on end and spat out miniature ice cubes ad nauseam, we must consider the very real possibility that digital tools could replace most of what we do today. Anything that can be automated will be.

So what is our role in this changed world?

I joined ARUP as the director of research and development in 1999. I had the privilege of leading a group of fifty individuals with brains the size of planets. They told me that they never answered the question they were asked because invariably it was the wrong question. They needed to know the context of the problem in order to give the right answer. I remain convinced that humans are far better at figuring out what is not stated in a conversation about a design problem than a machine. If it’s so obvious that a computer or a search engine could solve it, then let it. Use that tool. But there are many aspects of the human and humane aspects of design that depend upon a very subtle understanding of the human condition. And I currently don’t believe that a machine will be able to translate that in the same way that humans can.

Evolution or Revolution?

We will either see an evolution or revolution in the design and engineering professions. I don’t know exactly where this future will lie, but I do know that we must talk about it openly. We need to be having hard discussions about the way in which our new professionals are coming into the marketplace; about the way that liability is assigned; about the way we insure against failure; about educating and not training, and so much more. These must not be simple platitudes, but real dialogue and conversations about the different vectors our society will take so that we are ready to create a foundation of resilience. We have an enormous task ahead of us when we think of the future we want. I get very excited about the potential of the design professions, because society needs us desperately. It is up to us to rise to the challenges.

Chris Luebkeman is director for global foresight, research and innovation at ARUP and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.