At a recent DFC Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design, one of ten caucus group discussions observed, “In the future we will look back on today’s sustainability standards and acknowledge that it was the equivalent of malpractice.” In other words, much of what we know today in practice is wrong.
It is a bit of a psychological blow to digest. As the delegates sat at twelve round tables of eight, we each had in front of us a conveniently small and handsome Design Futures Council notebook. In mine I wrote these take-away statements: The future will not need today’s architects. The future will not need today’s engineers or contractors. The future will not need today’s construction products.
What might this mean? Does this apply to other areas that define a professional’s work in the A/E/C industry? Let’s take a closer look.
Here is an A/E firm, one that has employed new metrics to measure its value. Its revenues per FTE are advancing by double-digit percentages. It has 3D printers operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is completing two new zero-emission buildings in about half the time compared with just three years ago. Here, in another firm, there is a sense—call it an attitude—of edgy relevance; the opposite of obsolescence. Here the firm is a model place to work demonstrated by rapport, respect and admiration among employees. These professionals are learning from and being nurtured by an environment that welcomes learning, intelligence and change. The firm is leveraging imagination to create a culture of continuous improvement and thus stretching itself into the future.
Now take this construction firm—it is using robots and interactive BIM. Throughout the year, its leaders study the creation of new value, focusing on who, what and why. They analyze the success of the strongest and most profitable organizations in the world. They perform deep dive analyses into value, fees and services. Attention is given to economic trends, technology developments and scenario shifts in the structure of the A/E/C industry.
And here is another organization asking smart questions about the future. Its leaders ask questions that envision healthier cross-border industry relationships. They imagine what the ideal organization might be in three to five years. They ask questions about how their uniqueness, their purpose and how their professional actions might achieve higher levels of performance.
Yet here still is another organization concerned not only about its financial bottom line, but also about the clients and communities it serves. This is a firm motivated to bring health to an industry experiencing metamorphosis.
In all of these organizations, potential new realities are being explored. The knowledge gained from these explorations aggregates into the development of ideas that can regenerate enterprise and deliver new value, thus optimizing design thinking. There is a hunger to better understand how organizations of all sizes can benefit from unconventional insight. While some firms compulsively immerse themselves in concepts that succumb to obsolescence, the above examples represent firms that obsess over next generation success.
Success-driven processes result in the creation of new organizational capital that is a combination of social and intellectual capital. The component chemistries synthesize to form unique organizational capital that is hard to replicate, as it is constantly mutating.
These companies are progressing at speeds that challenge and then advance definitions of professional competence. Organizational capital is quickly evolving. New competence networks are formed; there is a sharing and transfer of knowledge that propel fresh professional power into new markets. Opportunities unfold, resulting in advantages that are both visible and invisible: some are blended into today’s value proposition and others are monetized in new business models.
Success-oriented firms are crossing industry borders. Architects are not just working in traditional roles, they are networking inside and outside traditional boundaries of influence. They demonstrate new enterprise models—which in turn result in evolving metrics of success and a new competence of strategic importance. Call it intelligence. Or, call it resilience.
Here, in this context, A/E/C firms are adjusting their game plans. New value is being created. Let’s look at a few examples.
The tools of BIM are regarded almost like baseline commodities. There is so much more. The newest technologies are adding value unimaginable just a few years ago. There is an evolution of firms’ DNA as evidenced by their own software solutions per client per building type. They are using algorithms to bring increasingly more quality options. Mobile communications are being mastered. Client relationships are, in turn, enhanced. Firms are becoming technology companies.
Slow Economic Growth but a Brighter Economic Horizon
Many practices today have strong backlogs. Contractors have no shortage of new work but often cannot find the right talent to deliver on it. Organizations of all kinds are investing more resources into artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality and 3D model making. A/E/C organizations are choosing to go outside traditional definitions and investigate future operating trends. They attend conferences and understand the latest and most profitable techniques. They establish a philosophy of technology advancement that utilizes the latest management practices and tools.
Accelerated Value Through Innovation
As the options to grow relevancy widen, firms are redefining on-time delivery and adopting speed as a competitive advantage. Firm transition plans are bringing forward a new generation of entrepreneurial professionals. Professional licensing bodies are working with educational organizations to deliver a more efficient supply chain of future professionals. Historically, some professionals have used time as an excuse. However, with a confluence of top talent and the latest tools, quality and speed go hand in hand. With fewer excuses come more possibilities for delivering value.
Relevance to Emerging New Markets
We can expect wholly new business environments to create opportunity for new competitive advantages. As professional practices combine the languages of business, technology and design, a new vocabulary for cross-border design thinking emerges. Buildings will be expected not only to generate revenue, but also to be interactive and responsive to a diversity of occupants. CMs and subs will get involved in design earlier on each project, and the integrated building team will be orchestrated by leadership regardless of licensing hierarchies. Analyses of life cycle cost and energy use will be standard. Shop drawings will be eliminated. Pre-fab solutions will win a majority of design awards. It is a completely new and expanding marketplace for design.
Branded Value Drivers
Professional practices are establishing new competitive advantages called branded value drivers. It is no surprise that clients experience diverse feelings as they evaluate different professional firms under consideration for new work. Just listen to several of the major developers talk about firms they have used. Alternatively, listen to intern architects who are on their third firm experience. Brand differentiation is palpable.
Professionals are getting smarter. Each generation of architects and engineers surpasses the last. We have more knowledge, more information and more empathy.
Buildings are using less energy; products are nearly nontoxic; sustainability is both a high priority and a target of vigorous improvement. Innovation brings acceleration in the delivery of services and products. Professional practices are developing a systematic priority-processes culture to achieve higher quality. They are increasingly process-driven.
Here are firms and organizations poised to intercept the future. Here firm leaders are nurturing growth as an attitude. They are exploring new ideals.
Firms and organizations are getting more intelligent. We see this by looking at past failures, and by learning fast. We are inventing the future – even though much of what we think we know today will be proven wrong. In the past, architects and engineers looked to their professions for answers and for direction. No longer. The professions have to fight for markets and for growth. Professionals must compete for everything.
What is a professional to do? Be a skeptic and keep asking more intelligent questions. Get smarter.
James P. Cramer is the founder, chairman emeritus and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.