Leading edge organizations are constantly looking out on the horizon for new factors with disruptive potential, whether that’s new technology, new players, new contracts, new constructs and more. Dennis Shelden—director of the Digital Building Lab at Georgia Tech—gives us a view into some emerging positive forces of change that will impact A/E/C.

DesignIntelligence (DI): In the Digital Building Lab, what are you seeing on the horizon around this whole idea of industry disruption from the technology angle?

Dennis Shelden (DS): I’ve been interested in the transformational or disruptive possibilities of technology throughout my whole career—as a student, architectural designer, engineer, software developer and entrepreneur and now academic. The possibilities of technology to change not just process but the value of design and the relationship between designer and the built environment has been one of the promises of early CAD and now BIM. These were the underlying values of the advances that happened in Gehry’s practice in the 1990s and then subsequently our goal in creating Gehry Technologies. But I think in the past these impacts have been incremental or niche—demonstrating results that either had minimal real impact on projects or were isolated to the exceptionally complex.

It seems like in the last three years, technologically driven change is accelerating quickly, and I think we’ve hit an inflection point or a catalytic moment, where all the forces in the industry are aligned to make significant change possible. It’s an incredibly interesting time to be working in the built environment in general, especially at the intersection of technology and environment.

First, this infusion of technology in our industry is indicative of the broader culture. Advanced technology is simply part of our everyday lives and the broader vernacular of society. Concepts from technology research such as machine learning, blockchain and the Internet of Things are broad drivers of disruptive economic and social change in society at large.

There is also now a base of technological capability in the workforce—the current generation of early and mid-career practitioners has grown up with information technology, both at work and in their everyday lives. These new leaders are starting to creatively drive the profession and new applications of technology, and there is also a relatively large workforce with a technical background to adopt these advances and existing technology infrastructure that can be leveraged.

Perhaps even more significant is the growing interest in built environment innovation from outside the traditional building disciplines. Companies like Google, Amazon, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk through the Boring Company and investors like Softbank through Katerrra and WeWork are heavily investing in pursuing opportunities in buildings and infrastructure.

Finally—and I think this is related—the built environment itself is becoming what might be seen as a platform for technology and data innovation. As computing has gone from the main frame to the desk top to the laptop to the mobile and now, with mobile computing, there’s a direct and intimate relationship between people, technology, data and environment. That is just going to continue. So, we are looking at getting to this smart environment, smart building, where in the future, much of computing won’t involve a personal device at all; it will be a part of the environment. There is an emerging convergence between the A/E/C professions in the built environment and the technology community. It’s important to see this as a trend because this is where the technology sector is going, and designers and building professionals have a unique moment to drive some of these advances.

DI: So, one of the main drivers of this inflection point is that nontraditional players are coming from the outside with a lot of investment. You also mentioned that you’re seeing a lot of startup activity or an increased pace of activity. What are some examples?

DS: The tech industry has reported that in 2018 there were 3,000 construction, real estate and design-related startups that have emerged since 2017. This is an increase by a factor of ten from the year before. These startup initiatives can be anything from an individual innovator in a design or engineering firm to venture investment by players inside or outside the A/E/C industry. Thornton Tomasetti is one example—a firm that is running an internal incubator and seed investment vehicle to monetize the intellectual property they develop as an engineering firm. There are contractors like Turner and building product manufacturers like CEMEX who are developing investment funds targeted at supporting startup companies that are emerging around their business ecosystems. We are seeing a startup culture emerging in the A/E/C community. A lot of the great innovation in software apps for design professionals—like Grasshopper plugins such as Honeybee for environmental analysis or Kangaroo for structures— are the products of individual innovators, many in prominent design and engineering firms and operating through open source business models.

DI: So with all of this new activity in investment, and all of these new startup businesses coming online and basically changing what we know about technology within the field, how is this having an effect on traditional A/E/C firms?

DS: Professional A/E/C firms have intellectual property that is a value they need to consider as part of their core strategy. How do you monetize your firm’s unique knowledge? How do you protect it? How do you expand it? How do you leverage it to increase the value of your goods and services?

There are certainly issues regarding workforce requirements and engagement, both in terms of increasing demand for more skilled workers but also issues of increased automation that will eventually impact the traditional hourly services model. This may create opportunities for a more value-based way of charging for design and engineering services and constructed products.

I think the possibility of the built environment as a platform for information and technology will create profoundly new roles and opportunities in the built environment. One of the most fascinating possibilities is that this can create a new, longer-term relationship between design and the ongoing environmental behavior of client organizations and communities. This is playing out now in building controls and operations, but the potential is bigger than that. I can imagine design firms having an ongoing relationship to the environments and communities they have designed—continuously receiving feedback on operational dynamics and engaging in ongoing occupancy experience creation or organizational improvement roles with owner-occupiers.

DI: So, you feel that the built environment is becoming a computing platform. What implications are there outside of A/E/C for that to happen? For example, how does security play into that?

DS: There are many tools, methodologies and lessons to be learned from the software community that can be applied to the built environment. I’ve been recently re-introduced to the concept of UX—user experience design—through some joint classes we’ve been holding with the school of industrial design at Georgia Tech. This is a very mature discipline with some very interesting ways of thinking about users, their personas and experiences that environmental design can learn from. There are obvious lessons of system design and productization, mass production versus mass customization that come into play when we think about buildings becoming systems for both physical and information services. And yes, the questions of data and physical security, privacy and information ownership that are playing out in the digital realm need to be addressed in the built environment, where existing solutions such as encryption can offer only part of the answer in a world of hybrid digital and physical interaction.

DI: It seems like there are some big unanswered technical questions about the built environment becoming a computing platform. When technology platforms are changing so rapidly and new technologies are constantly displacing old ones, how will we keep buildings current and communicating with one another in whatever way that humans wind up interfacing with buildings?

DS: These are big, long-term questions that I don’t think we have really well-developed answers for yet. Information technology componentry advances faster than building systems, although the innovation cycle of the latter is increasing. I don’t think we can accept disposable solutions for building scale artifacts. I believe that if information services become part of the built environment there will necessarily be a tighter fitting between the designed environment and the specific requirements of the occupying businesses and communities. We have to think about buildings and infrastructure as integrated systems, where retrofitting and varying scales of permanence and reconfiguration is built into the design.

There has been an interesting resurgence recently in the design of flexible and reconfigurable space. I think that because of the speed of technology-driven change in society, owner organizations have to continually rethink the relationship between their constituents and the built environment. There seems to be a lot of interest in that idea of flexible and reconfigurable space with technology, analytics and measurement built into the continuous life cycle of the building.

DI: What’s going on at the Digital Building Lab? And how is the DBL affecting or enhancing architecture, design and construction education?

DS: There are so many new and exciting initiatives at Georgia Tech around design, technology, practice and entrepreneurship it’s difficult to know where to start. First, the School of Architecture has a deep heritage cutting across deep research, application in industry and education, and the DBL is part of this heritage. Since [Chair of the School of Architecture] Scott Marble joined along with me and some of the other new faculty, there has been an effort to re-imagine these research, education and industry engagement programs around issues of technology and advancement of practice at all levels. As one instance, we have redeveloped the Master of Science in Architecture degree program around five technology streams—from building information and systems to healthcare design, and we’re using this to connect with both industry partners and mid-career professionals. We’ve adopted a certificate program in engineering entrepreneurship that was jointly developed between the engineering and business schools to support students interested in careers at the intersection of design, technology and entrepreneurship.

The Digital Building Lab is first and foremost a catalyst for academic and industry engagement to foster technology-driven building innovation. Our membership includes organizations and engineering to contractors, fabricators, building product manufacturers and software companies. Our core research model is to serve as a conduit between building professionals with project-based innovation needs, tech and product companies with emergent innovations, and the research and innovation resources of academia.

As a research and development organization, the DBL is focused on a number of big picture initiatives that I think can best be addressed by the sort of non-profit, open information model provided by academia. The first is what I have been calling “the building information superhighway.” The DBL has a deep heritage developing open data standards for the building industry including IFC (Industry Foundation Classes). We are now working with industry standards groups like BuildingSmart to extend these data standards to provide building industry specific internet and web data exchange capabilities. This is a critical advancement for building information, one that I believe can create the base-level infrastructure needed to support innovation and startup companies.

The second focus is on smart environments: smart buildings, infrastructure and cities, but more connected relationships between the built environment, occupants and the values of client organizations. This extends the building information modeling and data services work I mentioned, but also looks at new avenues for BIM to support connected buildings and organizations. We are doing some really interesting innovation around smart and connected retail, healthcare and both educational and industrial campuses.

The third focus is this idea about building industry entrepreneurship. For example, your founder, Jim Cramer, is teaching at Georgia Tech and is bringing his view about the entrepreneurship of big firms. Our chair, Scott Marble, is very focused on design firms and the future for their viability and growth. And I’m working with A/E/C professionals who are pursuing more technology-focused intellectual property and startups. We are committed to leveraging the global access of the DBL and school to idea-generating individuals and organizations, and connecting these ideas to the entrepreneurship support resources of Georgia Tech and the tech community in Atlanta.

These three paradigms—the building information superhighway, smart environments, and entrepreneurship—are some of the key innovations we are starting to drive at the DBL and School of Architecture.

DI: What advice would you give A/E/C leaders who may not have a technical background but set strategy for their firms?

DS: Firms are starting to look at technology and disruption as a strategic topic, beyond just the use of technology tools. There are ways of engaging with technology strategically: by understanding the dynamics of disruption, identifying core capabilities, and identifying and addressing the risks and opportunities for those core services in light of disruptive macro-economic forces. It has never been a better time to have specialized expertise that can leverage the acceleration of technology and capital to scale. Recognize that your firm is creating valuable intellectual properties and that there are newly accessible business models for capitalizing on this value. Give the entrepreneurial people in your organizations room to pursue ideas, and be open to those ideas as being potentially early seeds for new business opportunities and higher value offerings.


Dennis Shelden is an Associate Professor of Architecture and Director of the Digital Building Laboratory at Georgia Tech. He previously led the development of architect Frank Gehry’s digital practice, first as Director of R&D and Director of Computing, and subsequently as Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of the technology spin off Gehry Technologies.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly.