A deliberately ambitious forecast of what’s ahead.
Let’s hop in a time machine and go back to 1992, just 20 years ago. The Internet was not yet commercially available. There were no iPods, iPads, or iPhones. CAD was in its infancy, and pen plotters were the highest of high tech in architects’ offices. In 1992, Steve Jobs had been out of a job at Apple for seven years and would not return for another four. Larry Page and Sergey Brin were seniors in high school, and Mark Zuckerberg was just eight years old. Within a few years, a whole crop of Internet businesses would spring up like so many mushrooms and then die off just as fast. A select few, such as Amazon.com and eBay, would survive and eventually prosper, but it was far from clear at the time that they had much of a future.
Fast forward to 2012. Using a small device that weighs only a few ounces and easily fits in the palm of our hand, we can instantly access unlimited information, buy or sell whatever we like, and determine our exact position on the planet any time of the day or night. Had that sentence been written in 1992, it would have been considered outrageous science fiction.
If past is prologue, what’s next? By and large, the A/E/C industry has been reluctant to truly embrace technology and all that it implies. We still build things the old-fashioned way, one piece at a time. True, there’s been some progress — glimmerings of building information modeling and a flirtation with integrated project delivery. As a whole, however, we’re still mired in a mind-set that is based on instruments of service called construction documents, a bidding process that pretty much guarantees unwanted change orders, and a business model that habitually delivers projects late and over budget. (In other words, we may be inefficient, but at least we’re expensive!)
Obviously, there’s big room for improvement. Change is blowing across the landscape like a strong wind, and there’s no stopping it. In the coming years, the A/E/C industry will look very different indeed. Herewith, a compendium of deliberately provocative predictions, intended to be slightly outrageous, all of which will eventually come true.
The end of bidding (and billing)
With eBay, Craigslist, and Amazon.com, we can buy pretty much anything we want, any time of the day or night, from anywhere around the globe, at the lowest available price, with just a few keystrokes. Airlines and hotels routinely adjust their prices based on fluctuating demand in order to maximize their return on investment. It’s only a matter of time before the A/E/C industry adopts this approach to purchasing. And as long as we’re getting rid of bidding, let’s eliminate billing as well, with all transactions executed using debit card technology. Buy what you need, when you need it, for the best possible price, with zero paperwork. No bids, no bills, no bull.
Ubiquitous bar codes
In the retail world, bar codes have already revolutionized inventory control and point-of-purchase sales tracking. It’s a very short conceptual leap to bar coding everything. Even people. Add the notion of a permanent built-in GPS chip or RFID tag, and nothing will ever get lost (bad news for thieves and kidnappers). On a construction site, the implications for ordering, manufacturing, shipping, storage, installation, site logistics, and waste processing are enormous. In an industry where 37 percent of materials eventually wind up in the dump, universal bar coding will save billions of dollars each year — more than enough to cover the cost of the technology.
Gaming the system
CAD technology, once leading edge, now seems positively quaint. BIM is a step up, but it’s still in its adolescence. In a few years it will seem just as old-fashioned. Today, the gaming industry is at the frontier. It has shown us how to create a whole new universe of alternative places and experiences unencumbered by the constraints of the real world. Anything and everything is possible; we are limited only by our imagination. SimCity is just a start; there’s literally nothing we can’t game. Within a few short years, design by gaming will be the norm. Now take it a step further. Need to make a meeting on the coast by noon tomorrow? Stay home and send your avatar. Nobody will be able to tell the difference. Nor will they care.
Making sense of cyberspace
While we’re at it, let’s take gaming to new dimensions, literally. Even the most realistic computer games compress our 3-D experience into the two dimensions of a video screen. In the future, vastly improved technology will enable us to simulate all aspects of physical experience, including the five senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This will allow us to explore, test, and validate design concepts in entirely new ways, and at warp speed. We’ve already seen glimmerings of this notion in movies such as Tron. Call it design by immersion.
Dishwashers, thermostats, and pacemakers are all forms of robots. Robots can be programmed to do our work for us, when and as we please, more efficiently and at lower cost than hired hands. The robotic revolution is just beginning. In the future, robots will be able to drive our cars, cook our meals, and handle our finances better than we can. On a construction site, robots will be programmed to perform a wide variety of tasks at all times of the day and night, with no complaints or coffee breaks. This will be especially useful for high-risk tasks. Sound fantastic? It’s already happening. Consider 3-D printers, which, like Santa’s elves, can produce exquisitely detailed models overnight while we sleep.
Nanotech looms large
Imagine a building that washes itself; glass that automatically adjusts thermal and visual performance for temperature, time of day, weather conditions, and occupancy; flooring that never wears out; and paint that can change color at will. Imagine buildings that digest smog right out of the atmosphere and metals that automatically bend themselves into a pre-determined shape as if they practiced yoga; clothes made of thousands of tiny programmable air bags so they are self-insulating in any kind of weather; and furniture that automatically adjusts to different body types and weights. Imagine super lightweight structures that are totally recyclable and walls that can switch from opaque to transparent at the flick of a switch or even move around at will by means of tiny motors. Sound crazy? So did the first ATM.
The office helmet
It used to be important to have a private office. Then the cubicle culture kicked in. Today, with a laptop, we can work effectively from any location on a 24/7 basis. Now imagine a baseball cap, made of self-powering solar-cell fabric, with a phone and camera built into the brim and a flip-down screen, like sunglasses, that provides ambulatory teleconferencing. Throw in a noise cancelling “cone of silence” for good measure, to ensure acoustic privacy on demand. Essentially, we’ll be walking around wearing our own office space on our heads, able to talk with (and see) anybody we want. Need to have lunch with a colleague in Boise while you’re in Boston? Just dial him in. In fact, with an office helmet, who needs a building?
Moore’s law has proved to be uncannily correct. The math is inexorable: sooner rather than later, we’ll be able to access all human knowledge on a chip, and it will be equally available to all, its use as natural as breathing. If knowledge is power, then the next generation will be the most powerful in history by far, with the cloud functioning as a gigantic supercomputer. This really levels the playing field. Got a problem to solve? Need something invented? Toss it out to the cloud, and it comes back done, in seconds, for pennies. The cloud will become the brain stem for the human race.
With cloud computing, high-quality voice-activated software will finally become a reality. Imagine a conference room filled with high-definition big screens. As you describe the building to your client over a cup of coffee, the computer automatically translates your speech into 3-D and 4-D imagery. Want to change height, massing, material, or color? Just say the word. For extra effect, cue in a sound track. If you can say it, you can display it. (It’s not much different in principle than using a synthesizer to compose new kinds of music.) This means that everyone who can talk can be a designer.
There’s an app for that
Buildings are in large measure an assemblage of discrete components (elevators, toilets, windows, hardware, and so forth). Need to design a spiral stair? Size a duct? Calculate the shading coefficient on a window? Confirm code compliance? Want to know how heavy a beam should be, or where to buy it, or when it can be delivered? There’s an app for that. Point-and-click connections will key in manufacturers, model numbers, dimensions, cost, and delivery dates in a flash. Design-by-app will become as simple as checking flight status or making restaurant reservations on your smart phone.
Buildings with dashboards:
When we drive a car, the dashboard tells us about the speed, temperature, gas mileage, travel distance, oil consumption, location (via GPS), and so forth. Why don’t we “drive” buildings the same way? They may be static objects, but they are full of dynamic systems. Video displays in elevators already tell us about the weather, stock market, and sports scores; they could just as easily let us know about the building’s occupancy, power consumption, water usage, temperature, elevator availability, and so forth. Informed people make better, safer drivers; the same could be true of building occupants. The obvious corollary is this: If buildings can talk to us, then we can talk back. The implications are endless.
If we look in the rearview mirror, we are astounded by what has happened in a mere two decades, and there is every indication that the pace of change is accelerating rather than slowing down. The years to come are sure to provide even greater surprises. Making predictions is risky business, but here’s one that will surely come true: In a surprisingly short time, all the predictions noted here will seem tame.
Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects as well as an overseer of the Boston Children’s Museum. He is co-author of The Next Architect: A New Twist on the Future of Design and a frequent speaker and writer on issues of innovation in design.