A primer on emerging advancements in technology.

Power is a funny thing. You can’t see it, but its effects are palpable. It doesn’t weigh anything, but it can be heavy-handed. You can’t smell it, but it can make you queasy. It’s not a thing, but it can create real barriers. Simply defined, power is the ability to get things done through others.

In the age of the internet, information is power. Enormous amounts of data are generated every day, giving us the ability to understand complex systems in ways that were never before possible. The trouble is that we’re not always sure what to do with all this information. Billions of individual data points can seem as shapeless as grains of sand on the beach.

Ironically, this vastly increased ability to create and store information has made it harder than ever to wield power. Because the flow of information is so much more accessible, it can be easily manipulated with just a few keystrokes. While information-based power has become much easier to accumulate, it is also much harder to hold onto. For example, over the past twenty years, the average tenure of Wall Street CEOs has been cut in half, from ten years to five. Even more surprisingly, 75% of all those in the top 1% of income earners manage to stay in that select group for only a single year; they are quickly supplanted by others. These days, it seems that a single Wiki-leak can bring down a company or a government. In the new age of “big data” it’s more important than ever for organizations to stay nimble. There are many examples of highly successful companies which have been overtaken by smaller, more agile start-ups, a process known as “creative disruption.”

This new “ecosystem” of big data has had a profound effect on how we make, buy, and consume all manner of things. The pervasive power of big data has also given rise to very real concerns about the nature of personal privacy. (As one example, a cell phone can essentially be used as a tracking device, creating a real-time record of anyone’s various comings-and-goings throughout the day.) The predictive power of big data enables companies like Amazon or Netflix to guess with remarkable accuracy what kind of book you’re likely to buy or film you’d like to see, and Google can track your internet searches and send customized pop-up ads that anticipate the products and services that best suit your needs.

The promise of big data creates a whole new opportunity for design firms. BIM technology offers architects and engineers the means to explore vastly more complex forms and systems, very quickly, and to digitize, store, and compare metrics that can be used to create highly intelligent, highly efficient buildings in ways that were simply not possible previously. We can model, analyze, and then optimize for the design of structure, acoustics, lighting, vibration, water and power consumption, and even construction logistics, to name a few. In the near future, we will be able to extend this modeling to include facilities management. Since operations and maintenance cost trumps initial capital cost by a factor of ten, this offers design firms a whole new basis for expanding the client/designer relationship and adding big value to a client’s bottom line over the long term.

This is a profound shift. It changes the value proposition for designers from creating static objects (buildings) to designing interactive systems, taking into account the true ownership cost over the useful life of the structure. Under this new paradigm, the designer’s value proposition for clients shifts from the short-term (design fees paid up front before the building actually opens) to long-term (designing with long-term building performance in mind, producing direct benefits that accrue over decades). Paying for design services over the life of a structure greatly reduces the up-front financial burden on the client while at the same time providing a long-term income stream for the architect — essentially an annuity as long as the building performs according to the predicted metrics. It also radically changes the nature of decision-making.

And that’s just the beginning. In a few years, BIM technology will seem old hat. Our ability to crunch big data is already leading to the development of accurate and responsive voice-activated and gesture-recognition software. Imagine that you’re meeting with a client to discuss a new project. While you are chatting, gesturing, and sketching on a napkin, the computer is reading your intent and translating your ideas in real time into highly realistic imagery (which can easily be converted to physical models in a few hours by a 3-D printer). It’s a very short leap from there to creating a whole new design experience for clients that is based on interactive video-gaming technology.

By the end of lunch, you will have accomplished the equivalent of a month’s worth of work. Now take it a step farther and embed tags in the computer program that will track specific materials and products as the design evolves. These tags can be linked directly to manufacturers, distributors, and suppliers, who will now know what to make, how much it will cost, and when to ship. The potential for significantly accelerated design and delivery is clear, as is the opportunity to reduce waste, which currently accounts for more than 30% of all construction materials used. The potential savings for the A/E/C industry as a whole can be measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars — each and every year.

Now comes the hard part. Having a lot of bits and bytes at our command may make us feel more powerful, but it doesn’t necessarily make us any smarter. We need to be able to translate data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. We also have to know when and how to apply this wisdom. The more difficult it becomes to hold onto power, the higher the incentive to focus on short-term gain rather than long-term solutions. Because Wall Street runs on quarterly earnings estimates and annual financial reports, and because politicians are always thinking in terms of the next election cycle, aligning short term interest with long term strategy is not as simple as it seems. It’s very difficult to plan for ten years down the road, when today’s CEO will already have been retired for five years.

Design thinking has a big role to play in all this. Design can help us make sense out of big data. It can translate the information into shapes on a graph or other kinds of simulations, so the numbers can be understood in visual terms. It can help us understand cause-and-effect as certain variables are tweaked and tested. Multiple simulations can be run to provide a clear picture of how complex systems behave over time. We can manipulate and refine computer-based models, comparing the effect of multiple options until the optimum results are achieved. For example, we can determine how many lumens of light will be needed in a certain room at certain times of the day, and how the light distribution can be made more efficient based on variables like actual occupancy, the configuration of the space, and the placement and size of the windows. This knowledge will enable us to install fewer fixtures at lower wattage, saving power over the life of the building. The bottom line for the client is better light distribution at lower first cost and much lower operating cost. This is a small example of a big idea: the marriage of big data with big design.

Now let’s take this one step further and apply big data/big design to buildings after they are constructed. Sensors will able to track actual occupancy, allowing MEP systems to adjust in real time, saving energy. The daily use of water, power, and light can be displayed on “performance dashboards” throughout the building so that the occupants have a continuous feedback loop, encouraging efficient behavior. Safety and security systems can be made much more responsive to actual conditions. Facilities management programs will be able to track real-time wear-and-tear conditions and trigger maintenance work-orders before small problems become big ones, saving time and money. In short, big data/big design can be used to create buildings that will be much more responsive to occupants’ actual needs, and provide a much better understanding of how those needs will change over time.

The phenomenon of using technology to shape our environment is not new. Over the past decade, digital technology has radically changed the film industry to the point where it’s possible to dispense with live actors altogether. The music industry has been similarly transformed. Through the use of synthesizers and other technology, composers can create entirely new sounds and rhythms, and make their music available to vastly larger audiences at a fraction of the cost. Even aerospace has been re-engineered; the Boeing Dreamliner was essentially designed and tested entirely in cyberspace before it flew for the first time. Which brings up an important point: while the potential of big data/big design is huge, it is far from perfect.

To those who think that this sounds like science fiction, consider that the CAD revolution started in earnest in the early 1990s and within a decade had become standard industry practice. Similarly, BIM began to take hold in 2003, and in just ten years has essentially supplanted CAD as the technology of choice. Where will the next generation of technology take us? It’s not hard to imagine a new kind of design/delivery paradigm that closely links owners, A/E firms, and C/M firms in a different kind of fully collaborative enterprise, one in which there is a high degree of creativity as well a high degree of predictability in terms of on time/on budget performance. Compensation systems based on long-term rather than short-term metrics will be a win/win for all concerned. Such a delivery paradigm would align the incentives off all the major players, greatly increasing the rewards while reducing risk.

In an industry that is as inherently inefficient as design and construction, the advent of big data/big design should be welcome news. The question is whether or not the design community, which is so good at inflicting change on others, will embrace such a change for itself.

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.