We sat down with technology thinker, practice educator and architect Phil Bernstein to talk about technology and the future of design.


DesignIntelligence: Leaders of firms, chief technology officers, and designers seem to be looking for the technology that will follow BIM. What do you think comes next?

Phil Bernstein at the Design Futures Council Leadership Summit on Design Innovation and Technology

Phil Bernstein: First, let’s contextualize BIM. BIM is a set of knowledge structures that will empower new uses of technology in designing, making, and using buildings.

Where CAD mechanized the means of representation, BIM creates a formal knowledge structure that can organize the enormous array of digital data piles and processes that are becoming part of building industry practices.

What comes next is the digitization of a lot of processes, which means two things. First, there will be new ways of organizing and integrating information so it can be leveraged and interconnected. Right now we have piles of unrelated digital data. We need strategies for integrating it.

Second, now that we have all this data, what do we do with it? A wave of rationality will create a different context for design, because the ability to use this information will change the designer’s obligations. Plus, the ability to collect information allows you to learn from how the building was constructed, how it’s being used, and how that will inform the design going forward. There will be a shift from relying entirely on judgment and intuition to rationality.

DI: So what comes next is more complicated than BIM 2.0.

PB: There isn’t going to be a BIM 2.0 in my opinion. Application-centric work is going away. Everybody’s using 30 or 40 different applications. New technologies will be more about putting the project in the center and less about what platform you’re focused on.

DI: It sounds like the focus will shift not only to how design is accomplished but also the designer’s role in it.

PB: Yes. Designers will have a lot more information. What does that information mean for your strategy as a designer and your value proposition as a practice? If your firm’s doing healthcare work and your clients are leveraging information from their electronic medical records systems to correlate actions and outcomes, the architect must transfer those expectations onto the design process. The old “I’ve done 17 hospitals so trust me” model isn’t going to work anymore.

DI: What will work?

PB: We’ll have to find strategies that use this new rational context to support design without overwhelming it. If we’re not careful, the ability to do analysis and collect big data could overwhelm the fundamental value proposition of being a designer, which is to have unique insights and perspectives and to advance ideas. Designers still need judgment and intuition. Those qualities are not going away, and they shouldn’t.

DI: How can firms convert the use of technology to a value proposition in this new environment?

PB: Technology is not a strategic advantage, because all boats eventually rise to a level of equality. Unless it’s directly correlated to your firm’s value proposition, technology is just toys. The bigger question is: what’s the relationship between the use of technology and the firm’s competitive advantage? That requires a practice to say, “This is what we’re really good at, and we’re going to deploy this technology in the service of that.”

I used to be a healthcare planner. In a healthcare firm, you know how to put a hospital together, so certain production strategies give you inherent efficiency. How do you use technology to leverage that? How do you collect and measure data to show potential clients that your previous projects function in ways advantageous to them? Your firm’s insight and knowledge can’t just live in your designers’ heads, so instantiate that knowledge with analytical algorithms, scripting, wikis, knowledge-based systems, reference-able BIM information.

DI: Will owners and operators one day leverage technology to operate buildings for the long term?

PB: Yes. Some of the convergences around BIM are the surge in digitized processes on the construction side, whether it’s extrapolating models from the designer for construction management or laser-scanning a job site. And now there’s the digital backbone that forms the operating systems of most new buildings. It’ll take a while for those things to converge into standard protocols, but they’re definitely moving that way.

DI: What role do design firms play in the overall design delivery and operation of buildings? How is that changing?

PB: I’m optimistic that architects who are deeply interested in what it means to make and use a building will take those processes beyond today’s traditional involvement. The move toward pre-fabricated and assembled systems could draw architects into the process if we’re willing. Whether it’s comparing the digital projection of a building to the actual operating entity, or the information available from things inside the building, the design profession has to be involved. I think it should and will be architecture.

DI: Some people worry that architectural services are becoming commoditized. How can firms push the market to accept a broader role for architects throughout the life-cycle?

PB: The conversation about the commoditization of architectural services has been going on for 30 years. It’s not a trend—it’s a fact. If we look at that problem through technology, though, the opportunities to change value propositions are profound. For example, the building information modeling process, a simulation platform, allows you to project how a building is going to function. With a high degree of precision, we can predict how much energy a building will use while it’s being designed, before it’s built. That’s an outcome. What if compensation strategies began to shift toward outcomes instead of commoditization? What if, during design, we chose a certain outcome, such as the building is delivered on costs, or delivered on time, or uses x amount of energy. If that outcome actually happens, it has value. Why can’t we extract that value?

DI: As an educator, what do you think today’s students need to know that’s not being taught in design school?

PB: I don’t think architects are well-trained in understanding the systems of delivery in which they operate. There’s a tendency to look at the entire building delivery supply chain through the lens of the designer, and not contextualize the architect’s or design’s role in the overall system or understand how design decisions affect the entire system of making and using buildings. Although I don’t teach design, I would say that two dimensions of being an architect aren’t sufficiently developed in education. One is the nature of practice. What do architects actually do, where do they connect to the overall systems, and what is the future of architecture? Second, the emphasis on design training–just one portion of the architect’s responsibilities–tends to warp the student’s perspective about the most important thing they’re doing and the context in which they operate.

DI: Any advice that firms can put into practice tomorrow?

PB: To make intelligent, strategic decisions about the relationship between technology and value propositions, we need to explore both sides of that equation. Make sure someone in your office is systematically exploring the technologies and figuring out how to exploit them for your practice.

Phil Bernstein is a technology thinker, practice eduator and architect. He teaches at Yale and is the former vice president for strategic industry relations at Autodesk.

Excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly, 2Q 2017.

Photo by gdtography on Unsplash

Cover photo by Sophia Baboolal on Unsplash