Monday, 3 October 2016

Two or Three Scenarios

Near Versus Far Future Thinking

In The Making of a New Industry David Hawk envisaged a widening separation between the traditional, local industry of small firms and small to medium sized projects and a technologically driven, increasingly oligopolistic global industry. In identifying the key trends driving this change of industry structure, Hawk was clearly correct in his view that the new industry would be far more product focused than the traditional industry.

In the three scenarios outlined previously, the traditional industry more or less fits into the business as usual approach of scenario one, and the global industry rather looks like it’s been following the upgraded and modified path in scenario two. These two scenarios cover the likely outcomes of near future developments, and they are both firmly based on well-established fundamental characteristics and trends that we observe today. The two scenario argument is that the near future should be sufficient for our strategic thinking and planning, and the challenges the industry faces will be resolved at both of these two levels, local and global.

Why then have the third scenario? The sort of advanced buildings and structures scenario three envisages will not be technically feasible for some time, it could take several decades before the experimental work being done today becomes the standard technology of the future. Nevertheless, this experimental work is the basis of the industry tomorrow. For example, there is a lot of work being done in labs around the world on molecular engineering of materials and new forms of production processes, and some of this new tech is starting to appear on site.

Energy is a particular focus. Solar facades and various forms of embedded collectors and sensors are, if not common, no longer outlandish. Since 2015 new buildings in France must have either a solar roof or a green roof, and the new HQs Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are building in 2016 take building design and energy efficiency to new levels. They are also installing very sophisticated building management systems. Elsewhere, sensors are being placed in structures to monitor their condition, scanning is replacing visual inspections for cracks and fatigue, and remote sensing is well underway. The scientific and technological base of the new industry today will be one driver of the development of the transformed industry of tomorrow.

The other driver of scenario three is IT and increasing digitisation. The rapid pace of development in machine learning and the rollout of the Internet of Things (IoT) will create many currently unthought of possibilities in their application to construction and the built environment. The IoT will produce a network of billions of connected objects, appliances and systems, most of which will be in buildings that will act as the nodes in the network. With major players like Cisco, Microsoft, Esri, IBM and a multitude of others pushing smart and connected cities as the big new thing, there is no shortage of ideas or possibilities. Then there is big data, with the release of huge data sets by some cities and the opportunities analytics offer.

It’s not just in the university and corporate labs and R&D facilities that new thinking is taking place. We are also seeing proposals for adventurous new buildings and structures that are at the limit of what we are currently capable, some of which may turn out to be test beds for transformational technology. Examples are the various biospheres that have been attempted, the sea-steading movement associated with Peter Theil, and Bruce Bigelow’s inflatable space modules.

It was at the first public demonstration of virtual reality (VR) headsets in 1990 that William Gibson made his now famous observation that the future is unevenly distributed1. Those early, primitive, nausea-inducing systems were clunky and expensive, but after a couple of decades of development the costs of the key components, particularly small high-res screens and sensors, had fallen to the point where consumer products were possible. The big gadget releases in 2016 are the VR headsets from Oculus, Microsoft and Samsung, and everyone from architects to zookeepers have started thinking about how this ‘new’ technology could be used.

This trajectory, where it takes two or three decades for a technology to move from the periphery to widespread adoption and use is very common. American industry did not fully switch from steam to electric power till the 1930s, the internet had been around for over 20 years before Netscape made it accessible in 1994 by allowing graphics (it had been text based). At that time, globally, there were about 600 websites and a couple of million connected computers. Amazon and Ebay launched in 1995. There are many examples, technology proceeds a step at a time as the necessary system components come together and get improved. The question is ‘What early, primitive systems around today might be the foundations of the transformed construction industry of tomorrow?’.

1 As told by Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, p.215.

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