the tech revolution and the engineering, architecture and construction industry

This article from Engineering News Record tries to answer the question of what the tech revolution means for the engineering, architecture, and construction industry.

As the world around us becomes more technology-driven and sophisticated, what will that mean for A/E/C? It’s been well-documented that the construction industry productivity gains in the past 40 years have been paltry, and that’s perhaps stating it lightly. So how can we go to IBM’s Watson for legal advice (yup, Watson will put a lot of lawyers out of business), get advanced health screening on our smartphones, obtain a master’s degree on our tablet computer, and then turn around and tolerate 20th century design and construction approaches? How can we allow technology companies to create massively personalized customer experiences, and then deal with a lack of communication and transparency on our construction projects, or dumb models (even worse, 2-D printed drawings!) with meaningless data?

We can’t. Our clients won’t. We need to embrace technology, get comfy with data, and revolutionize the client experience.

I figured the article would elaborate on the three suggestions above, but it doesn’t, really. I think our industry lags behind for a few reasons. First, we design and build things that last a long time, like highways, sewer pipes, buildings, etc. Even if the level of knowledge and technology relating to these things is increasing, they don’t get replaced very often. When individual little pieces of our transportation and water systems break, we replace them with similar or incrementally improved pieces, because it doesn’t seem to make sense to replace the whole system with something radically different all at once, even if that could be the right long-term answer. University curricula, professional groups, labor groups, institutions such as utilities and authorities, licensing and credentialing programs, and their associated lobbyists arise to resist change and perpetuate the status quo. Engineers and architects aren’t really trained in long-term planning or system thinking. There is a planning field that sort of is, but we constantly beat them down and encourage them to conform to short-term thinking so they can remain employed in our industry. In private consulting we talk about serving our clients all day long, but there is really a revolving door between private industry and public clients and not a whole lot of room for new and revolutionary thinking to enter the mix. Truly disruptive technology like self-driving cars leading to drastically reduced demand for private vehicle ownership, and drastically reduced demand for paved surfaces, could eventually push out some of the old thinking. It’s hard to imagine the water or environmental equivalent, but maybe a truly revolutionary toilet that doesn’t require a sewer system at all could be an example. Truly revolutionary building materials like cheap carbon fiber could be another.

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