Architects’ work is set to be revolutionised by digital innovations such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence and the collaborative economy
Discussion of how the internet of things will change our lives has gone mainstream, earning a slot as one of Prospect magazine’s ‘big ideas’ for 2015, while the chancellor allocated £40 million from last month’s budget towards making the concept a reality.
The internet of things is often described as something of a domestic aid; smartphone apps linked to devices so your coffee machine brews a morning espresso as your alarm clock rings. But in the built environment, the vision is of sensors attached to buildings and infrastructure, connected via the internet, to give the physical world a digital nervous system that allows for far greater control.
‘If we can talk to our coffee machines, then why not talk to the buildings we use and the bridges we walk over?’ says Sakthy Selvakumaran, innovation engineer at Laing O’Rourke. ‘The internet of things will enable us to better understand and control how our buildings are performing.’
In a single building, smart technology applied to lighting, heating, water, air quality, sanitation and security systems will see them optimised in real time by computerised management tools able to process huge amounts of data from local and external sources. Smart infrastructure takes the concept even further with a vision of roads that sense when they are busy, with vehicles automatically rerouted to avoid traffic jams.
Architects have always had to adapt to how society interacts with spaces
The point of all this is to realise untapped carbon, time and labour efficiencies – essentially allowing for massive cost savings. In fact, GE Energy has calculated that if the internet of things provided an efficiency gain of a very modest one per cent in five key sectors: oil and gas, power, healthcare, aviation, and rail, this could save the world economy up to $276 billion over the next 15 years.
All this may sound futuristic, but embryonic versions of smart infrastructure do exist, such as in Cleveland, Ohio, where sensors detect when rubbish bins are full and refuse collection routes are adjusted accordingly. Meanwhile, in Christchurch, New Zealand, the wastewater system is fitted with sensors that allow city authorities to detect when and where there are overflows and leaks.
As the built environment is continuously upgraded, retrofitted and redeveloped, and as clients aim to cut long-term costs by maximising efficiency, increasing levels of digital infrastructure will be added to optimise control of individual buildings, meaning the internet of things develops organically.
The internet of things will also stimulate development in artificial intelligence (systems that ‘learn’ from experience) as it will save on labour costs by enabling smart buildings to improve performance over time. This is likely to be accompanied by an increase in the use of robots in the workplace. While commonly used for production-line roles in manufacturing, robots have gained enhanced senses through developments in machine vision, machine-to-machine communication, sensors and actuators, and will increasingly be rolled out in other sectors while replacing human labour in a growing number of service jobs.
This summer, the Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, Japan, will open as the first hotel staffed entirely by humanoid robots. Closer to home, Heathrow Airport is bringing robots into service at its new baggage facility. These changes mean architects may soon need to consider this element of the workforce in their designs.
‘Architects have always had to adapt to how society interacts with spaces, and adapting for a robotic workforce would be part of this task,’ says Selvakumaran, while adding that this needn’t make architects’ lives any more difficult. ‘It might make life easier as robots are predictable and controllable, unlike the people we currently design for,’ she says.
The internet is also leading to new economic models, with the rise of the collaborative economy mirroring the interconnectivity of social media by allowing resources to be pooled for mutual benefit.
Experts believe the resulting sharing of ideas could boost creativity
Success stories of the collaborative economy include accommodation rental broker Airbnb, valued at $10 billion last year, while the popularity of Zipcar provoked car manufacturers including Ford and BMW to create their own car-sharing schemes in order to compete.
In the construction industry, the Netherlands-based company FLOOW2 allows firms to pool equipment, conference space and even personnel, allowing rival companies to benefit from each other’s resources.
According to Inga Paterson, programme leader in digital culture at the Glasgow School of Art, the sharing of resources and talent is likely to be mirrored in architectural studios.
‘LinkedIn makes it possible for individuals to promote their specialisms independently of the companies they work for,’ she says, ‘so the scenario of independent experts moving from firm to firm according to need is highly probable.’
She adds: ‘Studio culture will still exist but in a reconfigured form, where small practices or freelance individuals share physical resources such as premises, IT infrastructure, specialist technologies and technical support.’
Some experts believe the resulting sharing of ideas could in fact boost creativity.
‘I believe that a sharing economy is essential for the creation of new ideas,’ says Nic Clear, head of the department of architecture and landscape at the University of Greenwich. ‘Reliance on the market brings none of the supposed benefits that are often claimed; markets do not foster greater innovation, competition, efficiency or equality. Only cooperation and collaboration achieve those goals.’
Although the internet of things, artificial intelligence and the collaborative economy sound like fringe ideas, increased infrastructure spending in developing countries over the next decade could drive these changes more rapidly.
‘In the emerging economies, people often leapfrogged from having no phone to having a smartphone,’ says Neill Brauders, water engineer at Mott MacDonald. ‘We are likely to see the emergence of highly skilled local workforces who have never known the struggle of 2D drawing packages, let alone the drawing board, and who will be naturally fluent in 3D virtual-reality design and software packages.’
As well as reducing the need for fast-growing economies to import architectural skills, a local workforce with digital expertise could be matched by governments keen to maximise their workforce’s skillset in order to develop cutting-edge projects, boosting the uptake of new technologies.
Changes to the profession will also be driven by players operating outside the industry, but making inroads into design, and bringing new ideas with them.
Flux, a San Francisco startup born out of Google’s secretive development arm Google[x], is developing a cloud-based collaborative platform to aid the planning and early design of built projects.
Interestingly, the new tool was developed by software engineers with no background in architecture, who engaged with people in the sector so they could develop a tool without the ‘baggage’ of established ways of working. The platform is still in its early stages, but is described by one architectural blog as able to ‘transform the construction industry’.
Whether or not it has as big an effect as this remains to be seen, but we can be sure of one thing: if Google decides to compete in architecture, it won’t be starting from where the rest of us are now.