Thursday, November 30, 2017

DIGITAL FUTURES AND BIM FOR FUN

I've been involved in a couple of events here in Dubai in the past month.  The second was a round table discussion organised by a local media house.  The article just came out and you can view it here.




It was actually quite a fun discussion. I've been thinking quite a lot recently about how fundamentally our world will change when we are able to automate construction as completely as spinning and weaving were automated at the tipping point of the industrial revolution.  Could be that we see another huge expansion of education.  The mechanisation of cloth making in the North of England in the late 1700s had a snowball effect, fast-tracking the improvement of steam power and creating the initial economic motivation for railways in the 1830s.  Demand for steel rose, driving further innovation in places like Sheffield where I lived in the 1970s as that industry was being hollowed out.  Factory production based on fossil fuel power spread rapidly across the manufacturing sector, transforming the economies of Europe and North America.

In 1803, John Soane was 50 and at the height of his powers.  He was fascinated by the new technologies that were appearing, using Argand lamps in his own house and at the Bank of England.  In the 1830s he installed steam heating systems designed by an American inventor called Perkins, once again at both the Bank and in Lincoln's Inn Fields.  But during his lifetime he needed a small army of domestic servants to maintain the lifestyle of a prominent architect.  I doubt that he would have imagined the virtual disappearance of domestic service and agricultural labour over the next century or so.  But I'm sure he would have approved of the enormous expansion of education that replaced the long hours of manual toil for children of the poor in Europe.

Imagine how a city like Dubai will change when it no longer needs to import huge numbers of semi-skilled workers man the construction, retail,  and transport sectors.  Will those human resources shift to education and leisure? Will the driving engine of our economy be a cross between a theme park and a university perhaps, I wonder.  Perhaps using BIM to explore history will be much more of a mainstream activity when we no longer need hundreds of people roaming around our building sites and when the combination of AI and robotics slims down consultancy sector also.  I touched on this topic at the BIM summit here on 1st of November during a panel discussion.



There are two current trends currently which may offer clues to the future.  Firstly the design-build-operate paradigm, and secondly the whole "theme park" phenomenon which is blossoming in the UAE.  If construction goes the way of say agriculture, we may need a fraction of the workforce to design and construct buildings of the future.  Will the big construction companies waste away? Perhaps, but maybe they will transform themselves into entities which handle the whole lifecycle of enterprises (design-build-operate)  Maybe future careers will be much more flexible.  Instead of a boring old architect, the "me of the future" might be a designer/researcher/performer. 

Those large workforces could be maintained if the mega-contractors of the future employ everyone involved in running a facility that I have called a cross between a theme park and a university.  A career trajectory could start as a tour guide, progress to a part-time involvement in facilities management, include significant time spent on education and research, move on to designing the exhibits and experiences of the future and culminate in long-term strategic planning, including the decommissioning of obsolete activities and structures.


I am reminded of "The Desert Pumpkin" scenario that I dreamed up in 2014 for Zach Kron's last Parametric Pumpkin competition.  At the time it was conceived as a tongue-in-cheek parody of Dubai's mega-project obsession, but I am starting to wonder if it might not be more prescient than I had imagined.  Think of the life story of the English working class in Soane's day: back-breaking manual work from the age of 12 or 13, perhaps 70 hours a week. Now young people commonly continue education through to their early 20s, work in office environments performing digitally enhanced tasks, and can spend roughly half of those 70 hours pursuing personal goals and interests.


Extrapolate the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution.  In a world of autonomous vehicles, on-line shopping, and automated construction where robots build from a BIM model with minimal human supervision, we might spend most of our lives doing things that we would regard today as educational and recreational activities.  What will be the role of BIM in such a world?  Right now the BIM discussion is dominated by "business speak".  It's all about Return on Investment, competitive edge, Disruptive Technologies, career progression, etc. 


I have always found this really boring.  I've been trying to promote a more expressive and exploratory, personal approach to BIM for several years now.  The response has been mixed.  Sometimes people are inspired, but sometimes I get a "this is not relevant to my job" reaction.  More recently. the topics I am proposing for overseas conferences are being declined as "too niche" or "not relevant to the regional market".  I'm not complaining.  Conference organisers are also running a business and "competitive edge" topics sell an event better than the oddball topics I am likely to propose, just because it's an area I would like to explore.  To be honest I am starting to think it's time to move on.  RTC (now BiLT) is a great community and I've really enjoyed the conferences, especially the people I've got to know, but the work I've been doing on Project Soane is starting to talk to a much broader audience. 


I love BIM geeks, but I want my "BIM pencil" to communicate to anyone who likes buildings, wants to understand them better, is fascinated by the history and culture that informs architecture.  I guess I am saying that the BIM community has become too obsessed with itself, too introspective, talking its own arcane language, losing touch with the world of designers and artists, falling in love with technology for its own sake.  Perhaps I'm just jealous of the younger generation who live for "coding" and computational complexity.


2 comments:

  1. Hi Andy,
    Good to see a renaissance man emerge in our age of uber specialization - Bravo! ... Long "live" Leonardo and Michelangelo.
    Best,
    Pierce (High desert, New Mexico)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Pierce, I guess your desert is a little different from ours, fewer camels perhaps :)

      Delete

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