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James Austin

The cloud has come of age: now its data-sharing capabilities will change the way you work and what you produce, even in the construction industry

Cloud design for offices? How the preferences of workers were turned into an algorithm for design at Autodesk's office, designed by The Living. The diagrams show adjacency preference, work style preferences, buzz/productivity, day and views to outside.
Cloud design for offices? How the preferences of workers were turned into an algorithm for design at Autodesk's office, designed by The Living. The diagrams show adjacency preference, work style preferences, buzz/productivity, day and views to outside.

Construction is an industry with its boots deep in reality. Physical assets are delivered, on the whole, through physical labour. Yet all around us we hear people speaking about the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, and an exponential growth in digital data that can only be harnessed through machine learning, artificial intelligence and 'big data' wrangling. As Dale Sinclair said in his piece Digital: It's not optional, which kicked off this series on digital futures: ‘Those who embrace these new technologies will provide new ways of designing and delivering projects. Those who do not will be unable to compete.’ 

It’s a clear message, and one which has its roots in some recent history. Understanding the context of that statement provides some perspective of what it might mean for the architectural profession. Think back to 27 January 2010. On a stage in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Steve Jobs announced the first iPad. It was the realisation of his, and Apple’s, strategy to ‘put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes’. It cemented the early promise of the iPhone and more importantly perhaps the app store, and from then on it wasn’t long before ‘there was an app for everything'.

Do a little more research and you will see that when it comes to 'cloud computing' there is an uncanny convergence in timelines. Most sources agree that it was around the same time that the concept of 'the cloud' really hit the mainstream. The terminology had been around for some time, but when organisations like technology company Gartner started to realise and discuss its potential impact, things really started to move. Now the term is ubiquitous in any discussion regarding technology. For clarity here, cloud computing is any situation where you get more back than you put in – where ‘the cloud’ has done some work on your information for you.

One thing the cloud has brought us since 2010 is an ever increasing pace of change – Moore’s Law remains as true now as it was seven years ago, and that means we're moving exponentially faster now. The cloud has proved to be a conduit for delivering change to businesses, removing barriers and challenging most of our accepted norms. We've all heard about the largest taxi company that owns no cars, the largest room booking business that owns no property – all of this has been made possible by the cloud. So what does it mean for the construction industry, and the architects that work in it?

Cloud computing is any situation where you get more back than you put in – where ‘the cloud’ has done some work on your information for you

Today the impact of the cloud is evident all around us. Predictive text on our phones, ordering a taxi from Uber, and most of the information infrastructure behind our transport network. In a specific industry, such as construction, it is less evident on the surface, so what does it mean right down to individual architects? In a world where documents are still the transactional currency, Google Drive and Dropbox, for example, are common means of data transfer and management, and we are seeing an evolving landscape of cloud solutions growing into this space as businesses try to maintain a semblance of control over the amounts of data that now form the backbone of a project in the design phase. We can expect to see that space evolve quickly, as businesses seek to automate repetitive and mundane tasks and remove some of the complexity of data management. The tools we use to design are evolving rapidly too, and generative design and visual scripting languages are evident today – expect a rapid growth in that space as companies seek to move computation of a vast array of scenarios into the cloud, and augment the design process with a proliferation of options. I could probably fill this report with examples of how this might play out, but I’ll be content with breaking this down into three broad areas of change – production, consumption and ultimately opportunity.

We've seen massive disruption in how things are produced. I would argue that BIM is now mere table stakes. Businesses increasingly seek new ways to disrupt themselves, using applied technology delivered through the cloud, such as generative design and machine learning (a precursor to artificial intelligence). When design firm The Living set out to design our offices in Toronto, it surveyed incoming employees to feed an algorithm. Leveraging the cloud, 10,000 designs were generated to find the one that met the most people's needs and preferences. The way in which we produce information is changing fast.

When it comes to consuming that information, the scale of our cities and their predicted growth is unprecedented. The expansion in infrastructure required to support expected population levels is likely to overwhelm our ability to deliver it. At the other end of the spectrum, people are more connected than ever, and Gartner estimates that 8.4 billion 'things' are now connected via the cloud. And in the space between these extremes, the cloud is powering innovative design. In Rotterdam, a community that wanted to invest in its infrastructure because the local authority would not used the cloud to crowdfund a piece of local infrastructure and opened the door to a new era of localism, one where designer, contractor and community will be far more tightly coupled at all levels – finance, design, construction and maintenance. And one in which digital technology will increasingly be the common currency.

It's easy to think of the cloud in this context as a threat. But as someone who makes cloud software I have a different perspective. As we move past digitisation, the process of changing from analogue to digital form, and into digitalisation – where we use digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value producing activities – I see a bright future for the profession. Architecture is an inherently creative discipline, and to some extent a craft that works with space and light. With Industry 4.0, our tools may change but the need for a skilled hand to guide them does not.

In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years and the pace of change is set to accelerate. The World Economic Forum says: ‘65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist’. 

This is where I see a new dynamic emerging, one where the professions and vocations of today, used to change and at ease with technology, begin to disrupt established industries such as construction. The cloud used to be a place to store things, now it’s a place where things happen. We don’t expect to get back what we put up, that’s pretty useless. It is a place for change. 

The cloud is fast becoming the infrastructure for change. As well as considering the physical impact of technology, think about how your processes and methodologies change, and how your business moves past digitisation and truly digitalises the way in which you deliver projects. How many new roles could you create for your children if you saw this as an opportunity rather than a threat? 

Architect James Austin is a product manager at Autodesk, in the BIM 360 division. He is responsible for guiding the development of the next generation of cloud based tools 


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