Future perfect

Maria Smith gazes into her crystal glass

Great news! I met a wise old sage at the bottom of a wine glass. She told me the future of architecture and it’s just what you’d expect. Now settle down and I’ll tell you all about it.

Just as we get thoroughly fed of up the narcissism of small differences between our practices, the digital humanities movement will reach maturity. The likes of infant-BIM and document control software will have accrued a vast digital, searchable, mappable library and testament to built-environment practice. Suitable precedent in law will be established concurrently with the requisite learning algorithms to allow a computer to read every drawing, every specification, every folder structure, every report, every fee proposal, every early warning notice, everything, everything, everything, and from it deduce how many distinct methods of practice there really are. We will not be surprised to learn that there aren’t very many, as we will be not be surprised to learn that it is processes such as methods of generation and justification that define us, and not what the end products happen to look like.

The handful of Methods defined, all built-environment practices will be disbanded and all practitioners will become free nodes in a vast network of human ­resource. Each practitioner will take psychometric tests to determine their alliance to each Method and aptitude for specific Roles. Some will qualify for several, some for none. We will be not be surprised to learn that fewer practitioners will be needed when the system is more efficient, as we will be not be surprised to learn that the future will be about not more infrastructure and more resource so much as algorithms helping us make much more efficient use of precious resources.

So PQQs, resource-draining competitions, loss leaders and speculative punts will be no more. When a client has a job requiring services, they will fill out an online questionnaire that will determine which Method and which team best suits its project. The online System will then identify the best available team and automatically invite them. The ­invited practitioners will click to accept or reject their mission. If the first chosen doesn’t accept then the System will ask the next best fit and so on. It will take into account geography and success of past projects and rapport and unfortunate sexual histories to assemble the best willing and able team for the client. The System will also ensure that younger practitioners gain the diverse experience essential for the System’s sustainability. The old ‘need the experience to get the experience’ quandary will be destroyed. 

Today’s future knows that good enough is good enough and perfect will eat itself

The System will manage projects via workflows set up for each Method. Meetings will be arranged at mutually convenient times and places and while corporeal meetings will still be preferred, AV technology will now allow a near-perfect simulacrum of actual presence. Software with delightfully intuitive interfaces will manage deadlines, offer handy checklists, and prompt upcoming tasks. Mistakes will therefore be few and the economies of scale permitted by the System will allow it to insure itself.

The workforce will be happy. Work-life balance will be appropriate. Throughout the project, practitioners will give feedback on how happy they are. Sensors on workstations will measure heart rate, pupil dilation, duration of attention span and so on. The System will build each practitioner’s career based on extensive knowledge of individual motivations and pleasures. Its power will lie in its ability to process qualitative information and, like a big digital mama, it will learn to understand and nurture us. The System will know it needs to accept our humanity for its own survival. It will therefore take ­precautions. It will throw a couple of wildcard practitioners into every team.  It will ­orchestrate drunken encounters between people it knows could comfort or learn from each other. Every now and then it will extend a deadline and send every team member some Russian literature and a stick of bubblegum. 

Today’s future has learnt from the futures of the past and will make a future that is efficient, but not utilitarian. Today’s future knows that good enough is good enough and perfect will eat itself. Today will make a future that works for us blobs of sensitive flesh propelled by unstable cocktails of hormones and atavist urges. We blobs can’t work, can’t design, can’t solve problems, can’t motivate ourselves to do anything much if we can’t distinguish ourselves just the right amount from our peers: we blobs can’t abide homogeneity, but nor can we cope with excessive differences. Today’s future will therefore create a System that will carefully breed us, marinate each of us in uniquely prescribed recipes of experience that keep us acceptably each. 

The bottom of the glass was cagey about how much this revolution would change the built-environment itself. I dare say we will not be surprised to learn that it changes both completely and very little. 

Maria Smith  is a director of architecture and engineering practice Interrobang​ and curator of Turncoats