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The future’s bright – it’s digital

Dale Sinclair

Treating technological advances as add on ‘toys’ misses the point: we must embrace new ways of working

I was speaking recently at a healthcare conference where I set out how digital innovations would shape the hospital of the future. In preparing, I realized that one of the major challenges for architects is that not only is our own world and the way we design being transformed but that our clients’ worlds and ways of working are also changing.

The healthcare sector is undergoing the biggest transformation and many of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are looking at artificial intelligence in the medical world, ranging from medical imaging and diagnostics to virtual assistants, or lifestyle management and monitoring to drug discovery. In hospitals, operations using human operated robots are already under way. GPs are under pressure to increase their availability in our 24/7 society. With video consultations being trialled it is difficult to predict where the future GP will be based and how 24 hour services will be provided, and whether artificial intelligence tools with diagnostic intelligence and translation skills will supplement or even replace the GP. Change is inevitable. Chatbots are being leveraged by other government departments. Robotic assistants are available for tasks including ensuring more accessible and robust patient records or lifting patients into and out of beds. The list goes on. The point is that designing the hospital of the future will become increasingly challenging as healthcare adapts to the use of new technologies. How can we design a hospital with a life exceeding 25 years when models for care will have transformed beyond recognition?

How can we design a hospital with a life exceeding 25 years when models for care will have transformed beyond recognition?

We have to start with the design process itself. The most interesting conversations were stirred by a compelling request from a number of clinicians for the greater use of 3D technologies in the design review process. Their rationale was simple. Immersive technologies allow them to better understand our ideas and visions. These requests were timely as I have recognised recently how limiting 2D information is. Or rather I have realized how much value we can add to the design process by focusing on 3D technologies and the data inside our models.

Architects are trained to think in 3D. We commit the ideas in our head to paper in 2D to allow others to price and build them and to enable our design team colleagues and collaborators to contribute to the design process. It can be easily be forgotten that the client may not be able to covert this 2D information into a 3D representation of the proposals. To overcome this we historically produced physical models and watercolours. There has been a slow metamorphosis from these mediums towards photo-realistic renders, onto fly-throughs and we are now close to the point where virtual reality tools will allow real-time adjustments to the design as the client walks around ‘inside’ their building. These game-changing tools are being framed as add-ons or gimmicks rather than be treated seriously as the future of the design review process. Is the recent renaissance of model-making a reaction to the use of these tools?

Contractors are rapidly shifting towards information systems that enable them to view proposals using augmented reality. This allows the actual design to be viewed against what is on site, permitting an understanding of what aspects of construction will be next or determining actual v planned progress. QR codes and other tools are being leveraged to improve logistics. Drylining contractors are using VR headsets to set out head and base channels. This improves the productivity: in the architect’s studio by eliminating the need for dimensions to be overlaid on our information, and on site removing the need for the subcontractor to measure and mark these out. Also, of course, eliminating this type of manual workflow reduces the possibilities of errors or incomplete information necessitating queries from site. Other tools allow snagging items to be pinned into the model where they can be tracked and closed out. Robotics are being used for various purposes including drilling of holes in soffits for the installation of services. More use cases are under way.

Is the recent renaissance of model-making a reaction to the use of game-changing virtual reality tools?

On handover, augmented reality will become commonplace for facilities management. Crossrail has recently been espousing the value of this tool for the maintenance of its stations. Facilities management staff will be able to use digital models overlaid on the stations to locate services requiring maintenance – avoiding the need to consult drawings or other static records.

These different strands of how our digital information can be leveraged more effectively have cemented in my mind that architects should assist the acceleration of 3D tools – seriously and systemically. In their book ‘The Future of the Professions’ the Susskinds underline how difficult it is for any professional, be it a doctor, lawyer or architect, to make the transition from analogue ways of working towards digital ones. They explain that the unreasoned bias against new ways of working is a significant impediment to innovation. I certainly detect this among some older architects. They see digital tools as ‘toys’ rather than being transformative. Others hold on to physical models and 2D information rather than focus on new game-changing technologies. However, our world is already changing, as a profession we need to decide if we want to shape the design process of the future or allow others to dictate how we work. To achieve the former we must help mould the new ways of working, workflows, contracts and deliverables that will allow this to happen. Ultimately we must decide if we should face the future or the past. I know which way I’m going.

Dale Sinclair is RIBA ambassador for collaboration and technical, and a director of AECOM



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