Digital impact

Technology and its effect on all our lives won’t bypass the workplace. We need to be ready for radical change

New business models, driven by the digital era, are changing the world around us and will influence the jobs and skills required in the future. The architect’s role touches on many parties and it is essential that we understand and plan for these changes. 

In January the World Economic Forum (WEF) published ‘The Future of Jobs’. The report builds on the hypothesis that we are entering the fourth Industrial Revolution, where artificial intelligence, big data, the internet of things, robotics, nano­technology, 3D printing and many other topics will radically alter employment patterns and the skills required. This theory is solidifying and the data provides an increasingly consistent story about the new jobs landscape. 

In relation to the design professions, the report concludes that more jobs will be needed in architecture and engineering. This aligns with a recent Oxford University study that highlighted that the core roles of design professionals (architecture and engineering) were resilient to computerisation.

To underline the pace and breadth of change the report quotes one popular estimate that suggests that 65% of today’s primary school children will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist. The report is intended as a call to action and we should react to it. 

One popular estimate suggests that 65% of today’s primary school children will end up in jobs that don’t yet exist

The biggest losses in the future – office and administrative roles and management – or the biggest gains – business and financial operations – might affect society as a whole rather than the design process per se. We need to consider the second and third areas of job losses, in manufacturing and production and in construction and extraction, before the clues to the future are revealed. Do these changes define the point where construction moves to the on-site assembly of offsite manufactured components on a large scale? Will we need to reconsider radical changes to stages 4 and 5 of the RIBA Plan of Work?

A different place to work

The biggest trend affecting business models is predicted to be the ‘changing nature of work, flexible work’, which suggests that architectural practices will need to respond to a different office environment in order to grow and succeed. This trend is followed by processing power, big data and mobile internet/cloud technology. It’s harder to picture what impact these trends might have on the design process, although the proliferation of articles on virtual reality give an indication. 

The report considers the gender gaps and the importance of increased diversity in the workplace – highlighting, for example, strategies for women’s workforce integration including ‘promote work-life balance’, ‘setting targets and measure progress’ and ‘development and leadership training of women’. 

Of greatest interest to the RIBA is the section which highlights that the biggest barriers to change are insufficient understanding of disruptive changes (51%) and resource constraints (50%). These suggest that getting across the nature of likely changes and the speeds of these changes should be a core goal of the RIBA and practice leaders. 

While demand for skills such as cognitive abilities or social skills will remain high, some of requirements will differ. CPD will need to shift emphasis as whole life learning gains momentum and we discover that we all need to get upskilled and/or reskilled for this new world. Funding new learning outcomes will not be easy. Practices will need to make significant ‘leaps of faith’ to invest in upskilling their staff before the benefits have been gained. Individuals will also need to take a more proactive approach.

In summary, it is comforting to be reassured that the creative process will remain robust to computerisation, but we all need to be alert to the significant changes facing roles that wrap around the design process – and how this will alter the DNA of design and project teams. 

Dale Sinclair is director of technical practice, architecture, at Aecom