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Six trends that will define the future of design for contractors

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Technology is poised to fundamentally rewrite how we undertake design – of everything from physical structures, like buildings and bridges, to business artefacts like commercial strategies and business models. The implications for contractors will be significant, in ways far beyond the built assets they create.

The traditional design process has always been a study in compromise. Faced with a finite number of resources – be that time, money, computing power, information, or expertise – project teams have been constrained in the number of design alternatives they might pragmatically explore before committing to move forwards. Consider, for example the ‘part-science, part-art’ challenge of designing a successful estimate. In a short window of time, they’re expected to mix together hard data, like quantities, with subjective data, such as the likely levels of output for a specific sub-contractor, predict fluctuations in material prices, identify the chances of inclement weather conditions, size risk premiums, judge the right level of profit to target, and so on. How frequently does this process result in the best possible estimate – delivering a winning bid that creates the best chance of achieving that targeted profit?

If project teams had an unlimited amount of time to develop that same estimate, or accurate forecasts for every factor that impacted their costs, or a surfeit of information about site conditions – how would that change the success of their bid? Such a reality, of unconstrained design, may not be that far off, delivered by a combination of six technology trends:

 1.       Infinite computing in the cloud

Cloud computing isn’t just about data storage, social media posts and online shopping. There’s another facet to the cloud’s infrastructure that’s quietly changing how complex analytical problems are solved – the ability to rent on-demand vast amounts of processing power (a capability referred to as “Infinite Computing”). With such power, the number of design permutations that can be explored in a given time-frame is vastly increased. Project teams could potentially use this for instance, to get closer to their real-estate client whose business plan identifies an opportunity to provide 15,000m2 of high-end office space. Thousands of variations of factors could be explored: number of buildings, number of floors, size of floor-plates, energy performance, embedded carbon, programming options, and so on, to land on the lowest lifecycle cost.

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 2.       Generative design

Generative design is the use of smart algorithms that mimic nature’s approach to design. These algorithms are starting to offer a radically new approach to problem solving since they’re free of predisposed human bias towards what ‘good’ design is. Starting with the end outcome, such tools help designers to explore generations of solutions in line with how they would like to optimise (such as lowest cost, size and weight). As our built environments, and in particular, our cities, become more complex, squaring the circle of economic, social and environmental performance is going to get harder. The unbiased nature of generative design may help us identify more appropriate asset solutions. And this needn’t stop at physical assets, in the future, such algorithms could be used to solve estimating challenges. The implications for the cost and efficacy of bidding could be game-changing.

 3.       Big data and predictive analytics

Big data has been used by other sectors of the economy for some time, notably finance and retail. Now for the first time in the history of the industry, construction is starting to amass large amounts of highly structured, high-integrity information, particularly through the BIM process. That’s opening the door to a new discipline – Construction Intelligence – the ability to predict the future by mining on such data. Searching for patterns across a portfolio of projects, together with other data sources, might help a contractor identify everything from early signs of stress in a supply-chain, to the best way to optimise cash-flow, to the root-cause for over-estimation in bids.

 4.       Cloud-based collaborative working

‘Problems with collaboration’ is frequently cited as a root-cause for poor productivity and missed targets in construction. But successfully hand-shaking work-flows and transferring information in an accurate, complete and timely manner between participants is difficult when you’re attempting to navigate a myriad of commercial interfaces, working practices and physical locations. It hasn’t helped that collaboration has been restricted by both technology and practice to being asymmetrical in nature. But that’s about to change. The emergence of cloud-based, real-time collaboration environments will effectively put all project participants in one ‘virtual’ office. Opportunities for confusion, and misunderstandings should be reduced, and opportunities to connect in expertise should be increased. This is something that global construction firm, Skanska, has embraced, using the cloud to actively collaborate with its clients and design partners to solve problems virtually before they happen in the field.

 5.       Social and mobile computing

No amount of computing power will negate the need for human input in the design process – whether a forty-year old veteran of developing commercial strategies, or a specialist structural engineer for a bridge project, deep expertise and wisdom will remain invaluable. But contractors have historically faced a dilemma. Expertise costs, and when those costs aren’t borne by chargeable work, they’re eating into corporate overhead. But, as digital technology continues to shorten the physical distance between us all, it’s creating opportunities to side-step this issue. Crowd-sourcing and work-exchange hubs are already finding their place in other industries, giving rise to a more temporal workforce, with the ability to match expertise with need, regardless of physical location. This way of sourcing talent could enable contractors to access a far broader and deeper pool of expertise on-demand, at a very granular level.

 6.       Collision of the digital and physical worlds

All designs must ultimately translate into real world results – the estimate into a winning bid, the highway successfully relieving congestion, the office development returning a target profit for the owner. But no asset, physical or otherwise, exists in isolation, they all interact with the environment around them – physically, environmentally, socially or economically. As technology continues to merge the digital and physical worlds, it’s enabling project teams to design in the context of those real-world systems.

Bringing the physical world into a silicon environment via reality capture technology is providing the ultimate canvas against which to design buildings and infrastructure. Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) are pushing those designs back out to the real-world for evaluation ‘in context’ prior to committing. And between, gaming engines are supporting evaluation of how non-physical systems, like the behaviour of crowds, might impact a proposed design.

Technology is changing design, not just incrementally, but fundamentally. Spending a little time to understand the implications of this approaching new era, and identifying pragmatic ways to harness these technology trends commercially, is likely to be a prudent investment. Why? Because in addition to the potential prizes of better built asset outcomes and better business performance, we’re likely to see an accompanying disruption to the competitive landscape - and history has shown via other industries just how quickly and game-changing the impact of disruptive technology can be…

For more information, see Autodesk’sConstructing with the Power of Digital” manifesto.

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