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Imagining the Future of AEC: Three Lessons From Industry Leaders

A group of leaders in architecture, engineering and construction from 10 countries met late last year—virtually of course--to take stock of the current environment and its implications for the future of AEC. They looked at a range of issues, from the pandemic to the social, geographic, and demographic changes that affect the industry and the way we work. Here are three key lessons from the discussion.

1. How We Plan: From Monolithic Planning to Adaptive Systems Thinking

The combination of maturing technologies, converging industries and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a spectrum of risks driven by consolidation, a changing market landscape, and overhead and capitalization costs, but it also illuminates opportunities for improving the agility of the industry.

“What we’re really talking about,” says Paul Murphy, Information Services Leader, Asia Pacific at GHD, a global professional services firm focused on the engineering, construction and architecture industries, “is bringing an adaptive systems thinking view to community infrastructure and finding ways to go from monolithic, long-term investment and planning cycles into shorter timelines of agile and adaptable planning and delivery cycles.” Scenario planning, agile methodologies, collaboration and intelligent technologies all have a role to play in designing organizations that are able to adapt to—and anticipate—changes to the business environment.

2. How We Organize: From Silos to Common Objectives and Understanding

Given the number of geographies and disciplines that AEC comprises, there are differing opinions on the type of organizational changes needed to enable resilience and innovation. Some leaders expressed that they expected to see flatter organizations in response to distributed work, while others disagreed.

“At the end of the day, culture trumps intent,” said Chris Luebkeman, Head of Strategic Foresight, Office of the President, ETH University, Zurich. “I don’t agree that we’ll only see a steady flattening of organizations; most of us need clear lines of responsibility and accountability. Hierarchy is one way to express this, and this is welcome in some cultures and challenges others. Time will tell which will triumph.”  

While organizational structures will always vary based on industry, geography, culture and other factors, the past year has further exposed critical differences in the ways different teams and disciplines think, work, and even evaluate success. Some of these process and language differences are innate to certain disciplines (design and engineering, for example), but moving to more agile ways of working will accelerate the need for better translation and communication among groups.

3. How and What We Build: From Artifact to Product

Digitalization, distributed work, financial and societal shifts are forcing AEC leaders to reconsider long-held assumptions about what and how to build. Innovations such as sensors, robotics, machine learning and predictive analytics can enable built environments to sense, predict and even self-repair essential functions, but these capabilities are critical not only to the finished product—a building, a power plant or a bridge, for example—but to the project delivery process itself.

Says Cory Dippold, Vice President and Head of Strategic Project Applications at Mott MacDonald, a global management, engineering and development consultancy, “Project delivery is equal parts planned activities and a bunch of gotchas—change of conditions, change of scope, change of people, change of economic factors—stuff that is hard to see coming that you may not have thought about until it’s sitting in your lap. And I think there’s a real opportunity to address that by using better project performance data.” To do this requires a combination of stakeholder integration, common protocols, language and data, and, of course, the technology and tools needed to enable these capabilities.

Beyond the tools, however, leaders discussed the mindset changes needed to lead AEC into the future. One participant commented that “the industry talks about disruption and innovation, but we seem to be stuck in a place where innovation means using different technology but asking for the same output.” Adopting productization strategies, in which the industry approaches building with more of a product development mindset, can bring more predictability, efficiency and insight to construction, while helping to promote sustainability goals as well. Said one symposium participant, “The industry absolutely needs to embrace industrialized methods like Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMa) and prefabrication but keep the sense of designing for human value.”

In addition to business concerns, participants also discussed societal and sustainability impacts as well. Asked one leader, “What would it look like to focus less on profit and more on prosperity? How could we articulate the value of prosperity in a compelling and consistent way? What metrics might we need?” Others focused on sustainability, both from an environmental and a business perspective. “I see environmentalism and resilience as interrelated,” said another executive. “The world is changing, and our building and infrastructure are going to respond by being stronger and more sustainable.”

More than anything else, however, AEC leaders around the world share a sense of urgency and commitment to using crisis as an opportunity for change and growth. Said Sabine Oberhuber, Co-Founder of Turntoo, a Dutch management consulting firm focused on the circular economy, “This whole time is disruptive—the economy, politics, society, the state of the planet—we have an opportunity to reinvent the system.”

For more insights from Autodesk’s AEC Futures Symposium, read the report Reimagining AEC: Leaders Look to a Post COVID-19 Future