Transformation – disruption and the future

Sep 16, 2019
  • Article by Ninotschka Titchkosky

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another. In its scale, scope and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.” — Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum

We live in a time of great promise and great peril. At the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technologies are becoming embedded in our cities and our lives, blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital, and biological spheres of our existence. This is potentially the most significant change that humanity has ever experienced. The key difference to past revolution’s is the velocity of change that is now occurring and the extent to which foundational governing, environmental and societal systems are being disrupted, including global world order. Ubiquitous technology exists beyond traditional boundaries of place and interconnects entire systems.

Caught in the day to day practice of architecture it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. There are also multiple forces within every project that hold up the red flag to the future and tell us to revert to 20th century thinking. In the next three years it will be critical to navigate around these forces and find ways to transition into 21st century paradigms for design, documentation, construction and our business models.

Unfortunately, a technology-enabled future is often represented in dystopian visions – societies where people are secondary to technology and belonging no longer matters. BVN doesn’t aspire to this vision. We need to drive the vision of the future that we want that brings together the physical, technological and biological in a way that shapes a future that maximises human well-being, strengthens identity, protects the planet and binds us through place. This is the foundational attitude at BVN about how we look to the future.

The three most critical technology advances that will impact architecture will be digital fabrication (including robotics and large format 3D printing), the digital twin linked to full sensing systems and real-time feedback and machine learning. These are further enabled with virtual reality and augmented reality. Technology advances also manifest in disruptive business models from our clients, this requires new attitudes to projects.

Prefabrication and mass timber construction are the precursors to greater advances in robotic and 3D printed fabrication. These new ways of building require new ways of designing, they afford us the possibility to move back closer to the craft of architecture and construction as we can deliver far more complexity in design that is commercially viable and deliverable. Equally, the move of interconnecting design and fabrication allows us to optimise materiality, reduce embodied carbon, explore new materials and embed performative systems.

BVN embarked on developing our robotics capabilities four years ago. We are now on our second research project; our goal is to take current conditions and demonstrate how robotics can reshape what we take as given. Our current research, Systems Reef in collaboration with UTS and USYD, is inventing a new ecosystem of services within existing commercial buildings that support dynamic, flexible workplace environments, significantly reduces embodied carbon, improves buildability and makes an aesthetic contribution to space. This project is not just about robotics; it reframes the potential of existing buildings, which makes up about 98 percent of stock in our cities, to be able to transition them into the future– a fundamental requirement, to retain tactility, richness and cultural layering in our cities. We need to move from the ‘knock down is easier’ mentality to a more sophisticated way of addressing shifts in need.

Simultaneously, we continue to advance our digital capabilities, developing more sophisticated ways of leveraging computation for design. We have developed methodologies for assessing planning constraints and improving the accuracy of outputs and possible scenarios. We have spent three years building capability in sensing and experimenting with sensing and data capture technologies that enable us to assess how our spaces are working, how they can inform the occupants and building performance, and how they feed into future design iterations. For all these projects our studio has become an important experimental lab. It enables us to test rapidly without constraint and then demonstrate to others the possibilities of new ways of doing things.

Preparing our practice for the future has been baked into our strategy. It can’t be a ‘nice to do’. Architects are traditionally a fee for service industry – we get paid to produce things. We aren’t an investment model. This is a challenge for us to shift our thinking into a more balanced view of the way we operate. The reality is you can’t always be paid to develop new ways of doing things. We need to see the longer view and understand the importance of investing into the business, whether it’s funded by the practice or other mechanisms.

Part of this consideration is understanding where to focus your attention – when there is significant change occurring, it can be difficult to clarify this. BVN has come at this in two ways. First, we identify the kinds of problems that technology can help us solve better: materials optimisation to reduce embodied carbon, how space drives creativity, reducing logistics traffic on our streets, fast tracking planning, creating smart cities or any number of other things. Then it’s important to consider the technologies that may help solve the problems. Ultimately, bringing these together will help you understand your focus areas that also play to the existing strengths of your culture, brand and practice, and of course the things you are passionate about. Importantly, you can start small. At BVN we try and set up low-cost experiments that build our understanding and help test if the idea is worthy of pursuit and more investment. We collaborate where needed to bring together our skills with others to accelerate our progress.

We have developed an approach to allowing innovation to develop through the practice. We have three tiers of innovation opportunities:

  1. Broad range of early stage ideas and incremental innovations – anyone can participate in this. Generally, it is not dedicated time, but happens within the current business as usual system.
  2. Promising mid-range ideas – these are innovations that have promise and require a level of practice buy in and investment through combination of part-time or full-time dedicated people and partnerships or materials. We put a framework around these.
  3. Big Bets – these are driven from strategic direction of the practice. They have dedicated team and agreed investment, and include things like robotics research projects, which are several years long.

We bring all these together through DIG (Digital Innovation Ground) – which is a network of those innovating in the practice that is open to everyone. Every year we have a DIG Strategy Day where everyone presents their work. We consciously respect both revolutionary and evolutionary innovations. Not everything has to be a Big Bet; small incremental advancements are equally important. This reduces the culture of ‘us and them’ and embeds an attitude of innovation across the practice. Innovation can be automating a door schedule or it can be a 3D printed structure. It should sit in all the cracks of the practice and continue to grow.

In consideration of the future of practice, first we must acknowledge that the world is changing and we must move with the change, introduce new possibilities for an optimistic future that society can embrace. If we leave this too late we will only be able to react; our collective goal should be to shape the future we want to exist and in the process collectively advocate for this with the industry, government, policy-makers and clients.

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