Will Architects be Human?

May 1, 2002 · by James P. Cramer

As technology advances, our value-added will need to change dramatically.

It’s been said that much of what a design professional does today will, in the future, be done instead by computers. Of course, projecting time scenarios on these revolutionary changes varies considerably. Still, there is educated speculation that 90% of what an architect does today will be done by the computers of the future.

Technology has eliminated many of the competent processes once performed by analytical human activity. The designer’s tools have also evolved. Slide rules and T-Squares were common just a generation ago. Today’s tools are both fantastic and feared. Draftspersons have been replaced by CAD operators and, now, these once essential technicians are being replaced by more educated licensed professionals who have integrated the technical skills of CAD with the design professional’s sophisticated talent and expertise.

How much further might this evolution go? Will the above-mentioned devolution of draftsmen foretell something to be feared by licensed architects, engineers, and interior designers themselves?

At a recent DFC roundtables we discussed “avatars” (electronic images representing the architect on the computer screen) providing a form of virtual reality allowing the architect to be productive in several places (virtual worlds) at one time. These avatars could in fact represent you as the managing principal and could interact with your colleagues and clients. Today, Massachusetts-based LifeFX will provide you with your own Avatar to deliver your e-mail as face-mail (your image - talking a gesturing). Thus, your image (or an invented image representing your firm) could deliver messages with the authority and inflection that you require in certain situations. Emotion and meaning can be conveyed by images that sometimes can be difficult in e-mail form alone.

It was just five years ago that a major industry study measured the types and uses of computers as business and design tools for the creative professions. The basic questions included “Does your firm use CAD?” and “Are cell phones used by your marketing principals?” Today, no one would think of spending money on such a survey because the technology has become so pervasive, easy to use, and inexpensive, that it’s a moot point.

Just over a year ago, one of DFC sessions at Disney Imagineering showcased CAVE automatic virtual environments developed by Disney with Stanford University. Here, it was speculated that virtual reality processes that simulate buildings and interior environments before they are made would become commonplace—likely within the next five years.

With so many fantastic design tools soon to become available, what will the real human architects professional life be like in the future? What are the implications for today and tomorrow’s professionals? What safety and ethical issues need to be considered? What are the possible value propositions? How might the new supply chains work? How many human architects will be required? How much more productive will the professional firm become? Could we consistently achieve revenues per staff of over $300,000? How could the world become more beautiful as a result? More civilized? What role will you play in this exciting hyper-evolution?

Seven years ago, we published our first issue of DesignIntelligence. So much has changed since then. Today, we believe that there are new, transformational business opportunities for architects and designers and that the new shape of the marketplace for professional services will increase substantially and globally. There are business opportunities ahead for creative talent willing to embrace and help shape change itself. All of this will unfold faster than ever-and hopefully with your talent engaged for the better as well. Thus, our Design Futures Council mission it seems—is more critical than ever.

—James P. Cramer

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