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Economic Drivers Of Past Offer Insights for Future

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By Tom Sawyer
Attendees at ENR's FutureTech conference gained a deeper appreciation of the technology shifts that are changing the character of the built world as the needs of the occupants change.
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It is axiomatic that accurate forecasting should build on an understanding of the past and, particularly, of the economic drivers that shape the way we live, work and produce, said Paul D. Saffo, a technology forecaster, in a keynote presentation at ENR's FutureTech conference in San Francisco on March 19. "

As Mark Twain wrote, history doesn't repeat itself, but it sure rhymes a lot," he said.

The goal of the conference is to discuss emerging technological shifts, trends, insights and inventions likely to have major implications for construction.

Panel topics included the construction worker of the future, current research "in the labs" and the implications of autonomous vehicles for infrastructure. Others addressed the challenges of precision construction and the potential impact of the internet of things (IOT) when the built environment has become a vast sensor network.

The event was preceded by a one-day workshop on high-performance construction to meet accelerated schedules and high building standards.

Saffo illustrated the importance of looking backward by describing how the U.S. economy went through two phases in the last 100 years. The first was the producer economy, which gave rise to assembly lines, great factories and a transportation network to support materials and product delivery.

The second, which began at the end of World War II, was a consumer economy driven by the need to support the production engine to keep the economy strong. Its signatures are shopping malls, huge houses and container cargo ships hauling products to consumers all over the world.

But Saffo holds that the consumer economy ended with the stock market crash on Nov. 20, 2008, which was a "seam" that marked the start of the "creator economy." Led by the likes of Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook and YouTube, it trades on content generated by and pushed to the user. That drives sharper marketing and planning as well as the development of crowd-sourced, problem-solving robotic cars and the embedding of sensors everywhere. "Its a Google world," Saffo says.

It is easy to find evidence of how the built environment already has been affected by these changes: the demise of shopping malls, the threat to the hotel industry posed by lodging-on-demand services such as Airbnb, and the emergence of robotic and on-demand vehicles that will create networks of ever-moving cars that need far less parking, as they will rarely sit still.

"Think about the impacts and exploit them," Saffo advised.

The keynote resonated throughout the conference. Panelist Ted Zoli, HNTB's U.S. bridge chief engineer, said on-demand cars will "completely flip" the car ownership model.

On the implications of IOT, John Tolva, president of Chicago-based Positiv-Energy Practice LLC, said the flow of "city metadata" is already an economic development aid that can identify business needs in neighborhoods, overlaid with traffic patterns and demographics.

Jason Burns, vice president and chief information officer at Hunter Roberts Construction Group, noted that Bluetooth-enabled construction devices could appear as, for example, hammers whose strokes are monitored to analyze productivity or a BIM model that can tell whether a sub has fallen behind.

"Sensors linked to the model would know," Burns said.

The challenge of meeting the future with tech-savvy workers also is within reach, advised Nicolas Bagatelos, president of Bagatelos Architectural Glass Systems.

Young workers, already adept at skills such as gaming, are hungry to employ technology at work and, if encouraged, will lift companies. "You can find them within your own organization," Bagatelos said.


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