There’s a renewed interest in making things among today’s generation of students. Whether they’re training as software developers, product designers, architects or engineers, making has once again become cool, as design and science, technology engineering and mathematics courses fill and a global “innovation economy” emerges.
Training these folks has always centred on the tasks of absorbing facts, learning tools, developing analytical skills, and establishing confidence in their ability to understand and solve problems.
But after a quarter-century of teaching young architects, I find myself wondering if we’re still on the right track. The mission of architecture and engineering has certainly not changed, but the means, methods and results continue to be revolutionised, and the rate of change remains constant. We’ll stipulate that today’s architects and engineers have an arsenal of new materials, forms and systems at their disposal to create the next generation of built artifacts. But the processes they must master are changing even more radically and new skillsets are demanded as a result.
This is not another argument for the revolutionary influence of digital design, since those tools have been around for a generation or more, and tomorrow’s engineer grew up among them. But consider three aspects of how that engineer will work after graduation, with implications far beyond grasping the latest cool modeling software.
First, today’s engineers are digitally interconnected and probably dispersed, working at a distance, and communicating by means other than face-to-face. Tomorrow’s engineer has to be able to find those resources and work collaboratively and asynchronously. The collection of digital information associated with their projects – design engineering information, sensor network collection, reference databases, to name a few – mean that they must be able to organise and synthesize disparate and often incompatible piles of information into a coherent, properly engineered whole, and manage a dispersed team of the best talent that leverages all that data. This is quite a jump from the solitary designer solving a problem with diagrams and analysis software.
Second, engineered components are increasingly manufactured by a methods – 3D printing, additive manufacturing, CNC-controlled assembly, robotics – that share a reliance on originating digital design information. Tomorrow’s engineer must not only define the design but also the process by which the supply chain will deliver it – often dictating the means of fabrication to assure the proper final result.
Finally, our physical world is driven today by its digital infrastructure, the control systems that are embedded in buildings, roadways, bridges and utility systems. Design now entails creating the physical system that delivers a result as well as its “digital nervous system” that soon will include sensors, feedback loops and “machine learning.”
Common to each of these disruptions in making things is the theme of connection: connecting people, knowledge, delivery mechanisms, physical and digital things in new and innovative ways to solve the challenges of the built environment. We’ll need young professionals who can understand these connections and synthesize them into even more innovative solutions for the built environment. It’s a new definition of design, and likely to attract a new generation of connected architects and engineers.
- Phil Bernstein is vice president at Autodesk Strategic Industry Relations, and a lecturer at Yale School of Architecture