CUNY Lecture Discusses Adapting for the Future

NEW YORK — On May 15, the Beverly Wills Architecture Foundation hosted a lecture entitled A View from the Future at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Keynote Speaker Edie Weiner, president of the futurist consulting group Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., was very direct: “Change is here and we need to adapt if we want to remain relevant,” she said.

She opened by saying that several of us suffer from “educated incapacity,” which means we know too much about our field making it difficult for us to be able to see the future. Our education is our greatest asset and our greatest liability. She posed a question to the group: “Do you walk around with all the Louis Vuitton bags you have accumulated over the years or should you leave your bags on the street and run forward into the future with just a backpack?”

We all have a wealth of experience, and many of us have relied on our past experience to guide us as we go forward. But Weiner’s point is that we need to be open minded when learning: The old way may just be that heavy baggage we don’t need to carry with us.

Personally, I have experienced seasoned professionals who have done it their way for so many years that they refuse to learn a new, more-efficient way of doing things. An example is when our industry transitioned from hand drafting to using Computer Aided Design (CAD). Now we are transitioning away from two-dimensional CAD to three-dimensional Building Information Modeling (BIM). There are still firms out there using AutoCAD because they feel they are more efficient at the old way and refuse to accept the way of the future. They do not want to invest the time and resources upfront that will ultimately save time and resources.

Another interesting point made by Weiner is that we are not in a recession but in an economic transformation. This happens when disruptive technology creates efficiencies, which lessen the need for human labor. We saw this when we went from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial-based economy and then on to post industrial. The assembly line and machines took jobs away from people but created new jobs at the same time. It takes time for people to learn and be skilled at jobs that never existed before. Thus for those without jobs, it seems like a recession; but for those with the new skills, they are part of the transformation.

MaryAnne Gilmartin, executive vice president at Forest City Ratner Companies (FCRC), was another panelist who believes that modular construction will be the future. She says that even with all the technology we have, we are still building like our grandfathers. FCRC has setup a modular factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard where everything will be built in units on the ground floor. Then it will be transported about a mile away and hoisted into place. Utilizing modular construction for a 32-story residential tower in Atlantic yards, they plan on cutting the construction time by one-third and reducing construction waste by 70 percent, compared to traditional construction. Skanska will train the union workers in lean manufacturing methods by using detailed work instructions along with precision tools and templates so that the fabrication process is consistent.

Wiener also commented on studies that indicate a patient heals 10 times faster when doing something they enjoy and brought up the idea of creating future hospital rooms to incorporate virtual reality. “During and following your procedure, what if you were able to experience something you love to do?” she asked the audience.

Weiner, also a leader in change management, shared some of her thoughts on employee productivity. She emphasized that happiness has nothing to do with productivity and implored employers to stop trying to make their employees happy. “Simply treat your employees fairly, with respect and remove obstacles so that they can do their job; don’t focus your search for candidates that are intelligent because intelligence is abundant; and seek out those with good judgment because that is harder to find,” she advised.

Perhaps Weiner’s last discussion resonated with architects the most. She impressed upon the audience that, as designers, we are not only building and designing for those of us currently alive, but for those of us that are not yet born. What we build now will ultimately be used by a future generation. We need to think outside of the box and anticipate what that future generation might need. Whatever we design should be adaptable and long lasting. Innovation is sometimes a risk and we need to encourage that. We need to develop a tolerance for risk and a comfort with imperfection.

Change is here and those of us that want to be part of the transformation are adapting. Technology is changing the way we do things by giving us options. I no longer need to go to a jobsite with a roll of drawings. All the information I need is on a single portable tablet. Our resources are not limitless. I hope that as designers, we can leave behind our baggage, save some trees and develop more of a tolerance for risk — as that is the only way we will be able to design for the future.

Eileen Lee is an architect with Array Architects.