NEW YORK — On June 5, more than 250 architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professionals packed the auditorium at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York to learn how their firms can succeed in the emerging economy. Major transformations are taking place in an industry that has been slow to change, and AEC firms need to innovate; otherwise they risk becoming obsolete. Edie Weiner, president of futurist consulting group Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc., discussed these ideas in her keynote address at the breakfast forum entitled, “A View from the Future,” hosted by the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF). Following Weiner’s talk, a panel of top industry experts discussed how changing technologies are influencing the AEC industry.

The economy is evolving, altering the way we do business. “We’re not in a recession,” Weiner said, “but rather a fundamental transformation,” such as when we advanced from an industrial to a post-industrial society. The current shift is the result of new technologies, which makes our work more automated and efficient, but also eliminates jobs. This changes the landscape of labor, business and, ultimately, all of society.Weiner highlighted opportunities for AEC professionals to consider as they prepare for the future. She gave several examples of how innovations are already changing the built environment:
• Work is becoming instantaneous due to faster data transmission in all corners of the earth.
• Companies such as Google use satellites and GPS to provide information about things like microclimates, even within the same city, so companies make smarter choices about how and where to build.
• Materials embedded with nanotechnology can do unprecedented tasks, such as producing water in desert environments.
• Being green is no longer exceptional. The most innovative projects not only leave less negative impacts on the environment but also go beyond net-zero to give back to the it, such as growing trees into houses.

Following Weiner’s talk, an expert panel moderated by Jane Chmielinski, Chief Operating Officer of AECOM, discussed innovative developments in the AEC industry. Panelists included Michael De Chiara, Founding Partner, Zetlin & De Chiara LLP; MaryAnne Gilmartin, Executive Vice President and Director of Commercial & Residential Development, Forest City Ratner Companies; Dr. Jurij Paraszczak, Director of Research, Industry Solutions and Smarter Cities Program, IBM; and Ana Bertuna, AIA, Vice President of Design and Construction, Related Companies.

These experts discussed the risks and rewards of using new ideas and technologies to build both structures and infrastructures that are efficient and cost effective. De Chiara posed a vital question: How can we manage risks to encourage innovation? Gilmartin responded that risk was necessary and AEC firms must explore innovative ideas that embrace process innovation as much as product innovation in design and construction. Bertuna said her company also takes risks, but takes small steps at a time to mitigate any potential downside.

The industry needs flexible thinkers as innovation progresses in the next decade. De Chiara mentioned that as technology advances, we need to advance our methods of thinking. According to Bertuna, this includes designing more flexible buildings, so that clients can adapt their space every few years, if needed, to accommodate services that they may not yet be able to anticipate.

Panelists also talked about how technology helps the industry respond to the challenges of growing cities. They touched on the importance of research and how it engenders innovative thinking, which leads to creative solutions. Paraszczak said that by using research to examine patterns, and then automating systems, we are engineering smarter cities that work better and more efficiently, including New York City.