At the final session of ULI’s 2015 Fall Meeting in San Francisco, veteran futurist Paul Saffo advised architects and developers to prepare for technological change by remaining as flexible as they can.
Saffo, a consulting associate professor at Stanford University and chairman of the futures track at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, cautioned against betting too heavily on assumptions about what technology will predominate in the near future, and when it will take hold. The ever-accelerating pace of change can result in innovations that supersede expected developments and change the nature of the game, he said.
In particular, Saffo warned against buying too heavily into the concept of “smart” buildings, which are equipped with vast numbers of sensors that measure everything from energy use to patterns of foot traffic in retail areas, in an effort to improve efficiency and inform management decisions.
“I would put as little intelligence into buildings as possible,” Saffo said. “There are two types of technology—the obsolete, and the technology that’s not been developed yet.”
Saffo said that he expects the proliferation of the “internet of things,” sensors, and communications systems in the built environment to continue. But he predicted “a lot of volatility” in the technology, and said that the concept of “big data” is still too new to forecast precisely how it will be used.
“The reason that we talk about big data is that we actually don’t have a lot of it, compared to what we’ll have in a few years,” he explained. In addition, “there’s still a gap between the data volumes and the sense-making tools”—that is, the analytics software for understanding the significance of the data.
When it comes to networking and communications technology, Saffo suggested that architects design buildings to be easily upgradable. Instead of embedding devices and infrastructure, “you need conduits, so that you can yank out [coaxial] cable and put in fiber.”
In preparing for the future, Saffo said that it is critical to understand the exponential pace of change, which he said most people have difficulty grasping. He cited the example of the guidance computer on the Apollo spacecraft, which used what was a state-of-the-art two-megahertz processor and two kilobytes of memory to get the astronauts to the moon and back.
“Today, your smartphone has 4 billion times the memory, and 250 times the speed of the Apollo computer,” he explained. “Your phone would have been a breakthrough supercomputer in 1988.”
Another key factor in forecasting the future, Saffo said, is that problems that face human civilization—such as overpopulation and climate change—also are growing at a similarly rapid rate. “We live in an age not just of exponential opportunities, but of exponential challenges,” he explained. “The question is, can we in our ingenuity use the positive exponentials effectively enough to overcome the effects of the negative exponentials?”
Saffo also argued that the expected transition to driverless vehicles might not provide the benefits that many predict, if people use the technology in ways that are not socially beneficial. “Rich people will have their robotic cars drive around San Francisco while they have dinner,” he envisioned. “We’ll have traffic jams of empty cars.” He also predicted that the biggest impediment to robotic cars will be the continuing presence of cars driven by people, and the difficulty of interacting with them. “What’s holding them up is not robotics and technology,” he said. “The problem is people . . . the perversity of human driving is the one thing even Google robotic cars are not smart enough to figure out.”
After his opening presentation, Saffo was joined onstage by a panel led by ULI Global CEO Patrick L. Phillips.
Dan McQuade, AECOM group president for construction services, noted that while the design business has been transformed by technology, the actual construction of buildings still employs decades-old methods and is overdue for change. He envisioned a future in which robotic drones will take the place of ironworkers on high scaffolding, and heavy equipment may be driverless as well. He envisioned resistance from politicians and organized labor, among others, because of the potential impacts on construction employment.
McQuade also said that designing buildings to have technological flexibility, as Saffo had suggested, is more difficult than it might seem. “We were thinking of bigger conduits for cable ten years ago, but now everything is wireless,” he explained. Builders, he said, know that technology will change, “but knowing what it will be is impossible.”
Michael Covarrubias, chairman and CEO of TMG Partners, said that he expects driverless vehicles to have dramatic effects across the economy. If the vehicles prevent tens of thousands of deaths in automobile accidents annually, he envisioned a powerful ripple effect from reduced insurance, health care, and repair costs. In addition, because shared robotic vehicles would require fewer parking lots, large amounts of space would be freed up to create additional housing. “It really makes the built environment a different place,” he said.