/ Column / Managing the Model: You Live in the Future, Why Don’t You Work There?

Managing the Model: You Live in the Future, Why Don’t You Work There?

Mark Scacco on November 21, 2015 - in Column

At the end of summer 2015, I was at a family reunion in central Illinois. As I stood chatting with relatives in my uncle’s backyard, my brother-in-law walked up, took a golf-ball-sized speaker out of his pocket and said, “play some music.” I had never seen the device before, but within 60 seconds, my phone had paired with it via Bluetooth, and we were listening to a playlist of my favorite songs streaming from an Internet music service. I’m an admitted technophile, and I’m seldom awed by things tech-related, but this interaction gave me pause and caused me to contemplate how much of the future is already here.

Surrounded by the Future

Future tech is everywhere and examples permeate our daily lives. Long gone are the days of waiting for a holiday special to broadcast on TV, trudging to the store to buy or rent a movie, or even waiting a week for the next episode of our favorite show. Media of all types now come to us, wherever and whenever we want it.

Cars now bristle with (hidden) tech, including satellite radio, auto-pairing with our phones, clash avoidance, park assist and lane alerts. Fleets of fully self-driving cars are poised to take to the roads. Video games and CGI movie effects (becoming coupled with virtual-reality headsets) result in realistic productions limited only by the creators’ imaginations. DNA editing to change gene expression (and thus biological function) now is as easy as cutting and pasting in a word processor.

We no longer have to remember anything, because a quick (voice activated) Google search will tell us whatever fact or trivia we wish to know. The ubiquity of smartphones and all they enable us to do impacts our lives in so many ways that they fundamentally change human societies, including enabling the “Arab Spring” changes in the Middle East. Until recently, these advances were science-fiction descriptions of the future. Yet here we are, living in that future. So why don’t we work there, too?

Decades Behind

The same technology that has so dramatically changed our personal lives is certainly available for business, but its adoption in the planning, design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure is decades behind. Of course, there are many developers and manufactures creating technologically advanced tools and many firms adopting them. But this is the exception and not the norm.

Real-world use of modern modeling tech such as visualization, BIM/VDC and LiDAR (and other reality-capture tools) is no more commonplace than 2D CAD drawings and red-pencil markups. Even when modeling tech is used, it’s in baby steps and often held back by the antiquated institutional structures that place the paper plan set on an unassailable pedestal.

Progress-impeding examples are everywhere:

  • Wonderful, data-rich 3D models are “flattened” for review by governing agencies.
  • Precision surface models are created only to be “exploded” and “manually fixed” for lack of patience or technical skills.
  • Digital as-builts are delivered on DVD and then promptly placed in a file cabinet instead of being added to an ever-improving municipal model.

Is it any wonder the manufacturing (cars), aerospace (GPS satellites) and electrical/computer (brains) engineering sectors have given us self-driving cars, while the infrastructure industry struggles to prevent the roads on which they drive from crumbling?

Complicated Change

Why aren’t virtual models of infrastructure projects part of normal business best practices? I think the adoption of future tech often is the result of a driving force. The U.S. military funded the Internet and GPS, which in turn were adapted for civilian use. Foreign imports and the collapse of the U.S. manufacturing industry drove improvements in automobile and manufactured goods. Moore’s Law and consumer demand for smaller/faster/better personal gadgets drives personal electronics. Behind each of these drives is one common theme: money.

What’s the driver for the infrastructure industry? During the last decade, several times I’ve thought, “Ah, here it is!” I thought the collapse of the housing market would drive BIM/VDC adoption, allowing a smaller, leaner workforce to produce better designs (such as in the automobile industry). It didn’t.

I thought requirement by the U.S. General Services Administration (managers of the most office square footage in the United States) for all projects to “use BIM” would drive modeling adoption. It didn’t.

I thought the introduction of LEED-certified projects and the general effort to reduce environmental impacts would drive adoption. It hasn’t.

Tragically, I thought the catastrophic failure of infrastructure components and the resulting needless loss of life would finally motivate the industry to do better. Unfortunately, it has not.

I’m beginning to believe there are too many stakeholders, too many steps in the process, too many overlapping fiefdoms, and too many rules and regulations in the infrastructure industry that stand between the technology itself and the economical and profitable deployment and adoption of that tech. It’s not a problem with the tech, it’s the social and political environment into which the tech is trying to penetrate. These hurdles don’t exist in other sectors. Or in industries where there are just as many steps, like pharmaceutical/biomed, the potential for profit is worth the investment and effort.

Whatever the reason for not taking advantage of the best modeling and design tools, we as an industry need to ask ourselves, “are we doing the best we can?” If the answer is “no,” then collectively we need to find the reason why.

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About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., is a 25-year veteran of AEC technology and design consulting. He is an AEC Industry Consultant with Scacco LLC and can be reached via email at [email protected].

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