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From the Editor: Predicting the Present: Yesterday’s Future and Tomorrow’s Past

Mark Scacco on March 12, 2018 - in Articles, Column

In the classic original The Terminator movie from 1984, an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) wages war against humanity. A fierce band of human resistance fighters battles back and eventually tips the scales in favor of the humans. In a last, desperate attempt to snatch victory from defeat, the AIs hatch a plan: they would alter the future by changing the past. To do so, they send a killer robot, a “Terminator” (played perfectly by Arnold Schwarzenegger), back in time to the present day to assassinate the mother of the unborn leader of the resistance that will eventually overthrow the machines.

It’s an entertaining look at cause and effect in the context of a sci-fi action thriller. Stories about time travel, time perspective, and the interconnectedness of past and future events have intrigued me since childhood and continue to do so today.

Present Is Prologue

This time of year, you’ll find many columns and articles looking at the past by recapping the previous year or looking into the future by making predictions about the new year just beginning. But you won’t find many articles about the present, and I find this peculiar, because the present, depending on the perspective, actually occupies three places in time.

It’s obviously the present time for those experiencing it in the moment, but it’s also the future from the perspective of a week, a year or a decade ago. As the cliche office poster says, “Today is yesterday’s tomorrow.” Today, we are the future versions of ourselves as seen from the viewpoint of 12 months ago when 2017 was just starting.

Likewise, today also is tomorrow’s past. When 2018 draws to a close, we’ll be looking back on today from a similar point of view as we’re now looking back on early 2017. By stepping “out of time” and looking at the timeline (or “Gantt chart”) of our personal and professional lives, we gain a unique perspective and, arguably, a level of control that many often overlook. This is an incredibly powerful tool: like the time-travelling hero from The Terminator, our present-day selves can change the future by altering the past. The past just happens to be occuring right now. And this is perfect, because “right now” is where we can have the most impact.

Consulting Covers All Perspectives

As a technology consultant to the AEC industry, my job has two main components. I guide my clients in assessing, selecting, and implementing tools that increase efficiency and productivity on the tasks they must do today. This industry typically prefers proven tools over cutting-edge solutions, so we ask, “what are we doing now, and what tools are available to allow us to do it better?” Although we must select among many competing products that could solve the problem, this is a comparatively straightforward task.

The other component of what I do requires a bit of prognostication to recommend products and/or tools that can grow with the company and business environment in which my clients work. This is trickier than the first task, as I must constantly keep abreast of current trends and business and political climates, and then extrapolate where the tools are heading.

There’s always been somewhat of a double-edged technology sword in the AEC industry. The conservative, “wait and see” approach to implementing new tech means productivity improvement lags way behind other industries. On the flipside, it also affords us the time to examine new tech, see what sticks and what was a fad and never pans out, and then plan for implementation. This lag between technology introduction and adoption always meant that even the adoption laggards were never too far behind those on the cutting edge. This is all changing now.

Technology is changing at an an ever-increasingly rapid pace, reducing the time to evaluate, plan and implement new tools. Products that were new only two years ago now are in regular use on projects worldwide. The gap between the future and today gets shorter and shorter, and you no longer have the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach—while you wait, your competition (or a new startup) will be acting to use these tools today to outcompete you.

However, using Terminator-style thinking, we can make the tasks of prognostication more manageable. First, we must do standard planning, asking ourselves where we want to be a year, two years, in the future, and combine this plan with the current state of tech and a reasonable projection of where the tech is heading. Then, by stepping out of the timeline and looking at today as if it were a year in the past, we ask, “what do I wish myself of the past, my company of the past, had done differently so I would be where I want to be today? How could I change the ‘past’ to alter the future?”

So as the new year starts, commit to changing the future by altering your past. Imagine yourself in January 2019 and ask, “if I could go back in time one year, what would I alter in January 2018 to change my present?” Then send yourself back to right now and start making those changes. Happy traveling!

Mark Scacco

About Mark Scacco

Mark Scacco, P.E., has been an AEC industry consultant since 2001. He is the president of Scacco LLC and can be reached at mark.scacco@scaccollc.com.

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