The major roles of the designer will be the strategic parts that cannot be automated

John Field reflects on how the challenges of urbanisation will be met in the next four decades

Looking at how the engineering of buildings and cities will develop a fair way into the future helps us prepare for and deal with the inevitable changes. One could study engineering for the extreme future of a Mad Max world – this holds plenty of morbid interest, but is not very helpful. So we avoid post-apocalyptic scenarios resulting from environmental catastrophes, wide-scale conflict or, say, runaway development of artificial super intelligence.

The built environment will be characterised by super-conurbations, some on multiple levels – and, with a reduced need to work in an office or factory, there will be extensive residential communities covering large land areas. Ambient temperatures and sea levels will be significantly higher, with the ice caps going – or gone – and more extreme weather.

Much longer active and total lifespans will accelerate the increase in population. Shortages of energy supply and the globe’s ability to handle the energy waste may have been resolved technically, to some extent, but will have been followed by more serious shortages of water, natural food and materials of all types. These will drive the circular economy, with extremely high application of the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ principles.

The march of information technology will have continued so that permanent, widespread connectivity is taken for granted; lifestyles and work practices will be changed entirely with the universal application of augmented reality to provide context-sensitive information. Commerce will be unrecognisable after the logical extension of business models exemplified by Amazon, Ocado, TripAdvisor and Uber. Likewise, leisure and social interaction will have progressed radically from Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and dating websites, not to mention Pokémon Go.

Society’s view and use of the professions will be changed greatly, with professionals’ expertise and contribution largely available from the cloud. Work, travel and leisure will converge, and there will be a blurring of buildings and communities, which will affect both urban and building design.

In a circular economy, buildings will be highly efficient in operation, taking to extreme limits the design requirements for efficiency trends of the past decades. Increased ambient temperatures and extreme weather will place further emphasis on effective design and efficient operation. Buildings will combine materials efficiency with designed-in flexibility, long life and recyclability, to reduce the mine-and-dump fraction to a few per cent of the process, or less.

Incorporation of plant life into community spaces and buildings will be highly valuable and may be the preserve of the wealthy elite – but hopefully, with enough design attention, it will be widespread or nearly universal.

Permanent connectivity will offer huge potential for feedback from building occupants and community members – integrated fully and automatically into buildings and services with what might be called adaptive ergonomics.  Similarly, building operators will have customised and analysed feedback from plant. This will all be needed to achieve the required levels of efficiency and lack of resource use.

As the professions become shaped by the online availability of customised information, advice and guidance, they will need to consolidate into fewer bodies and increase cooperation. Automated plug-and-play design will predominate and will extend into the operational phase and all parts of the life-cycle. At the design stage, products, equipment and plant will have data files that allow the great majority of design to be automated. Basic implementation work stages will be progressed by machine. This will include not just modelling of performance and behaviour, but the initial creation of the fully specified and serviced design.

The major roles of the designer will be the strategic parts that cannot be automated, and the generation of the product data interaction protocols and the data files themselves.

Then there is the possibility of cutting out the middleman – that is, one of us, as independent professionals – from the briefing-design-construction-operation cycle. In principle, the steps between the briefing stage and occupancy could be short-circuited, and an owner or developer could simply specify that a building must provide accommodation for so many occupants who give, say, 90% positive feedback, with the building using no more than a specified amount of energy.

Looking at future developments identifies big opportunities – or threats, depending on how you look at them. It is up to us to prepare for these changes in a fearless, creative and collaborative way.

John Field FCIBSE is founding director of Native-Hue and CIBSE President