The Machine Age 2.0

cezanne

Cezanne’s 19th card players – waiting for progress through technology

Mechanisation and automation are two processes that have affected all our lives since the start of the industrial revolution. A new book charting the effects, ‘The Second Machine Age’ by two MIT professors is causing a real stir amongst the chattering classes worldwide. It notes an uncomfortable truth about industrial progress, sometimes technology and a better life don’t go hand in hand (at the same time). In the 19th century great gains were made in productivity in the early Victorian period but significant rises in wages and living standards only happened 40 – 50 years later.
This trend might be repeated today – we’re enduring a period of little jobs growth and no real wage rises, but automation marches on apace. How is technology changing the labour market dynamic at the moment? Recently the CITB forecast that 182,000 new construction jobs would be created by the recovery expected over the next five years. Within that, only 1,000 new architect jobs are needed. Is it really the case that roughly one in 200 people working on a project will be an architect in the future?  Anecdotal evidence for this is mixed – senior partners and directors in large firms tell me that BIM software is helping to reduce headcounts on individual jobs by between 50% and 66%. In contrast to this labour saving efficiency, I’m told by others that new graduates that are BIM proficient are entering the London workforce and earning £29 a hour – a surefire sign of a chronic labour shortage. For now the main conclusion you can draw is that if your BIM/CAD skills are good you won’t be a victim of what John Maynard Keynes dubbed ‘technological unemployment’ – but if you’ve steered clear of BIM software until now perhaps it’s time to start worrying.
The Second Machine Age notes that invariably when technology improves it’s the least skilled, most boring and repetitive tasks that are eliminated first. BIM is doing exactly this with its automatic inventory updates, eliminating a lot of tedious admin and cross checking. Perhaps architecture is evolving to a position where a smaller number of designers add more value and are therefore more highly paid.
Often the construction industry agonises over its lack of innovation. Working practices on site haven’t changed radically in 30/40 years and the type of buildings being delivered, especially in the housing sector, don’t change much either. There are good reasons for this – the construction industry constantly deals with the bespoke – different shaped sites, different client briefs. If you look at certain sectors such as building schools the volatility of policy means steady progress through learning and repetition is impossible.
Perhaps it’s useful to look at other sectors where physical products are tech-heavy – where innovation occurs within the context of certain constants. The aviation industry is extremely risk-averse due to a stringent safety culture. Change goes down certain paths however and the industry is abuzz due to new materials, carbon fibre composites could replace aluminium as the main exterior to passenger jets. Why is this innovation set to succeed? It costs airlines $1m for every Kg of weight during the lifetime of a plane, carbon fibre could reduce weight by 20%.
The car industry is in a similar position – there are exciting changes taking place – self-driving cars, electric or hybrid engines.

WWII England Morris Van Assembly Line

Assembling Morris Vans at Cowley in WWII – the auto industry has benefited from constant changes in production processes, benefiting from a highly-controlled environment

The automotive and aviation industries will find it easier to improve on processes as these are standardised and in a highly controlled factory environment. The construction industry doesn’t have this luxury on site, every job is different and improvised solutions aren’t shared industry-wide. In this context the progress wrought by BIM is more important as it’s not happening in parallel with other product innovation.

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