A roundtable of engineering industry futurists said during a recent event the industry’s future will require more engineers, feature new technology-based best practices, and result in an enhanced appreciation of infrastructure as a key component to the nation’s quality of life.
“The Impact of Technology on Engineering” was the first in a three-part roundtable series sponsored by the ACEC Research Institute. It featured four industry leaders eyeing respective crystal balls to forecast needs and characteristics of the future engineering industry.
Panelists included Jose Luis Blanco, partner, McKinsey & Company; Mike Haley, Vice President of Research, Autodesk; Chris Luebkeman, Director Strategic Foresight, Office of the president, ETH Zurich; and Heather Wishart-Smith, Senior Vice President, Technology and Innovation, Jacobs. Joseph Bates, ACEC Research Institute, was moderator.
Roundtable topics included near-and long-term impacts of new technology; future changes in industry culture and practice; and the need for adapting to and retaining new engineering graduates. The panel acknowledged that specific new technologies, such as virtual reality, data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, will play critical roles in the industry going forward.
Haley noted the rapid industry adoption of new technology will increase the need for more engineers. “I believe we’re going to need many more engineers as we further open up the world to all kinds of possibilities with all these new tools,” he said.
Blanco emphasized how advanced technology will enhance overall project design. “I think if we have more data, we have more transparency and then our designs are going to be much more outcome driven and we’re going to be able to provide better service to our owners.”
Wishart-Smith, however, cautioned in an industry focused on innovation, that “not all technology is innovation and not all innovation is technology,” she said. “Despite new technology, you still have to trust the people applying the technology.” She also sees a more diverse future engineering industry. “We all know study after study that shows that inclusive and diverse companies and organizations perform better. It allows us as an industry to just really cast the widest net to draw the widest possible pool of candidates. Once you achieve that critical mass of diversity, that's when you can get the most benefit from diversity of thought.”
Luebkeman believes data management advancements will particularly benefit small firms with improved efficiency and industry importance. “To me it's all about access. You previously did not have access to first-class knowledge unless you were in a center. We right now are in two different continents and seven different time zones, and yet we're all accessing each other at this moment with almost 300 other people.”
Haley added, “We're already seeing the shift of cloud adoption with people storing data in centralized locations that can be accessed from anywhere. The days of having it on the server, inside your company, and only being able to use it there, are pretty long gone for a lot of companies.”
Blanco predicted the future engineering industry will barely resemble the past. “There will be very different demographics,” he said. “The traditional roles of an engineering firm for the last 40-50 years, just won’t be there any longer. The entire industry will be much more remote.”
He added that signs of a changing industry and increasing client demand will open more opportunities. “I see all these revolutions that are happening as an opportunity to put the engineer back at the center because of so many different things that we can do to improve our society going forward,” he said, while adding that “Infrastructure will be seen as a critical part of how people live, work and play, much more than today.”
Wishart-Smith foresees another evolution of the traditional A&E firm. “I think that we're going to see very few of the traditional A&E's in place. I think that line between technology and design has already been blurred. “We've seen it with Elon Musk, the Boring Company, and Hyperloop, with pretty much with no past performance, but they've won large-scale tunneling projects. You see it with tech companies with autonomous vehicles. So that line is really becoming increasingly blurred.”
The next roundtable in the Institute’s series, “The Buildings We Live and Work In” will take place on June 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET and will address the design of commercial, residential and mixed-use buildings in the “new normal” of a post COVID-19 marketplace. Registration for this online event is free.