Hurdles ahead: Uncovering future challenges faced by the AEC industry

Why Canada’s AEC industry has an imperative role to play to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges, including growing economic disparity, planetary decline, technological transformation and the increasing mistrust of institutions.

Photo by Nick van den Berg on Unsplash

Hundreds of millions more people will settle in the world’s cities in the coming decades. Artificial intelligence will continue to transform every aspect of our lives. Buildings, streets and infrastructure will be hyper-connected through technology and our digital and physical worlds will continue to blend. Climate change will have increasingly clear and dire impacts on our environment.

These once futuristic scenarios are quickly becoming all too real. Frightening as it might be living on the edge of a sci-fi movie, there is a huge opportunity for the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry to be a leader in addressing these concerns for current and future generations.

The AEC industry must be part of the change that we want to see in the world. To do this right, we need to gain a greater understanding of the future. Now more that ever, we need to find ways to balance the tensions of economic growth and environmental gain, of technological evolution and the need for greater human connection, of increasing mistrust of institutions and the need for safer workplaces that promote greater inclusivity. The world is demanding change and they are expecting it at an exponential pace.

We know we can pursue new models of collaboration, pilot new ways of integrating technology into our work, lead the way in fostering spaces that encourage diverse perspectives, and design the built environment in a way that supports environmental growth, not just economic.

But we must acknowledge that we don’t know what we don’t know. So, we need to spend more time imagining what might be. This is something our industry is often reluctant to do and that was the driving force behind an AEC Foresight Workshop that led to FuturesLab 2021, a new report outlining the biggest challenges facing our industry.

This summer, Chandos Construction and OCAD U CO—the executive innovation studio of OCAD U—brought together a diverse group of AEC industry stakeholders from across North America to think about the future: architects, insurance companies, consultants, engineers, general contractors, and more. Over 200 trends were scanned and fleshed out by over two dozen research interviews with experts in the AEC industry leading up to the collaborative event. They were narrowed down to 17 Signals of the Future.

The final report captures that conversation. It contains all the observations, recommendations, and the future scenarios the discussions were based upon. It outlines the key insights that emerged from six months of research, trend scanning and expert interviews leading, as well as the event itself.

Why do this? Things don’t generally materialize out of thin air. If you spend time looking around at things that are happening in the world, you can identify larger forces moving through business and culture and make more informed decisions. Our industry is not thinking nearly enough about this scale of issue in a critical way. By working through this type of exercise, we can build a view of what a more desirable or preferable future might look like and how we might get there.

Consider it a stress-testing activity that can pin-point strategic decisions across an organization or industry.

  • What is your climate action plan?
  • What impact does declining institutional trust have on our industry?
  • How can you foster greater diversity, equity, inclusion, and decolonization in your work?
  • How will you integrate the best of technology with human ingenuity?
  • What new opportunities and business models are emerging for your organization as the world becomes more urbanized?

This summer, destructive wildfires and droughts across the country highlighted the sense of urgency of addressing climate change. Around the world, countries, corporations, and people are picking up the call for a net-zero future. Globally, 1.5 billion people live in cities that are high risk from pollution, water shortages, extreme heat, and natural disasters. No surprise, climate change has the greatest sense of urgency for our industry to help address and respond to. Its not only important to act on, its something we can act on.

But climate change is not the only challenge we face. There are several other future scenarios, from emerging technologies to growing socio-political divides and aging populations, that will impact the AEC industry and we need to be conscious of them as part of our long-term strategic planning.

The gap between the world’s wealthiest individuals and everyone else is growing larger by the day. While high-paid jobs have returned to pre-pandemic levels, jobs for the lowest-paid workers—people earning less than $27,000 per year—are still 30 per cent below pre-pandemic levels, according to Forbes. As pressure mounts on governments to intervene and balance the scales, there is a very real potential for wealth taxes that, amongst other things, can fund large-scale public works.

Increasingly polarized views are also problematic. People are retreating into bubbles created by both traditional and social media, leading to a deepening social and political divide. One that, as many in our industry have seen, can drastically impact current and future infrastructure projects.

Our digital and physical worlds are blending, making the distinction increasingly irrelevant. Facebook’s Horizon VR’s project aims to popularize the use of virtual reality for social occasions, such as work meetings, artistic performances, and remote get-togethers. How do we plan ahead for building spaces that blend the digital and physical worlds? COVID has fast-tracked many of these scenarios, with next-generation technologies transforming anything we once did, but it is only a glimpse of what is to come.

Seeing these futuristic scenarios presented with data and insights behind them took some rather unexpected challenges and put them on the radar of things at work in our world that, if we don’t pay attention to them, you might want to. It helps us to better anticipate and understand emerging changes happening at multiple layers of society.

As these futuristic scenarios creep into our day-to-day lives, they will have a direct impact on our organizations. Companies that haven’t considered them a possibility, will be caught on their back foot. Companies with an informed, broader view of the world built into their business planning, will have the agility and ability to move accordingly when the future comes.


Markku Allison is Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Chandos Construction.

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