So much has been said and written about 2020 and the changes it forced not just on our personal lives and our society as a whole, but on our industry. 

At the start of 2021, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, we are in a more hopeful position than we were in at this time last year. We can start applying the lessons of 2020 to build a more resilient Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry this year and beyond.

The landscape in our industry and for our clients is evolving rapidly as we identify the best ways to rebuild. Now’s the time for us to look for new ways for technology to support design, innovation and operational efficiencies.

AEC businesses are already realising that being on the front foot when it comes to adapting to practical changes like social distancing and remote working is just as important as being ready to adapt to new demands from clients, regulators and the natural environment.

One: increase cloud-based collaboration

When we were all thrust out of the office and into our living rooms and kitchens during the peak of the pandemic, it immediately became clear that collaboration tools based in the cloud were the only way we were going to get anything done. 

But this is more than a passing trend or phase, given most businesses have fundamentally changed their physical work environments in favour of - or at least to accommodate - remote work.

In 2021, effective cloud-based collaboration technology is simply the price of entry for businesses in the AEC sector. If you haven’t moved your design, project management and day-to-day business management tasks into collaborative, cloud-based platforms, this should be your number one priority this year. Start with the tasks that will have the biggest impact on the way your business and teams operate to quickly see the benefits of this way of working.

Two: accelerate data-driven design

True, this isn’t entirely new to us in AEC, but this year we have even more reasons to ramp up the ways we use data in the design process. Mobility simulations, computational fluid dynamics, density planning and airflow simulations are some of the data sources that will become more relevant and more important to our work throughout 2021.

But it’s not just about data for data’s sake. A recent study from the Wharton Business School showed that although productivity remained high throughout the peak of the pandemic, innovation had stalled in many workplaces. 

Where we may previously have derived much of this innovation from face-to-face interactions with colleagues, we now have to look to other sources to spark ideas and uncover new solutions to the challenges our teams are working on. And that’s where data can play an important and exciting evolving role.

Three: better unite processes, workflows and data

2020 may well be remembered not just as the year of the pandemic, but as the year of adaptation. Our industry, in particular, has had to adapt fast and comprehensively to new safety protocols for on-site work. 

At the same time, processes, supply chains and reporting have taken on new shapes. Many of these changes have necessitated a new melding together of processes, workflows and data in ways we hadn’t imagined; a unified technology platform can help businesses master this convergence and identify unique advantages that can help address their organisation’s and clients’ challenges

Take a look at some of the technology shaping up to be a big influence this year; we can see the opportunities for technology to enable this melding in a more efficient way. 

Take the WakeCap, for example. This helmet mounted-unit streamlines on-site contact tracing processes and helps make site workflow more efficient, all while using real-time data to track and map staff movement to maximise safe distancing that doesn’t negatively impact site efficiency.

Four: automate whenever and wherever you can

Not everything we do in AEC can (or should) be automated, but this year we must shift our mindset to automate as much as we can.

Many people are concerned that automation costs jobs. However, as this analysis from McKinsey shows, there are many instances for automation to deliver value in 2021 and beyond for our industry without damaging employment opportunities and the way we use human expertise.

The main reason we must automate more is that we work in a volatile, changing environment. Projects seldom run to plan, unexpected challenges often pop up and design needs change many times throughout a project. We need our teams available to tackle these issues as they arise. If we automate repetitive, low-value tasks through the use of software, we potentially free up tens or dozens of hours a month to address issues associated with the environment we work in. 

Five: focus on sustainable, outcome-driven investment

This one is more about our industry as a whole. We have some big priorities to tackle as we take stock of the impact of the pandemic. One such priority is the increasing importance of sustainable design. We have to consider the environmental impact of what we design and build through a new lens, while thinking about how we can more efficiently deliver to broader societal objectives.

Our industry is on the frontline of literally building a better world for future generations and part of that responsibility is using public and private investment put towards the development of our built environment in more responsible ways.

Government stimulus targeted at the AEC sector in Australia and New Zealand has helped stem some of the potential losses due to the pandemic’s economic impacts. I anticipate that this year businesses will place a deliberate focus on using these funds to encourage more innovative and outcome-focused projects that leave a lasting legacy for as many people as possible.

Using technology to support us in implementing these five strategies means we already have a head start on bringing the most positive lessons of the COVID era into a more resilient AEC industry in 2021. We can own these changes and make this a year to remember for all the right reasons.

Andy Cunningham is the Regional Director of Autodesk Australia & New Zealand.

Image: Supplied