We talk to Tom Owens, managing director (Australia) at integrated architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler on how the firm’s commitment to technology innovation and engaging solutions such as Dropbox has delivered not only productivity gains, but also enhanced creativity and collaboration with clients.

What technology has become indispensable to architects and designers these days?

As an architect and a designer, when I think of technology that I would consider indispensable, I would say anything that makes it easier to access and share information, anything that makes it possible to communicate more clearly, and anything that saves time without sacrificing quality. So, in general, design collaboration tools and file sharing tools come to mind as falling into that ‘how did we ever get by without this?’ category.

For example, it wasn’t that long ago that Building Information Modelling (BIM) was a new thing, a buzzword, and now it has basically become the new industry standard. Gensler was an early adopter of Autodesk Revit when it first came out, and it’s been our standard design platform globally across the firm for several years now. That’s because we recognised what a game-changer it was not only in terms of design production, but also in terms of communication and collaboration.

The ability to create three-dimensionally, to make and see changes instantly, and to easily access detailed building information is powerful. Another indispensable technology would be Dropbox, which we use every single day because it makes file sharing so incredibly easy.  

What technology architects and designers need the most but has not been perfected yet?

I think design and communication applications could be more seamlessly integrated and more mobile, but the tech is getting there and its definitely come a long way from where it was a few years ago. The Dropbox mobile experience is a good example. It’s super easy to access docs on the go.

Could you put a number on the increase in efficiency that technology brings and what would that number be?

It’s an interesting question. The iterative process is more efficient in many ways thanks to various technologies. Producing a set of drawings is a more efficient process today than it was even just a few years ago. And we can definitely send and receive files faster than ever before. But in terms of exact efficiencies gained, this is not something we specifically measure because it’s so multi-faceted. You’d have to get very specific about the technology and its impact on a process over a defined period of time.

In general, I suppose you can think about tech impacting the architecture and design industry in a few key areas which I’ll call “The Four C’s”: the way we Conceptualise design, the way we Collaborate with one another and with clients and other partners during a project, the way we Construct the built environment, and the way we then Connect with that built environment. We’ve already seen and will continue to see massive changes in all of these areas. The industry transformations happening thanks to VR, AR, 3D printing, file sharing, mobility tools, modular construction, IoT, data capture and analysis… I could go on. It’s an exciting time to be in the design business, for sure. 

What technology do you use at Gensler the most and why?

The most? Honestly, probably phone and email! They may not be the most advanced technologies at our disposal, but as archaic and un-innovative as they may be, I don’t know how we would get by without them.

Design is about communicating. Having a conversation, in some cases documenting it, confirming that a message has been received and understood, there’s really no way the design process could ever happen without that. As far as other technologies, though, software, in particular, Autodesk Revit, Adobe Creative Cloud and Dropbox are used daily, for sure. We also use SketchUp a lot and quite a few different rendering tools. And we do some form of VR on just about every project these days.

What technology would you like to use and why?

I would like to be able to visualise a design solution in my head and have it just appear on the page or on screen. Does that tech exist yet? In all seriousness, there is a lot of tech out there that I am eager to use. I know companies like Autodesk and Dropbox are working on different partnerships that are making various design platforms more integrated and easier to use.  Oh, and maybe the Microsoft Surface Studio, it’s pretty slick.

What is one thing when it comes to architects and designers that technology can never replace?

We have a saying in our office that “Design is a conversation,” which has a dual meaning in that  not only does the design process begin with a conversation and become an ongoing conversation, the outcome of that process, the built environment, is also conversational in its own way, in that design ‘speaks’ to us on an emotional level.

So, in that regard, I don’t think technology will ever truly replace the human aspects of the creative, storytelling process. There is something special about just having a conversation with a client, sometimes with nothing more than a pen and some trace paper, sometimes with no tools or technology at all. Maybe a with a coffee or a glass of wine, though… technology can never replace that!

In your opinion, can technology ever deliver better design?

Absolutely. Technology can certainly enable advances in the design process that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, like expediting the exploration of various possibilities and the feasibility of their application through immersive visualisation tools like VR and AR. But again, no amount of technology can make up for a lack of creativity or a lack of problem-solving ingenuity.

I’m not sure there is a technology that will ever really replace the human capacity to imagine and visualise hypothetical future scenarios, to consider seemingly endless possibilities conceptually in the mind. Technology will certainly continue to aid in the sharing and communication of ideas – and possibly even the origination of ideas, to an extent, with advances in AI and computing power – but I don’t think technology can replace human imagination or human-to-human interaction.