The Failure to Fail Fast: The parametric and BIM fail in architecture.

I recently came across two quite disparate fragments of knowledge in my travels across the so called interwebs. The first was an article at e-flux, one of those curiously named architecture websites, by the eminent American architectural academic Joan Ockman. Ockman’s article, which can be found here, details the trajectories of history and theory in architectural discourse since the 90s.

Elon is really Iron Man 

The second fragment was more fleeting. This was a glimpse, as one tends to get these days when scanning and cramming your brain with your social media feeds. I saw a post in my Facebook feed about Space X.  Space X is Elon Musk’s, the Iron Man like entrepreneur, attempt to develop cheap low earth orbit rockets. In the process a few of Elon’s rockets have crashed.

As Elon says, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” This led me to a few other interweb mantras and business school type aphorisms such as: “Innovators today are told to run loose and think lean in order to fail fast and succeed sooner” and of course there is all the Lean Start-up and Lean Design thinking encapsulated in the “Fail Fast, Learn Faster, Deliver Fastest”

It was then easy to worry if I had missed something in the past few years. To worry if I missed the whole lean design movement. Had I missed another potentially career propelling and thought leading bandwagon?

The managerial ethos. 

Thankfully, Ockman’s article had a few choice quotes that helped me to think a bit more deeply. The article helped me to join the dots, in my mind, between the proponents of the lean design, fail faster, movement and the unfolding catastrophe that is the digital “revolution” in our profession of architecture. A “revolution” disguised in futuristic rhetoric that is diminishing the domain and agency of architectural practice and knowledge. Ockman writes:

“Now that capitalism is the most revolutionary force in the world, a triumphant managerial ethos has given rise to a host of new specializations laser-focused on issues of optimization, performance, and delivery.”

Citing the last issue of Assemblage, the influential (and oh-so-pedigreed) architectural journal, as a point at which political and critical theory departed from architecture, she argues that:

“Instead of history/theory today, what we now have is research. Research is the holy grail of contemporary architecture education, and the “laboratories” in which it is carried out–by white-coated architectural technicians, figuratively speaking–are its shrines. As for criticism: arguably, we now have something like “curation.” History/theory has turned into research/curation.”

In the current climate of neoliberal universities we, myself included, all prey to the idea that curation is research (but that’s probably the topic of another blog).

Productive creatives

But then, just before I got diverted into a curation-is-research reverie, there was this little gem:

“Yet in an increasingly commodified system in which architecture students are in training to become future members of a productive (and debt-ridden) class of “creatives” and, at the same time, are not shy about exercising their rights as educational consumers, the tradition of scepticism and negativity associated with critical thinking holds less and less allure.”

The need to fail

My thought linking all these interweb fragments is that the education, research and digital practices now inscribed in the global system of architecture does not allow architects to fail. It doesn’t allow us to fail quickly enough.

I don’t think Parametric design has failure built in to its processes. In the studio, once the designer is committed to a particular digital model it becomes a kind of juggernaut. Once the model’s relational geometries are loose, design is then just addition and refinement; addition and refinement in the service of optimisation.

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As architects we are not teaching our architecture students to fail. In the neoliberal university it is easier to teach the architecture students that everything is ok.  Consequently, design teaching has become focused on serial techniques and technical problem solving disguised as “productive” and waste minimising techniques. A lather of doing good for the world.

The rhetoric of techno-future 

What also bound my own disparate thoughts together is the thought that the rise of the digital in architecture and its associated rhetoric of the future has, by and large, escaped critical scrutiny. The abandonment of theory in the 90s, in the name of a post-critical position, in architecture has led to the erasure of politics in our discourse. It is worth reading through Ockman’s article to see the outline of this history.

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Both BIM and Parametric design seek to optimise and configure patterns rather than socio-material systems. In both of these architectural methods, the everyday experience of the user has been replaced by the gaze of the operator, design iteration has become the spinning of the model in the shimmering screen, experimentation has become additive rather than truly generative, collaboration is reduced to the efficient exchange of data and there is no sense that architects should learn how to fail and fast in the design process.

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Let’s face it, Parametric architects don’t care much for history and theory. Who needs it when you need a job in an office after you graduate. Who needs the politics of the everyday when you can play in the spectral sphere of the digital. As a result parametrics as a movement in architecture has done little to free architectural discourse from a global system that perpetuates: entrenched privileges of professional strata, a culture of design optimisation and design research that is techno-utilitarian rather than thought provoking.

As noted here Architects need to think more about digital disobedience.

Is BIM as good as it looks ? What Deleuze can teach us about BIM

In the Building Information Modelling (BIM) utopia representations of time are linear and easily progresses into a future where BIM enables seamless collaboration across the full gamut of design orientated disciplines. The viewpoint presented in the various BIM representations and advertising that litter the internet is often that of an eagle, or angel, freed of all earthly constraints and propelled towards a future BIM revolution. But unlike the critical theorist Walter Benjamin’s iconic image of an angel looking back on the wreckage of progress these images of BIM do not indicate a reflexivity that recognises that not every technical innovation succeeds or that technology has a social-technical dimension.

In theory, BIM project models paired with collaboration tools offer a number of significant improvements and benefits over traditional design, delivery and supply chain processes. Proponents of the BIM utopia claim that the BIM will change and be linked to augmented reality, enhance lean construction, scheduling, safety management, trade scheduling, progress measurement, design visualization and even architectural design studios.

But as some researchers have noted the BIM dream is not all it seems to be. For example the IFC’s, which are at the heart of BIM collaboration often “fails to provide complete interoperability.” 

BIM careerists, proponents and evangelicals claim that BIM is a new mode of visualization. Someone once said to me you can tell a BIM building because of the limitations of form that seem to be built into BIM software. Nonetheless, emerging from and circulating in BIM research discourse and the public domain the above claims are supported by a plethora of BIM representations. These often include strategic and operational diagrams, screenshot images and animations available in research papers, publications, reports, various how to do BIM manuals and numerous animations across the internet.

As the BIM industry has arisen as numerous, and in some ways glamorous, case studies and screenshot images are published and promoted as examples of successful BIM operation. The colours employed are seductive and colour is the key feature in numerous BIM screenshots. For example, a shimmering green is a often contrasted with yellows for services and purple. The viewpoint is often from a point looking above or below and is positioned to emphasise the layering of different systems and suggests a layered complexity constituted by the overlapping of many different small scale construction elements. With these highly seductive images it is argued that BIM can improve workflows through clash detection and management, better two dimensional drawing extraction, automated quantity take-offs, supply chain integration and facilities management integration.

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The French Philosopher Gille Deleuze’s encounter with cinema is a useful, although to some it might seem surprising, critical framework in the BIM context. Deleuze wrote two philosophical books about cinema. Deleuze saw cinema as a “new practice of images and signs, whose theory philosophy must produce as conceptual practice.” Deleuze’s concern is not a philosophical investigation of cinema’s essential nature. Unlike the proponents of BIM Deleuze did not simply proclaim cinema as a technological revolution. Rather, he was interested in interrogating the cinema for its possibilities about what it might become. Deleuze argues that cinema establishes the problems of traditional subject orientated epistemologies. Deleuze cites Henri Bergson as a philosopher who opposed a view of the world that is predicated on a static and centred viewpoint or subject. Deleuze sees in Bergson a philosophy that accounts for the early technological advances of cinema as well as anticipating its later developments. But, Deleuze also saw the cinema as constituting a language of images. Deleuze’s conception of image is something which is neither representation, secondary copy, imitation or mimesis.

These perspectives suggest that BIM research R&D should oppose a concept of BIM that privilidges linear sequences, singular perspectives and robotic notions of construction that ignore the randomness of craft.

The above considerations suggest that new methodological approaches are needed in the area of architecture and BIM R&D. If BIM is to reach it’s full potential as a tool which saves resources and allows better architectural design outcomes. Future BIM research needs recognise the power of different representational modes, stochatsic and random events, social milieu and avoid seeing a building as a simplistic digital-technical object or diagram linked to a database.

Stochastic processes which are random and are capable of using agents and swarms to predict what will happen within BIM models may reveal more than the static and mechanical models which seem to plague BIM research today. Notions of time should be seen as being multi-layered and interdependent of sequential BIM animations and screenshots. BIM models should be seen as entities which develop over time from the beginning of the design process where there is a iterative transfer of information between designers, teams, and 3D representations of buildings built in computers.

In BIM research critical theory should be employed to ensure that the architects of the future do not relinquish their canon of knowledge regarding the craft of building to mindless databases.

Architects and weird robots: Architects and Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has become a bit of a fashionable phrase to bandy about in polite conversation. As an idea it has its intellectual sources in the work of Schumpeter and of course the more recent work of Clayton Christensen whose classic book the Innovators Dilemma is a must read for all architects and even academics no matter what discipline they are from. Of course, Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction and Christensen’s work point to the economic horrors of late capitalism and the need for constant unsustainable growth. Be that as it may, understanding innovation theories, models and frameworks, is essential if  architects are to understand how technology can be managed both within and outside of the firm.

The Innovator’s Dilemma

As Christensen argues in the Innovators Dilemma firm’s are often adept at responding to evolutionary changes in their markets but they may not be capable at either initiating or managing market changes that are the result of what Christensen calls “disruptive innovation.”  Christensen defines “sustaining technologies” as innovations that make a product or service perform better in ways that customers in the market already value. In contrast “disruptive technologies create an entirely new market through the introduction of a new kind of product or service.” Christensen suggests that initially, at least, that these types of innovations may actually appear to be less effective in performance terms as judged by mainstream and traditional clients. As Christensen states “Disruptive innovations create an entirely new market through the introduction of a new kind of product or service”.

The S-Curve

Christensen’s original research was based on the technological history of the disk drive industry . This has given us a useful framework for considering how technologies evolve and this evolution is not necessarily predictable and this is why I am a technology skeptic (remember when VR studios were going to replace the face to face design studio).

The S-Curve model of technological evolution maps  product performance against time or engineering effort to effect this performance. In this model technologies follow a S-Curve pattern of improvement but there are often alternatives and other technologies that can be switched to as a technology matures and it becomes more difficult for it to achieve particular gains. This is true of most technologies but if we regard particular bundle of business processes or workflows as a technology then then the S-Curve model can be viewed in broader light.  In other words the S-Curve model may be applied to either technological components or a new technological architecture or platform or a nexus of organisational processes and technologies. I think that even cities can be regarded as and conceptualised as global technology.

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The next big thing and things 

Arguably BIM allied digital fabrication is a disruptive technology that provides the possibility that new markets and services within the construction and property industry will emerge. These new markets might include a market for 3 dimensional modelling services directly connected to digital fabrication and industrialised construction methods. The parametric design and lean construction movements have forecast and predicted that disruptive technologies will change design and construction markets. Artificial Intelligence and robotics are also emerging technologies that some pundits also see as being disruptive in the foreseeable future. Certainly the emergence of coding as a competency in architectural practices is something that is now becoming increasingly necessary. This is evident for example when one looks at the business model of Design to Production  who intercede, using coding expertise, between architectural and fabrication and installation. One future scenario is that as a result of these changes design decisions and design knowledge creation will be made directly within at  the level of new digitised supply and construction chains.

The rise of new mobile applications may also have implications for how architects work on site and relate to clients. The implication of these forecast is that this will lead to architects, who have traditionally been upstream controlling and overlooking supply chains, no longer being needed at all. To what extent all of these technologies are disruptive and to what extent they might change the market, or the way architects practice is debatable.

As Christensen’s mapping of memory technology in the disk drive industry indicates industry innovation and competition is less predictable and more chaotic than one might suppose. The next big thing or disruption may not be the next big thing. Emerging technologies or innovations may overlap or intersect and not neccesarily follow each other in lockstep.

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It may sound strange but when I look at the above diagram and the phenomena it represents I think: This is reason why it is more important to teach architecture students how to think about technology strategically rather than to teach them the technology itself. Very few architecture schools teach anything about the strategic management of IT. We can fill our architecture schools full of subjects that teach digital skills. All over the globe there is always someone on an accreditation or visiting panel who says the architecture school isn’t teaching the right things for employability or CAD monkey utility. But if that is the case, and thats all architects do,  we might as well all go home and forget about architecture as a social, cultural and political practice.

Architects and weird robots 

Some technologies and innovations will create new markets and it is in the nature of capitalism that old markets destroy old ones. Given this there are two schools of thought about the impact on architecture. Will architecture as a discipline survive and adapt to the continuing onslaught of new technologies or will it disappear as a domain of knowledge and a practice and be replaced by weird AI robots? Architects are already pretty weird. Certainly, for architects in Australia the emergence of the project managers in the 1980s with a different and associated set of skills and technologies could be regarded as a disruptive innovation. IN Project managers were able to “create an entirely new market through the introduction of a new kind of product or service.” I personally think that apps will help to create new markets for architectural services and change the way architects do their business.

Architects, both in firms and as a profession, need to scan the horizon in order to anticipate the emergence and impact of disruptive technologies within the design, property and construction industry. But overscanning the firm’s event horizon as new technologies emerge can also be a danger. Skepticism is required. Not all new technologies or innovations will be the next big thing. Architects need to distinguish between disruptive as well as sustaining, or incremental innovations or technologies.  Not all new technologies or innovations are going to be disruptive and not all incremental technologies and innovations are going to be effective. It could be year’s before the latest app, fabrication or manufacturing process or new super nanomaterial changes the market for architectural services. Similarly, the next big thing may only be the next incremental innovation rather than what its proponents and marketers claim it to be.

Given the artisanal and seemingly primitive nature of most construction processes it is all too easy to latch onto the next big technological thing and see it as being disruptive. The contrast between new technologies and the chaos of manual labour and the scatalogical nature of building sites is an easy one to be seduced by. Architects managing firms need to assess emerging technologies and decide if they either pose a potential threat to a firm’s competitive advantage or business model or if they should be part of the firms strategic infrastructure. This assessment is important if architectural firms are to decide if a new technology is simply evolutionary, in other words an incremental improvement, or in fact is disruptive. Such an assessment will also determine the kinds of alliances a firm might take up or pursue in order to remain competitive. Architects also need to understand how emerging and disruptive technologies are changing the markets and landscape in which there clients exist in.

Architects need to debate how emerging technologies will effect their traditional markets of creating and selling design knowledge. These debates need to go beyond simplistic arguments about the employability of recent graduates and what they need to learn. How might market and industry structures change and what kind of technologies will the architectural firm of the future contain? I don’t really know the answer to these questions but I do know that Architects, architectural researchers and architectural educators need to be skeptical about the next big thing.