It was a cold morning in late January; there was no snow, but the frost had been induced again for the novelty and amusement of the city’s residents—not that he was feeling entertained or amused.

Leon was a proud but intractable man who had brought intellect, wit and wisdom to his commissions—at least by his own estimations. But that was the past. Today he was in an especially foul mood. Like a dog with a bone, he turned over in his mind the apparent injustice of it all.

ENR Construction Science Fiction ContestThe seminal moment had come in the long hot summer of 2085. He recalled it popping up in a news segment on his retinal implants, the arrival of the wretched Synthetic Design, or SynDes as the marketing boffins were already spinning it. Computers doing design? Hah, the notion was at best fanciful and frankly downright insulting. He took great task in lampooning this new development, a fad that would go the same way as so many others.

Technology had already changed the process of construction, ushering in an era of great wealth and success for contractors, derived from unprecedented levels of productivity, predictability of outcome and ultimately profitability on projects.

But design —the essence of a building that captured the intangible qualities of aspiration, expectation and experience, and married form with function in an inspirational manner? No, that was a different process altogether, one that technology could support, as a bit-part player but would never replace the role of the aesthete, dear boy—or so he opined to those who would indulge him in the circles in which he moved.

But this time things were different. Technology had already successfully moved the design process from iterative to concurrent —unleashing waves of creativity, from tapping the evolutionary process of nature in 2057 to the algorithms prescribing the movements of stars in the heavens in 2068.

Each successive development had jolted the industry, but always for the better. Designs became successively more impressive, and importantly, none of those developments had challenged his hegemony over the creative process.

What was different this time was the Empathy Engine. The process worked like this: A customer who wanted to commission a new asset would submit to a mind-probe that would capture the "esssence of expectation for that asset.

Then using technology that was nothing short of sheer wizardry, it would design the asset—optimized for constructability, cost, performance and just about any other dimension one could wish for. Even the early results were spectacular. Blind testing indicated a majority of target customers preferred the combined design-cost offering from SynDes to the more traditional methods.

Soon matters gained a momentum, as they are often apt to do with such developments. “Democratic design for all” became the chant of the public, the law-makers and all in-between. There had been those in his circle who saw the difference this time.  They had ridden the wave, been creators in the world of new algorithms, and led from the front—triangulating philosophy, psychology and physis. Many had gotten rich in the process, a few indeed became celebrities. Then there had been the hold-outs.

So here Leon was—standing on a street corner, stamping his feet to fight the effects of the synthetic frost and mulling this question: What would he do for a living in a world that’s solved world hunger, put an end to economic deprivation, can control the weather with technological incantations and long ago buried the notion that human beings are best equipped to solve complex design challenges?

The answer lay in the towering edifice across the street, or more precisely the retina-projected advertisement that loomed into view as he gazed at it, “Utopian Contractors Inc.–Hiring Now.”

Dominic Thasarathar is Autodesk’s primary thought-leader for the global construction and natural resources industries. His focus is the strategic role that information and technology can play in helping companies respond to changing markets and achieve competitive advantage. A Chartered electrical engineer based in London, he joined Autodesk in 2011 and held previous technology management roles at CH2M Hill, Bechtel and Laing O’Rourke. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Imperial College in London and is a member of The Institution of Engineering and Technology, the British Computer Society and the Energy Institute.

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