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Living with the Smart City; and Making Construction Smarter

Have you noticed how the Smart City seems to have appropriated much of what used to be called urban planning? Virtually every city physical function is now a test bed for data driven approaches, often augmented with sensors and controls. All this is mediated by code. This situation squares with Marc Andreessen’s assertion that “software is eating the world.” One interesting result is that IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, etc. have become de facto purveyors of urban design and planning under the Smart City rubric. A further upshot is that metaphorical software “platforms,” public and private, if not actually replacing bricks and mortar infrastructure, have conjoined with their physical counterparts to become the backbones of urban life.

This transformation hasn’t happened overnight and it is ongoing. We can speculate with confidence that over the next couple of decades virtually every societal function and every process related to making things will be digitized, data driven and automated – or at least there will be an attempt to do so. The assumptions are that such initiatives can deliver benefits: cheaper, better, quicker, more socially equitable goods and services than their less digitally enabled urban forbearers. However, it’s likely not all Smart initiatives will deliver the goods on all counts. Privacy and security issues are major considerations, with disruptions to the labor market likely to follow. And some forays into urban automation may simply not work.

In striking juxtaposition to the powerful digital trends transforming urban systems are the conventional, non-automated methods by which cities – infrastructure and buildings – are constructed. The “Less Smart” of the title is no reflection on city builders themselves but an indication of challenges; what is it about construction that so resists automation?

There is a distinction between construction mechanization and automation. The former simply provides an assist to humans; examples are a nail gun and backhoe replacing a hammer and a shovel. Construction automation, by contrast, would imbue machines, robots essentially, with enough intelligence to act on minimal human intervention, self – assembling all or parts of buildings and systems such as roads or other infrastructure.

Why is there such a disjunct between smart city systems and seeming antediluvian methods for construction? Aside from mobile homes and manufactured housing, which are constructed in factories, and which bear some resemblance to consumer goods manufacturing, virtually all infrastructure and buildings are site built and customized. Roads and buildings aren’t cars, more or less identical and built on a stable and controllable assembly line; they must adapt to many specific geographies and physical conditions to be readily standardized like a consumer product. At the human level, construction also requires too much cognitive adaptability, dexterity and spatial mobility for workers to be easily replaced by robots. Even an unskilled laborer must be able to quickly change roles on a construction project, picking up materials, digging, moving an item, etc. Try asking a robot to do just that sort of multi tasking.

Does this situation mean that more automation is forever out of reach in construction? We think that is unlikely. Technology advances wherever there is the promise of benefits. By the way, we’re not arguing that automation in construction is inherently better than more labor intensive approaches. In fact, construction automation may be quite disruptive to the labor markets. There will be winners and losers with this industrial transformation. However, short of a future where fully autonomous robots construct roads and buildings what is a likely direction for smarter construction?

While the assembly process in construction may not yet be automated a closer look at the industry shows that a host of digital technologies illustrated below have begun converge around the process – and people – that assemble buildings and infrastructure. Many of these technologies already exist but their application may only occur in the largest, most sophisticated projects. So the act of placing and fastening building components may not be digitally determined and automated yet, but many of the processing leading up to actual assembly have been digitally implemented.

We can expect that as many such technologies become ubiquitous this will set the stage for greater degrees of automation. Then, cities may hopefully be both built a bit smarter and operate smarter, too.

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We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.