The fourth industrial revolution. Credit: Derek Thomson; The fourth industrial revolution. Credit: Derek Thomson;

The Fourth industrial revolution: meet the technologies reshaping the built environment

We are now in what Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum has termed the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – a revolutionary merging of the physical and digital realms. In this emerging era, Schwab foresees that combinations of information-powered and networked technologies will transform the way entire industries work. But what does this mean for the design and operation of the built environment? 

Overall, the inexorable shift from simple digitisation (the Third Industrial Revolution) to innovation based on combinations of technologies (the Fourth Industrial Revolution) is forcing companies to re-examine the way they do business. ” Professor Klaus Schwab World Economic Forum

From combination to innovation

A new Arup research publication, the ‘Emerging Technology Timeline’ examines how a cluster of emerging technologies will allow designers, architects and engineers to fully optimise the design of the built environment, taking into account the complex interplay between a building or an infrastructure asset and the wider natural, physical and digital systems in which it sits. 

Among the new technologies that will together deliver this vision are “Smart Dust” sensing equipment and future communications infrastructure supplied by Bluetooth 5.0 and 5G internet. Also on the horizon are the abilities of quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) to give us the opportunity to learn from the data captured, analyse it and make more informed decisions about the built environment. 

Combinations of these technologies are producing a highly disruptive new world of information, one which will in turn drive innovative systems-based approaches to design and engineering. ” Marcus Morrell Marcus Morrell Associate

The fourth industrial revolution. Credit: Axel Aantas Bergkvist The fourth industrial revolution. Credit: Axel Aantas Bergkvist

Quantum computing and leaps

Much of a designer and engineer’s work involves understanding the complex interplay of many different parameters. For example, designers need to explore the implications of an alteration in a structure’s design on energy use, lighting, foundations, rentable area and so on. With existing technology and techniques it is reckoned that there is a hard limit of about ten to twelve variables that can be meaningfully understood and managed at once. 

Quantum computing promises the power to tackle far more complex calculations, and at incredible speeds. These machines move beyond the ones and zeroes of traditional transistors, vastly increasing the ability to undertake large computations. Looking ahead, the computing power of an entire data centre could be contained within a single small box, enabling levels of data analysis that far exceed today’s capability. 

One useful application for advanced computational power might be to probe and better understand the more subtle implications of design choices on social and environmental domains. For example, what likely societal or ecological impacts would a hospital or school situated in one potential location have compared to another? Complex concepts such as city resilience would also benefit from advanced analytics and computational power.


A new level of control

Immense quantities of highly detailed data, thousands of connected sensors, a quantum leap in computing power, visualisation tools that put the designer in virtual worlds. All these technologies together promise to give designers and engineers true ‘systems-level’ perspective for the first time. This vastly richer level of insight means better, more sophisticated decision making for clients and a more efficient and sustainable use of the world’s precious materials. They also point to a future for design and engineering where collaborative, data-rich processes inform every choice, bringing client, engineer, user and community closer together than ever before.

Buildings that learn… and teach

We could greatly refine design thinking if we understood how buildings perform once they’re in use. Traditionally the building management systems that facilities managers rely on have been discrete technologies, often disconnected from each other and unobserved by the engineers who initially designed them. However, new ‘smart dust’ nanotechnology sensors promise the inexpensive monitoring of every aspect of a building post-occupancy. This level of embedded awareness means buildings become intelligence-driven, almost self-aware, allowing owner, designer and operator to subtly refine how an asset is used throughout its lifespan.