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Joining the Engineering Influence podcast is Chris Luebkeman, who has been one of the foremost visionary thinkers in the engineering industry over the past couple of decades. He is currently the leader of the strategic foresight hub in the office of the president at ETH Zurich, which is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Prior to ETH, Luebkeman worked at Arup for more than 20 years leading the research and development group. And a couple of weeks ago, he participated in an expert panel hosted by the ACEC Research Institute, looking at the impact of technology on the future of engineering. Chris, thanks so much for joining us.

Luebkeman:

It's great to be here, Gerry. Thank you so much.

ACEC:

At the end of the round table, you closed with the thought that before we look ahead 20 years to where we are going, we should look back 20 years to where we were. And when I look back from today to 2000, it just reinforces my sense of how difficult it is to peer into the future. You've been doing this your entire career. How do you do it and how have you done?

Luebkeman:

I wish I had a perfect crystal ball, which I don't. I wish I had tea leaves, which would give me the future, but I do it nor do I have special smoke, which I could wave around and read the patterns. But what I try to do and I have done with my team is understand what's driving change and where those drivers can lead us.

Luebkeman:

Let me explain what I mean by that. We all feel the changes in our climate, the changes in our demographics, the political changes which we feel. These we consider are the megatrends and these megatrends we could identify for the entire world in some way. The entire world is not getting older, per se. Certain countries are getting younger like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia because of their birth rate. And other countries are getting older like Italy or Japan or Switzerland. And so the demographic change as a megatrend is something we all can recognize. But then we have to kind of start digging into the contextual manifestation of those trends. Climate change, we see this now is a megatrend, how it manifests again is quite different. And so we now see today 38 degrees Celsius in the upper tundra of Sweden, which has never, ever, ever been recorded before and starting to be able to release methane out of the frozen earth. You can start to see some sort of potential for tipping points that could then lead to cascading change.

Luebkeman:

But your question was, how do you look back to look forward? And I like looking back because I think as humans, we have reacted to our context in very different ways. If we go back 20 years to the year 2000, do you think how all of us were freaking out that our computers are going to explode and everything was going to grind to a halt? And it's interesting because this was one vector that could have taken place. And we now looking back, we kind of chuckle and say, yeah that Y2K bug, yeah, that was a funny one. But because of the anticipation, lots of systems were cleaned up. Many firms really took a good look at how their computation was working so that we could prevent this extra digit from being the problem, which we were worried about. And so we were able to take care of that.

Luebkeman:

At any point in time, we have to stand where we are and look forward. To me, this is a possibility that we have as humans. We don't know what whales dream of. We don't know what whales think of in the future. We know they have families. We know they have feelings, that their mothers love their calves just as we love our children. We know that they talk. We still hunt them and kill them, but we know that they have all of the same typologies of emotions, but we don't know how they think about the future. And this is something which we're gifted with.

Luebkeman:

We do this in a very organized way. If we have these megatrends, we can use five different lenses, the lens of society/societal change, the lens of technology/technological change, economic, environmental, and political, the so-called STEEP lenses. And what we try to do when we're thinking about them, we try to consciously say, let's imagine what some of the social changes could be, given what we see as megatrends. Given, let's say a city, a state, a nation getting younger. What does this mean as a society? If you're getting younger, you need more schools. If you're getting older, you need more doctors or more cemeteries. So you can look at that societal trend and say, this is where we could imagine. The same with technology. If we can start to imagine, as we electrify our fleet, that means we reduce engine heat. So the heat Island effect in cities will decrease, which could be a wonderful thing. The noise decreases, the pollution will decrease in the city. So that's electrification as that goes forward, but we need more electricity and so it's interesting to be able to spin out as you start to think of these different directions.

Luebkeman:

And there's always two sides to this. There's the world we want, that we hope for, and the world we might end up having or we might be afraid of. And so I think it's also important when we're thinking about the future to try to imagine both of those in, and I would say, in a non-pejorative way, I can say that I doubt if many of us want to see all of our insects dying, right? This is something that I think we could probably all agree we don't want. Now the root causes of those deaths, be it the changing temperature, be it chemicals that are getting into their ecosystem into their bodies. Those can be discussed, but we could always say so if therefore if we don't want the insects to die, what do we need to be doing. Do we need to be making sure that when we build buildings or as we evolve our cities, that we're creating more habitat for insects because we know of their critical place in our ecosystems? Or we know that just people being in nature for three minutes changes the way their neurology functions, that the brainwaves literally change when a person is in nature for three minutes. So it calms and has a positive effect. So maybe that these habitats could do multiple things.

Luebkeman:

And I know I got way off topic there, but for me, as you look back, it's also important not to look back always with rose-colored glasses and say everything was wonderful. Or everything was terrible. It's to try to be as honest as we can because history is always written by the victors. But trying to look at that time and what was really what was happening then that led to those decisions, that led to that context. So that we can try to have a better idea of the context into which we're walking, so that we can have a better idea of the way we'll be needing to make decisions or the things we'll need to be needing to make decisions about say in 5, 10, 20, 30 years, knowing that the future is fiction. It is a story which we will write, and there are things which we'll get right and things we'll get wrong. But that does not preclude the opportunity, and I would even say the obligation we have as professionals to think about it. We have a duty of care. And that duty of care for me includes thinking about what's coming and acting in that duty of care so that the next generations are inheriting a place that we would be proud of.

ACEC:

Looking at technology in the future. You gave us three words, expansion, acceleration, and consolidation. What did you mean by those?

Luebkeman:

For me, technology is not the end. It's the means. For some people, technology is the end. There are wonderful engineers, geeks, designers, product designers, people for whom tech is all about tech. For me, in our professions, technology, be it a pencil, which is a beautiful piece of technology, or artificial reality goggles, a great piece of technology, these are all means to ends. So what are those ends that we see? One, I think we're going to see an expansion of what we will be able to even model, to calculate, to investigate, to interrogate, to see the expansion of our human capability to judge to see, to explore. And this is where I get super excited, this idea that we cannot just measure heat flow, but we can perhaps begin to visualize the heat flow through a wall or through a window because we've got the way to understand all of the interaction of the material pieces and the parts; or the city and the way humans are moving through a place in space. So it's an expansion of our capabilities.

Luebkeman:

The acceleration is when we look at many of the algorithms, which are being evolved within our world and our professional world, they enable us to query a certain data set in ways that we could only dream of 20 years ago. The speed at which that we can query, query, query, query, test, test, test, test, so we can try 10 different options within a millisecond where when I was learning to be an engineer, a structural engineer 30-something years ago, plus, plus, it would have taken maybe 10 days to check all those options. And now we can do it so much faster. And I think the key here is we've got to make sure that with the acceleration, we're also still thinking critically. And I would even say that critical thinking is an even more important skillset when we can examine and do things so fast. And so we've got to really be careful again, as professionals, that we're helping the next generations understand that just because an analysis looks pretty doesn't mean it actually makes sense. It could be really done fast, but maybe it's just a bunch of junk--garbage in, garbage out.

Luebkeman:

And the last is consolidation. I think the technology, especially the toolsets, which we have--since they're expanding and accelerating our capabilities--will result in a consolidation of core knowledge groups. And if we go back to where many of the professions that are members of ACEC today. When those professions were founded in the 19th century, the 18th century, and even further back, they were founded based on the husbandry--and it was a small h--the curation of a knowledge set that required a long time to practice and to learn almost like a craft. And the rules that it took and experience it took for that one craft sort of built on the medieval guild systems.

Luebkeman:

And if I look today at a lot of these tools and a lot of the knowledge is, I would say, it's smearable in between professions. So when you're doing a finite element analysis, or you're looking at a flow of some kind of something. It could be water. It could be temperature. It could be people. Many of these skills are now able to be applied to different domains. And that, to me, this is a consolidation of sort of knowledge sets and skillsets into I believe new types of consulting groups who are able to fluidly move between domains because they're able to speak each other's language. And this is where, you go back in time, again, there's this protectionism based on language. The engineer talked about a beam and the architect talked about a beam, but they really meant two very different things. Where today, through BIM, the beam is already described with all of its different characteristics and behavior characteristics and relational characteristics. All within one package. It was consolidated into one package as we're able to interrogate in a different way. So those are, that's how I look at those three words.

ACEC:

In reference to what you're just saying, in the roundtable, you promoted the idea of cross-training of new engineering graduates, but you suggested rather than being trained in other sciences, that they perhaps be trained in philosophy or some other softer science. Is this part of what you're talking about?

Luebkeman:

Yes, absolutely. I think one of the things that we're observing more and more is the need for an individual to be not just a super, super T person with their arms super short and long legs, but have a little bit longer arms so they can reach out and understand, have a broader understanding of how to communicate across different domains. And so when you're minoring in say music, or may double major in philosophy or language, you really have to learn a different way of thinking and be open to different ways of thinking, different ways of problem-solving. So you're problem-solving how to write a poem when you're trying to be open for that or art. That's very different than trying to problem solve how you design a rebar cage or a structural system. And I think that will help us with this border crossing, which we really need to solve the complex problems that we're going to need to be solving as a society.

ACEC:

One one of the recurring themes about technology in the roundtable was accessibility. And you, for example, participated in the round table from Zurich, six or seven timezones away. You talked about not having to be at the center to have access to first-class knowledge, and to a degree, we already seem to be there, but where do you see accessibility expanding from here?

Luebkeman:

So I think this is a multifaceted question. One is the individual and what the individual can access, and it's going beyond Google. So we understand how to search and not just search with what Google slams at you, but we will be able to access the best professional knowledge. It could be through ACC. It could be through one of the other organizations, but accessing world-class first-class knowledge that you can then as a professional interpret into your local jurisdiction. One could argue you can do a lot of that today, but I think it's going to get even better with artificial intelligence. It's going to help advise you what you should be looking for. It's like, "Oh, Chris, now we see you're doing something here. You probably should look at this as well." To help me be a better professional.

Luebkeman:

And then it's up to my judgment to say, actually, I don't think that's really going to work here because of this, that, and the other thing. But that's just accessibility that is going to be pushed to me. And then there's the accessibility of a firm to knowledge and to skill sets. I believe we're going to see a rise of much smaller networks, networked professionals, so that if you needed my skillset, you'll be able to access me on an as-needed basis rather than having me full-time employed. So I do believe we're going to see more and more of the gig professional in a way that is able to transcend. And the last one, I'm not so sure about anymore, which is international accessibility. We're seeing sort of a movement globally to the re-nationalization of work. And so the international accessibility, that is a chapter, which we'll have to see what happens. But that's what I mean.

ACEC:

What does the gig professional mean for a firm? How does it change? What will a traditional engineering firm look like?

Luebkeman:

I think it truly will have a pretty profound effect. Because some of the name firms over the past 25 years were able to earn their name--and rightfully so--because they could develop their own software, they had their own R&D groups, they were able to create an internal market for access. Today's professional can access all of those on an as-needed basis. So you no longer need an R&D group behind you to have the same level of expertise. That's different than access to experience. And this is what I think of with some of these firms who want to get a bunch of young whippersnappers who are very facile and very clever with the new tools, but they don't necessarily have the wisdom to understand what's buildable, what's doable in say Georgia, or what's doable in Alaska. That the software might say it's doable, but the wise man or woman will know you can't do it in Alaska, in the six-week building period that you've got. So you have to do it another way. This is what I mean by this kind of this new type of gig access, where you no longer have to carry the overhead, but you're going to have to find the right people to help you out and be the best you can be.

ACEC:

You suggested during the roundtable that every firm should make an effort to learn about new tech, such as digital twins, and I assume other cutting edge technological advances. Why do you think acquiring that knowledge is so critical?

Luebkeman:

I'm a firm believer that in order to be a strong professional group, you need to keep up with what's happening in the profession. You don't have to, but it's just like saying you don't mind being left behind. It's like, "Yeah, I'm not going to bother." Okay, well then I think you'll have a dwindling market share. You'll become irrelevant. And to me, it's about how do you maintain relevance as a consultant? You're only viable if you're relevant and digital twins will be part of a contractual obligation more and more and more often. And more often the utilization of virtual and artificial reality or augmented reality will become more and more part of the daily expectation. In Silicon Valley, one of the largest builders is no longer a developer, but a tech firm and they require every one of their consultants and sub-consultants to be augmented reality ready? Because as the architects, they say, if you could, why would you not want to walk through your new office if you can, and be able to look at the details and talk about how you're going to build something or talk about the light and see the light change. If you could do that, why would you not? It's like saying, "Well, no, actually I do want to use my slide rule because that's what I know best." Slide rules are awesome. I used one too. You kind of had to know the answer before you even use it, but you were limited. You were limited in what you could solve. And so this is to me where this technology is. I'm not saying you have to buy in and you dive deep into it and everything that comes with it, but to least understand the opportunity that each of these new technologies is potentially bringing to you. Have somebody in your team or your group who's responsible for that and who shares at lunch-and=learns, saying, "Hey, this is what, this is what Joe blogs or Susan, or whoever is doing with digital twins in our world." Or have someone come in and give an augmented reality demo. Not to be afraid of it, but to say, okay, it's kind of cool. It might not be what I want to do with my personal practice, but in my team, someone should do it.

ACEC:

For many of us, when we look towards the future and technology, we see artificial intelligence, machine learning, accelerating, accelerating, and accelerating--the Terminator factor. Within that, where is the human engineer, the member of ACEC?

Luebkeman:

I still truly believe in the human at the center. I will continue to believe in that. Maybe I'm stubborn, but I believe that we as humans have in our brain and in our heart, something which is the intuition, which is a passion, which is a mission, which a silicon tool cannot yet imitate or emulate. That at the end of the day, it's my responsibility to make the decisions that I make for my project. And as a professional, we carry that. And I still believe we can understand the small, subtle signs and the small, subtle signals from a client and their needs that an algorithm cannot yet do. And I don't believe that in my lifetime that it'll be able to.

Luebkeman:

I love the fact that we can now do things with these tools, which we could never imagine before. Now that we can examine glare from a facade. Before it was impossible to do, but now an algorithm can help us understand if this is going to be a glary facade before it's built. I think that's great. Or test variations on how a mass transit is going to move through a city, so you have the least clash detection. Or an artificial intelligence goes through and examines a BIM model and flags the 1500 mistakes that the humans made. That's wonderful. So that we can go back and say, "Oh yeah, that's right.". So we're still at the center and I do believe that we will stay there as long as we maintain our creative edge and our passion.

ACEC:

That's a good way to end. So we've been talking with Chris Luebkeman of ETH Zurich. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us,

Luebkeman:

Thank you so much for asking and thanks to ACEC for sponsoring this series.

 

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