jan 14  | Architect Magazine

Architecture and the Third Industrial Revolution

Thomas Fisher, Assoc. AIA

Ready for the next revolution? The profession changed dramatically thanks to mechanization and mass production, and the next massive shift will be no less disruptive. In this era of small-scale, bottom-up design, say hello to 3D-printed houses, digicities, and curriculums that teach future architects about far more than just building.

The Great Recession, in some ways, signaled the end of the Second Industrial Revolution and the beginning of what economist Jeremy Rifkin has called the “Third Industrial Revolution” in his book by the same title. This is good news for the architectural profession, which suffered greatly in the last downturn and has yet to recover fully. Industrial revolutions require the redesign of almost everything, and if our profession can cast aside some of our old practices and assumptions about what architecture entails and recognize the vast array of design opportunities that the new economy has created, we will see no end to the work we have to do.

Although Rifkin pays relative little attention to architecture in his book, his argument has profound implications for the profession’s future: how we will plan cities, design buildings, practice architecture, and educate architects. The Third Industrial Revolution “will fundamentally change every aspect of the way we work and live,” Rifkin writes. Small-scale, crowd-funded fabrication will gradually replace large-scale, capital-intensive manufacturing; nimble, networked organizations will steadily prevail over big, hierarchical companies; and the global movement of digital files will increasingly supplant the global trade of goods. If the steam engine became the iconic technology of the First Industrial Revolution and the assembly line that of the second, 3D printing may well become the icon of the third.

The field of architecture has experienced such massive economic disruptions before. The modern profession emerged during the First Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, as the mechanization of manual labor led to the need for new types of buildings, and as technology allowed us to build larger and taller. The profession as we still largely practice it today arose in the 20th century, as the mass production and consumption of the Second Industrial Revolution inspired the rise of specialized architectural firms able to mass produce big buildings, as well as star architects able to create signature structures suitable for mass media consumption.

Although the Second Industrial Revolution isn’t over yet, it has entered what Rifkin calls its “end game,” with an unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels and unsupportable levels of debt. Meanwhile, the Third Industrial Revolution has emerged at a staggering pace: Consider how quickly social media has transformed the news business, iTunes has upended the music industry, and Google has become the third most valuable company in the world in just 15 years.

Wiki Architecture
Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture’s recently announced design for the World Expo 2017 in Kazakhstan represents one of the first architectural explorations of Rifkin’s ideas. Comprising a globe-like national pavilion surrounded by streamlined structures for exhibits, meetings, and performances, the Expo will have features that Rifkin sees as “pillars” of the new economy: renewable energy, hydrogen fuels, smart grids, and electric vehicles.

Expo 2017 will broadcast the idea of a Third Industrial Revolution to an international audience. But the real impact of this revolution on architecture will happen as we shift from an economy of mass production and consumption to an economy based on mass customization. That may not seem like a threat to architecture; our field knows how to customize design to meet client needs. The challenge will come in learning how to mass customize architecture in an economy in which everyone may become a producer as well as a consumer of design.

Alastair Parvin, a U.K.-based designer, has shown how this might happen. He and his team have developed an open-source design of a small, extremely low-cost “WikiHouse” and demonstrated how ordinary people can download the file, cut out the parts on a CNC machine, and erect the rectangular, gable-roofed structure themselves, without the need of tools or construction skills. If the 20th century “democratized consumption,” Parvin says, the 21st century will “democratize production,” with mass customization efforts like his.

Think of what this might mean for cities. Most of us still inhabit the unsustainable model of the Second Industrial Revolution: living in residential areas, commuting to work in commercial districts, and buying goods often produced at a large scale in distant places. The Third Industrial Revolution may flip that equation. Consider the many software and digital fabrication companies that have sprung up in cities all over the U.S.: their staffs increasingly live, work, and make things—even grow things—all in close proximity.

Fostering such economic activity may require a rethinking of public policies that still largely support the old economy of mass production and consumption. The separation of residential, commercial, and industrial zones, for example, has become a barrier to innovation, which increasingly depends upon maximizing the interactions among diverse people and enterprises. This may, in turn, cast New Urbanism in a new light. More walkable communities and denser, mixed-use, and mixed-income neighborhoods will now have economic benefits as well as social and environmental ones.

Customizable Buildings
The Third Industrial Revolution, much like the previous two, may also lead to new kinds of buildings. Just as we separated cities in the 20th century into single-use zones, we have constructed a lot of buildings for singular purposes, full of special-use spaces. That made sense in the old economy based on disaggregation and specialization, but in the new economy—characterized by a fluidity between living, working, and making—purpose-built structures will quickly become obsolete.

To see the future, we might look at where many businesses at the vanguard of the Third Industrial Revolution have gone: to the warehouse districts of cities. They have done so not because entrepreneurs like exposed brick, but because older warehouses often have the spatial flexibility and structural capacity to accommodate a wide variety of uses. This suggests that the buildings that will thrive in the new economy will have a switchable character, with high ceilings, hefty construction, and open plans that allow people to mass customize their own space.

Developers like Artspace have shown how to do this in new and old buildings, working with architects in several cities. Their projects accommodate a wide range of creative business and artistic practices, with residential, commercial, and production activities occurring in the same building and on the same floors.

The Rise of Public-Interest
Architectural practice may also change in dramatic ways. For example, public-interest design, now a marginal practice in the profession, seems likely to grow and thrive in the Third Industrial Revolution. That stems partly from the mass customization that becomes necessary when we view the planet’s 7 billion-plus people as potential “clients.” Many of them will require extremely inexpensive, easily fabricated systems (much like Parvin’s project) that they can download and adapt to their particular needs.

But public-interest design also prompts a type of practice ideally suited to what Rifkin sees as the collaborative and distributed nature of the new economy. The need to develop low-cost, culturally appropriate solutions has led public-interest designers to form nonprofit firms like Mass Design Group, teaming with NGOs like Partners in Health. In contrast to the medical profession’s model of practice long followed by the design community—providing custom responses to individual needs—public-interest firms have begun to evolve a public-health model of practice, mass customizing architecture like the FlatPak House by Lazor Office, or the Wee House by Alchemy Architects.

Non-Invasive Architecture
Rifkin also sees companies morphing in the Third Industrial Revolution “from primary producers and distributors to aggregators,” able to “manage the multiple networks that move commerce and trade.” Architects in the Second Industrial Revolution became the primary producers and distributors of building designs. But in the Third Industrial Revolution, this specialization has started to marginalize architects, at least in the minds of many clients, who face all sorts of design problems that do not involve the construction or renovation of buildings.

While a growing human population will still need a lot of buildings, architecture firms may morph along with the rest of the business world to become more the managers of networks and aggregators of expertise, with building design becoming just one of many services. Indeed, given the expense and impact that buildings have on the planet, they may also become a solution of last resort, after architects have explored every other alternative to meet clients’ needs. And construction, when it occurs, may have to become, like modern surgery, more non-invasive and minimally disruptive, many examples of which are featured on websites like Inhabitat and PublicInterestDesign.org.

Polyculture Practices
This may, in turn, change the composition of firms. As Rifkin suggests, the Second Industrial Revolution encouraged monocultures in everything from how we grow food to how we organize businesses. While monocultures create efficiency and predictability, they also make it hard, in the case of architecture, for clients to tell the difference between one firm and another, with each offering similar services, standard practices, and—at least to some clients—indistinguishable results.

Rifkin sees the Third Industrial Revolution rewarding those who create polycultures instead of monocultures. That may lead architecture firms, long dominated by the design disciplines, to cultivate a richer and more diverse ecology of staff and consultants from a wider range of backgrounds and fields, able to embrace what Rifkin describes as the dominant value of the new economy: a “biosphere consciousness” of the impact of every decision on the planet.

Polyculture design firms have begun to emerge, like McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, which is devising new recyclable and biodegradable products, and Ideo.org, led by a designer and by an anthropologist (Patrice Martin and Jocelyn Wyatt) who strive to understand the beliefs and behavior of people in different cultures. Such firms may serve niche markets, but they also have very little competition and, in a globally connected world, a large number of potential clients.

Beyond Assembly-Line Education
The Third Industrial Revolution may have equally dramatic effects on higher education. Like the modern professions, universities have changed with the economy. The public land-grant universities of the mid-19th century responded to the needs of the First Industrial Revolution, educating students in the “mechanical arts,” and the large, research-oriented universities of the 20th century reflected the demands of the Second Industrial Revolution, molding graduates able to participate in the mass production and consumption of goods and services.

Universities, though, have struggled to adapt to the Third Industrial Revolution. Most recognize the value of interdisciplinary, collaborative education and embrace ideas like empathy and inclusivity that Rifkin views as essential in the new economy. But academic structures and accreditation standards still seem mired in the past. Academic departments, for example, represent a kind of disciplinary monoculture, and standardized curriculums remain a mass-production approach to educating students.

Likewise, accrediting bodies tend to reinforce the assumptions of the Second Industrial Revolution: the focus on building design in our accreditation standards for architecture, for instance. While architects will continue to need to know how to design and detail buildings, the accreditation process gives scant attention to the increasing demand in the Third Industrial Revolution for design thinking applied to a client’s and community’s organizational and spatial problems, which may or may not require a building.

Lateral Learning
Nevertheless, design studios offer one possible model of what education in the Third Industrial Revolution might look like. Rifkin argues that schools must create a more “distributed and collaborative educational experience,” in which student acquire not only disciplinary depth, but also interdisciplinary breadth in how to apply knowledge to the grand challenges we face.

While studio education has reflected some of the bad habits of the old economy, with overworked students pulling all-nighters and overly packed curriculums preventing them from taking many courses in other disciplines, the exploratory, synthesizing nature of the design studio seems like an ideal setting to learn the creative and collaborative skills needed in the new economy.

Deep Play
Of all the skills that architects have to offer in the Third Industrial Revolution, maybe the most important constitutes what Rifkin calls “deep play.” In the previous two revolutions, he says, “we lived to work.” In the third one, success—and happiness—will come to those who value creativity and connectivity, those who “live to play.”