This article explores the built environment at the eve of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, how buildings are likely to change, and the impact on both new and existing buildings, infrastructure and urban space. It also touches on the inevitable disruption of the Property, Construction and Facilities Management industries and the wider consequences and potential benefits to society at large.

This article is inspired by – and based on – an article by Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

What is the fourth industrial revolution …

The Built Environment as it exists today has evolved throughout the previous three Industrial Revolutions. The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production and power buildings. The Second used electric power to create mass production and illuminate buildings. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production and operation, heralding Building Management Systems and Building Information Modelling. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres – into a vast connected system of complex and dynamic interaction: from a room, to a building, a street, to a city, country and ultimately globally.

The possibilities created by billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are infinite. Demand, and an expectation that buildings and cities embrace and support this, is rightly to be expected. This is multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing. All of these will transform buildings, the spaces between them and the infrastructure that connects them.

We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. This will include how we use and interact with the buildings and urban spaces that comprise the Built Environment. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society. The Built Environment is essential for every aspect of all of our lives, so inevitably the Built Environment must evolve to be an integral part of the transformation.

People and the Built Environment …

All aspects of human existence in some way interact with the Built Environment. The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will undoubtedly have huge impact on how we interact with and use buildings and the spaces between, with resultant disruption on those organisations and professions that design, construction, operate and maintain them. It will also affect how they are developed, sold and leased. As technologies fuse with the very fabric of our buildings, that which is understood as ‘a building’ will blur with the activity of people and other machines that interact with it.

“There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. And the breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance.” Klaus Schwab

From Smart to autonomous, intelligent Buildings and Cities …

Construction is the long established industry underpinning the creation, redevelopment and repurposing of the Built Environment. The impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the operation of this industry will be both disruptive and profound, but even more so on how the existing (substantial) Built Environment remains relevant and keeps pace with the exponential pace of the revolution. We will very likely see new design professionals and organisations emerge – enhancing and empowering buildings and infrastructure as integral elements of an holistic connected system.

These technologies will have a direct impact on our buildings and infrastructure, as buildings become ‘service’ hubs and nodes where individuals physically interact. There is every reason to anticipate that what we know as a Smart Building or Smart City in the Third Industrial Revolution will become the autonomous building and intelligent city in the Fourth.

Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Impressive progress has been made in AI in recent years, driven by exponential increases in computing power and by the availability of vast amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our cultural interests. Digital fabrication technologies, meanwhile, are interacting with the biological world on a daily basis. Engineers and designers are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, and eventually even the buildings we inhabit.

In a subsequent post I will explore the emergent challenges and opportunities, the impact on the Construction industry and people (using the Built Environment).