Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Quack was the term we would toss around at Burt Hill when we would look into the future and attempt to divine what was next. 

What was coming after Revit? Sure Revit is fun and exciting, but its just a tool, and there is always another coming. While the rumor is that there are software vendors attempting to pursue the market share that Revit has solidly locked into, that does not actually interest me that much, because at the end of the day the Revit ship has clearly sailed, and you're either on it or not (for whatever reason) and just as 20+ years later you can buy cheap 2D drafting knock-offs that do what Autocad did those 20+ years ago, undoubedtly the same will happen in the space of 3D modeling for AEC, there are and will continue to be multiple applications that generally do the same thing.

So if "Revit's" replacement does not really interest me (because I don't think there really will be one perse). What am I interested in? The first thing is I don't think the next big innovation will really be in what we might call the traditional "CAD (Computer Aided Design)" space. We have Autocad, we have Sketch-Up, we have Revit, and all the various permutations thereof. These tools will continue to develop and be developed, new features will come, etc, but new features are not the next big thing. Furthermore, as Phil has been writing over at Arch|Tech(1), innovation does not traditionally come from "big" companies(2), rather its small, agile companies that are able to make big moves. Yet, there are no small companies (that I'm aware of) playing in the CAD/AEC space; Autodesk, Bently, Google, Dassault, Graphisoft, are all "big" companies, so they're more likely to offer an alternative to what was the last big thing "Revit", not offer innovation beyond it. More to the point, I'm not sure what a company would offer in terms of innovation in the CAD space, a better "Revit" is not innovation, its just a better thing-a-ma-jig (so why not stick with what works, and press the owner to tidy up the strings that need to be tidied).

Secondly, I recently read a really interesting article by Clive Thompson in the most recent issue of Wired (which by the way subscribers now have free access on Ipad! Guess I need to get with the times(3)!). The thrust of his column was that most of the time innovation does not simply come out of no-where. For instance who remembers the Newton, I do (sorta)! It was a spectacular failure, but it laid the ground work for Palm, which lead to Handspring and somewhere along the way Blackberry showed up, and HP was in the fray, and it was all still generally rarefied and not ubiqitous, then what happend. Apple launched the I-Phone, and everyone sat up and said "Wow, that's cool, I want one". Yet it was all there for the taking by Apple, they simply had the vision to take and borrow from everything that came before them, throw in some good design and learn from history to create a product that quickly penetrated the market. If you look at history most "innovation" has come out of technology that has been percolating for easily 10 years or more. and someone simply came along, capitalized (innovated) and put something out there that people could not resist picking up and playing with.

Thirdly, I read this article even more recently on Forbes.com (9.2% Unemployment? Blame Microsoft) which was interesting to me in a number of ways (and simply confirmed some of my own long held beliefs). The GDP graph and statistics are right on, and have not gotten nearly enough press as its much more fun to talk about how "bad" things are, and while it does suck to be out of a job, there is hope. Reading this article comes on the heels of a recent Lunch & Learn I attended by the Co-President of Vermillion Cost Consulting, where he was pretty much saying the same thing(4). But in the full context of "Quack" what is most interesting about this article is how much it highlights computers can and are doing for us, and what they may be doing that we already take for granted; Data Management & Clouds.

Now Autodesk has been a huge proponent of clouds for the last two plus years, and you might say the cloud is Quack, but I'm with Phil, moving Revit into the cloud is still Revit, just a cloudy one... :-). More interestingly the cloud is a vehicle, a platform, access to computing power that is quite quickly becoming ubiquitous in its power and availability (Carl says so after all). This simply suggests that the next big thing in AEC is likely to start, be based or make use of the cloud (proven technology) the innovation will be in solving a problem in such an elegant, easy to use way, that you can't help but say "I want that".

So, what problem do we need to solve? One word, Data, and once again I think Phil and I are on the same page generally speaking. Phil has laid out most of the issues, but to surmise:

  • Easy to use.
  • Easy to collaborate with others.
  • Easy to get what you need, and not what you don't.
  • Realtime (or near to).

What I see is a lot of different solutions for data management, people trying many different things, exporting from Revit, tools that plug into Revit, tools that do their own thing with or with Revit, custom solutions that firms or people might learn interesting things from, but are not 100% repeatable from project to project. Show me some examples you say?

Trelligence Affinity
Revit DBlink
BIM Link
Google Sheets
Custom API tools & databases

This is just a short list, and while many of these tools are quite good, and quite useful, at the same time people are trying to use any one of (or more) of these tools to build a collaborative, coordinated data sharing workflow, and once again as Phil says, it just doesn't really work. There was a speaker at the recent RTC USA from HNTB (Alejandro Ogata) who made many good points, but one of the most critical to me was that architects for a massive GSA project have had to learn how to be Access users. While I don't have a problem with that, we should also be honest, most architects don't want to be Access users, nor should they be. What we need are easy to use tools that make data exchange simple and dare I say it fun? 

Maybe not fun, but at least seamlessly integrated with my workflow. The minute it becomes hareder, or appears to take time, the less likely it is that people will use a tool. Take NewForma for instance; great tool, hugely powerful, lots of great features, but actually talk to people using it, and you find out that most people barely scratch the surface, or at the very least don't leverage it to anywhere near its full capacity. Outside of being clumsy, the other issue with some of these tools is cost, Codebook for example doesn't work as a business model for small projects, unless you've got the big project(s) to cut your teeth on it and standardize it.

The problem I see is that as "integrated" as a Newforma might be, the end user does not see the value proposition or benefit to themselves to take the time to fully leverage it. The same is true for anything that helps to share data (of course first we need the data), it has to be easy, seamless and nearly invisible, people need to want to use the tool because they think (and hopefully are) getting something from using it. Just like the Iphone or Ipad, there were tablets and smart phones that came before, but none that made the broad consumer base say "I want to use that, because it does something for me".

To bring this full circle, why do I see seamless collaborative data sharing as the next "big thing" (Quack). Because the technologies are there and proven. Cloud technology works, no doubt about it, web based applications are here, the concept of task (or focused) apps that can be quickly downloaded and installed is here, ubiquitous data access is (almost) here, and lastly other industries have been managing large datasets for more then 10 years (take a look at all those wonderful mega banks, BoFa, Merrill Lynch, among others).

So, I don't know what the next big thing actually is, nor do I even know how its going to do it, but I think I've got a good idea of what the focus will be. Why do I think this is so important? Because the same speaker at RTC had another valid point, in the early 1900's we built XXX,XXX square feet using 8 sheets of drawings, now almost 100 years later, a project of similar scope requires the equivalent of a billion plus pieces of paper and a 1000 plus drawing sheets. Someone needs to come along and capitalize on what is sitting in front of us, and then we'll have innovation.

Have you got a Quack, a really good Quack? Cause I'm interested in talking Quack.....

Footnotes ---------------------------------------------------------------
2 - bummer for me I work @ one, ugh....
3 - Ipad or custom fit ski boots <sigh>, choices choices and they cost about the same... :-(
4 - His points; in another 5 years AEC will be busy again as we're going to be out of housing stock, which means starting now smart developers are already laying the ground work to build more, and with more housing the service industry will expand, etc, etc, etc....


Brok Howard said...

Great article. Thanks to David Light for sharing your great blog through Twitter. Your point about Newforma is true about most of the technology we are using in the field of BIM. My favorite quote in this business is, "the key to organization is retrieval" and I think data exchange has that at its roots. KISS...right.

Tucker said...

You nailed the big issues facing most firms trying to take the next BIM step with interoperability and the value proposition. Our firm struggles with these items all the time.

What good is all the data we accumulate if we cannot use in a meaningful manner later in the project? This issue gets compounded when you also have in-house databases that host more information that should be shared with a Model or other databases. Our firm has a number of databases that were never set up to exchange information, so now we are trying to evaluate if they still have a purpose. The problem is they can be so proprietary that publically available packages may not work.

One item that has helped us define the value proposition better is to stress an integrated workflow instead of pushing BIM. This means that everyone and each project stage should be responsible to provide a digital handoff. By doing this we never through away data (BOD or Programs) and we lessen the likely hood of having to re-create data.
For example: SketchUp is sometimes used early on, but as long as the designer does not take the model too far (window mullions) there is a chance that we will not recreate as much once it gets into Revit. This also helps in lessening the issue of maintaining two models simultaneously.

Most people do not want to understand why they should take the extra step to input data in some new fangled software. One item they do not realize is that they are most likely creating or maintaining that data already, so it most of the time it is not an extra step (assuming interoperability).

Finally, as far as your issue of iPad or ski boots, my vote is for the ski boots and pitch the idea you need an iPad for R+D to your boss.