The Decade Ahead: Design & Technology in 2020 and Beyond

AEC Technology Design trends 2020 SmithGroup

Data will be Make-or-Break

It has been said that data is the new oil, but computational designer Leland Curtis points out, “If data is the new oil, we need refineries to turn it to gasoline.” Only a handful of today’s design and construction companies are diving headlong into how to effectively harness the vast amount of data we’ve all be accumulating for decades, but over the next ten years it will become critical for design firms of all kinds to churn value out of their unrefined assets.

“Application of real-world research will extend our understanding of and ability to shape dynamic and responsive environments through effective use of data to answer critical questions of design practice,” says Liz Vandermark, director of research. Building, maintaining and leveraging dynamic and adaptable data models to inform master planning and design will be essential.  To find the most creative ways to visualize and simplify the diverse data accumulated, data science teams will become commonplace in design firms.

We’ll also learn to share amongst ourselves to achieve goals for the greater good of all. “Design firms will capitalize on the wealth of information collected by sharing across its own platforms and externally. We’ll shift away from individuals hoarding expertise to a model of widely-shared knowledge to bolster everyone’s ability to solve the significant challenges we face globally,” suggests architect John Moorhead.

As other industries adopt data-driven decision-making, our clients will demand greater depth and accuracy to direct their capital decisions, and those design firms who cannot produce essential insights to support their client’s business decisions will struggle.

Internet of Things

As the Internet of Things (IoT) grows, most designers are looking at what it will enable in the way that people experience built design and how buildings can become more responsive to occupants. “The connected environment along with personal technologies like Wave Bracelets will provide ever-increasing customization for occupants,” says chief information officer Derek White. Designers will be able to give end users greater control over their surroundings, particularly in workspaces, leading to increased employee satisfaction.

IoT platforms are emerging to collect data about lighting, temperature, air quality, space utilization and more. “As these systems gain adoption, the data they generate yields opportunities to transition from individual building decisions to larger issues of building optimization and energy consumption across the entire built environment,” says data scientist Peter McNally.

Integrating IoT, AI and building control systems will open the door to significant improvements in building performance. As we collectively grapple with the dire changes needed to address the built environment’s contributions to the climate crisis, this sort of integration will give rise to new solutions for green energy sources and help everyone significantly reduce the energy and water often wasted today.

Real Time Immersion

It is astounding to think how the design profession has progressed from drawings inked on linens, to pencil on paper, to 2D computer design, and now today’s Building Information Models. “Visualization tools will become more realistic and immersive leading to a future where collaboration between the owner, contractor and designers will be far more integrated,” predicts Wayne Barger, health practice director.

Today we’re piloting tools that allow us to walk through a digital design concept in real time with remote teams making changes and red-lining on-the-fly. “As virtual reality becomes ubiquitous over the next decade, our design teams will be able to communicate with clients and potential clients in a virtual environment,” posits David Fersh, an architect and design technologist.

Design presentations to review concepts, design progress, and even construction site progress will happen within a virtual site without owners, contractors or designers needing to leave their home office. Combined with drone scanning and other reality capture tools, our practice will no longer be bound by geographic borders. “Imagine how much carbon production would be saved if we could dramatically reduce the amount of travel required to collaborate on a project,” says architectural designer Julieta Guillermet. 

Our visualization and data specialists expect that digital twinning will give rise to streamlining many design tasks. Every object, system and building in our real world will have a digital twin in a virtual world, allowing facilities managers to troubleshoot maintenance issues with designers and contractors, engineers to optimize building systems performance after building occupancy, designers to test-fit countless build-out options immediately, and more. The robust visualization technologies rapidly developing today will upend the inefficient legacy processes and teaming structures by the end of the decade.


A designer’s typical day, regardless of their discipline, will look utterly different in ten years. The design tools and processes we’re accustomed to will become increasingly automated, leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to make design work more efficient. Designers will rely on these tools to reduce the drudgery of documentation, code review and more, leaving more time for exploring design solutions.

“AI is quickly learning to do the work of architects and planners,” says architect Jason Smith. The move to automation may well shake the foundations of our work force. Individuals unable to learn the new skills needed to keep themselves relevant may be left behind. “It may be more desirable to hire an inexperienced designer with the right skills than the tenured one without them,” suggests Curtis. To remain competitive, design firms must adapt their workforce. We expect this to have an impact on career development, employment paths and even the most common job titles of the 2029 workforce.


“Automation, roboticization and pre-fabrication will revolutionize construction. 3D printing and computer-driven fabrication will usher in new levels of sophistication and customization to construction,” expects architect Randall Daniel. The fabrication of the built environment will become more akin to manufacturing with pre-fabrication, modularity and rapid-prototyping. Together with automation of our design processes, we expect an acceleration and streamlining of project delivery.

Further, as projects accelerate through the adoption of automation, advanced visualization and artificial intelligence, the traditional design-bid-build delivery method will be abandoned in favor of Integrated Project Delivery and Design-Build methodologies that are better suited to a faster pace.

New Competition

While automation and visualization have the potential to transform traditional construction processes, we know the forces that are aligned against the shift from the status quo open our industry up for disruption. We expect tech companies from outside the design and construction industry will be more eager than those within it to develop these new solutions—a potentially rude awakening for design and construction firms resistant to change.

One thing is for certain, we can expect the rapid pace of change in the technological tools we use to design our built environment to continue, if not accelerate in the next decade. It should be an exhilarating ten years for the world of design.