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Why Computational Speed Fosters Greater Design Creativity

March 6, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

“Why does this magnificent applied science which saves work and makes life easier bring us so little happiness? The simple answer runs: Because we have not yet learned to make sensible use of it.”
— Albert Einstein, 1931

Imagine a clock where each hour is only fifty minutes in length. Ten minutes — the time to stretch one’s legs, make a cup of coffee, read this commentary — is extracted. Scientifically, this sounds like a non-starter. Psychologically, it feels as if it’s already occurring.

Technology’s elusive promise to the architectural community has been an increase of speed and precision. Projects, even the most complicated ones, should be completed in less time with fewer errors — ideally at a higher quality. Our access to information and means of interface should enable instant collaboration among diverse disciplines. The result should directly translate into better ideas faster… Right?

In reality, schedules aren’t increasing; neither are budgets. In fact, the expectation outside the profession that technology will deliver better ideas faster has compressed schedules, even as big data challenges us with infinite variables to explore. Yet if architects proportionally shrink efforts during both design and construction, every phase effectively suffers. If we shorten conceptual phases to maintain a construction timeline, we essentially de-prioritize the critical thinking that inherently makes us human, gives architecture its identity and moves society forward. Neither approach is sustainable, and neither reflects — or respects — the influence design has to improve our world. The time to think is being stolen. The fifty minute hour has been realized.

Remember the insistence that technology would reduce the workweek, leaving more time for things we love? Somewhere between 24/7 accessibility and the redefinition of the word “unplug,” that notion went horribly awry. Or did it? Technology may not have reduced our workload, but it can increase our time for creativity. If the digital design tool returns to its roots as a sophisticated, hyper-speed calculator — assessing temperature, light, view, energy, code, proximity and cost in the blink of an eye — it becomes both the efficient abacus and the blank napkin. The faster it helps us understand quantitative impacts, the quicker we arrive at informed decisions that prove our thinking. This ideally translates into more time to explore how design changes the world for the better. The faster we churn the analytical, the more we can access the creative, the intuition that enables the needle of innovation to move from the incremental to the transformational.

Back to that 50 minute work-hour… If we get past the unnerving thought of “losing” time, you may have realized that eight 50-minute hours result in more than one full hour of “found” time at the conclusion of a conventional workday. Technology may not shorten the workweek for designers, but it is crucial in finding us time for what matters most.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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