How A/E firms are staying on the leading edge

Morrissey Goodale is providing A/E leaders with news and perspective on COVID-19 and its impact on the industry. This week, they examine how A/E firms are staying ahead of the curve.

By Morrissey Goodale April 19, 2021

Morrissey Goodale is providing A/E leaders with news and perspective on COVID-19 and its impact on the industry. This week, they examine how A/E firms are staying ahead of the curve.

1995’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek provides great advice on how to craft a mission statement for any business. Referencing the five-year mission of the Enterprise, it encourages leadership to craft a plan that inspires employees “to explore,” “to seek out” and “to boldly go.” It’s with this pioneering spirit that a small band of A/E firm leadership teams have continually embraced new technologies far in advance of their peers over the years and have always found a way to lead the industry to the new frontier.

“Leading edge not bleeding edge”: It’s a phrase heard in almost every A/E strategic planning meeting. It’s generally followed by nods of agreement from the boomers in the room and mutterings of “ain’t that the truth.” And it’s indicative of the position that most A/E leadership teams take with respect to technology. In an industry that’s conservative by nature (we have famously low debt to equity ratios), we generally rather follow than lead.

It’s not just an aversion to being out in front: Most A/E leadership teams – by virtue of their demographics – are challenged in terms of embracing new technologies. All things being equal, older, more tenured leaders/owners — who often carry the most weight in decision-making around strategic investments – tend to be further behind the technology curve. Additionally, even among the top design firms the focus of most leaders and managers is optimizing annual performance rather than preparing for the future. To this day it amazes me how many firms look for new technologies to be exclusively funded on the client’s nickel rather than an enterprise-level investment.

There have always been A/E industry pioneers: They were the ones who invested in Lidar back in the early 2000s when it was considered cost prohibitive. More recently they were the early users of drones when most of the industry remained stuck in the past. They moved their businesses to Revit while their peers remained skeptical or felt they “couldn’t afford it.” This relatively small group of firms tend to be led by a motley crew of dreamers/entrepreneurs – who are often viewed (both by their employees and their peers) as a little crazy. They tend not to thrive in larger firms as they eschew bureaucracy and received wisdom. This is ironic because it’s larger industry firms that are seeking to capture this type of talent (witness the recent crop of Chief Digital Officer or Digital Transformation Leader announcements among the ENR 500.)

Who needs proof of concept? These fearless firms have already experimented with 3-D printing, remote visualization, remote sensing, robotics, and digitization. The results of their investments in these technologies range from “Disappointing, we’re out” to “Still think there might be something there” to “It’s proprietary, we’ve got the investors and will be coming to market this year.” For these dreamers, proof of concept is less important than potential of concept. So, what are they exploring now?

Blockchain and NFTs: While most A/E firm leaders are still trying to figure out Bitcoin (whether to invest in it and what it takes to mine for it), A/E tech pioneers are focused on the business potential of the blockchain for their own firms and their clients in government, utilities and infrastructure. The technology stands where the internet was 30 years ago – remember those days when you used a fax to send anything urgent (but you never knew if all the pages made it through?) Blockchain will slash the inefficiencies of the intermediary steps inherent with the internet, drive down enterprise and supply chain costs while increasing quality and reliability. It’s getting a lot of attention – including from many industry leaders. And A/E tech pioneers are intrigued by the potential of NFTs to fractionalize ownership and distribute income at a much more granular level.

Artificial intelligence (AI) opportunities: Microsoft announced its acquisition of AI speech tech firm Nuance for $19.7 billion. Soon this speech recognition technology will be fully integrated into your Microsoft Teams subscription dramatically improving firmwide productivity and efficiency. Firms on the cutting edge will use speech AI to enhance communications and strengthen relationships with clients. AI and Machine Learning are already being used by designers in their work. In the future you will be using AI for your business to recognize patterns and trends and make better predictions about how to engage with your employees, improve operations and engage clients.

AI as a threat?: Just as AI will help you make better predictions based on data, the tech is already helping your clients make choices and decisions about you and your business. And you may not like what they find. Predictive keystroke search already exists, and next generation AI will read your client’s thoughts. So, what’s the threat? If your client is thinking “I need a data center designer” her AI enabled systems will connect her with the “best” data center A/E firms that have already synched their brands to her decision-making systems, so she connects with them first. A/E firms that “get” AI will get to the front of the line, those that don’t will get left in the dust.

VR/AR – mixed reality: Many cutting-edge designers and engineers are already using mixed reality on client engagements. Beyond that, a growing number of A/E tech pioneers are now integrating mixed reality into their core business management functions. They are learning from consumer brands, industry and government to enhance internal collaboration, foster learning, engage younger employees in business decisions, and amplify their brands.

The leading edge isn’t for everyone: However, for the small group of firms that match vision, with hope with investments of capital, brainpower, and time – it’s a heady and rewarding part of their professional journey.

This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s website. Morrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner

Original content can be found at