Exploring workplace digitalization in urban design, construction & services

Optimists say that digitalization is unlikely to completely replace existing occupations and job categories. Instead, employees will be freed up from performing certain tasks, enabling them to focus on new tasks. That is, the jobs will continue, but the specific tasks and required skills will change.

But workplaces are already changing. Jobs are becoming safer, and the productivity of individual workers is rising as they take advantage of cloud connectivity and the Internet of Things (IoT), and take command of multiple interconnected smart machines. Urban Hub looks at how this is happening in the fields of planning, building and servicing our cities.

Using fewer resources for bigger change – What makes the world go around? Innovative technology. And in mobility, building, energy and manufacturing, especially green innovations are changing how people interact with and shape their environment.

Published on 17.03.2017

Construction – a late starter gains momentum

Although construction has not been a driving force of digitalization, we are starting to get a picture of how digitalization will affect the sector. For instance, machinery operators will eventually run their machines at a distance. Sitting in a control center, they will be able to supervise and monitor multiple automated machines with the help of vehicular telematics.

In the meantime, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is already being successfully used in the field. In one example, drones will survey construction sites to quickly gather data. Linked through cloud computing with the IoT, this information can then be transformed via AI into 3D maps and blueprints.

AI is also a key component in Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM – also known as Virtual Design & Construction (VDC) – creates a virtual (often 3D) model of a building. This creates a “single source of truth” for architects, engineers, customers and construction workers, which they can access via interlinked devices. This streamlines information sharing, and assures everyone has the latest, real-time information on plans and changes.

Another development in the construction industry is in the production of modular or pre-fabricated building components in factories. The use of robotics and 3D printing cuts production time and costs, and simplifies assembly at the building site. Builders use wearable technology such as an Augmented Reality (AR) head-mounted display (HMD) to direct them, as they turn construction into something that the play experts at Lego might have thought up.

Another example is Microsoft’s HoloLens, a head-mounted holographic computer with a number of industry applications, including one used by thyssenkrupp Elevator to radically transform its service operations.

The future of building is already under construction.

“Currently, the use of AI on jobsites is limited. But it is growing, particularly in applications involving machine vision for surveying and analyzing materials and structures, or for robotics applications such as automated bricklaying or autonomous vehicles.”

Dan Kara, research director, robotics, ABI Research

Digitalization is making construction jobs a bit more fun.
Digitalization is making construction jobs a bit more fun.
Using a split screen, this short video shows the actual designer in action with his VR glasses, as well as what he is seeing while ‘inside’ the virtual environment.

Architecture & urban planning – integrating a more detailed vision

URBAN HUB has previously looked at new materials and smart buildings, but here we look at architects and their tools. AR, VR (Virtual Reality) and MR (Mixed Reality) technologies are making those jobs better, easier and more fun. And, while these tools are not yet fully integrated with BIM, they will be soon.

As mentioned earlier, project collaboration is essential for any good plan, as is the ability to realistically convey as much information as possible. Architects and planners have been turning BIM or CAD (Computer-Aided Design) inputs into 3D models for some years. But recently, this has become significantly easier, and can now be turned into a realistic ‘walk-through’ VR experience, allowing project planners the opportunity to understand what their models would feel like in reality, for the people living or working in the finished building.

That development is possible because of two new trends. One is that architects and planners are beginning to learn how to write computer code. The other trend is using that skill to adapt gaming tools to fit their work. Google Daydream, Oculus Rift and Playstation VR are some of the many consumer products being adapted for urban design, planning and construction.

Many of these tools incorporate some type of AI, although this is still what is called ANI (Artificial Narrow Intelligence) or, more descriptively, ‘Weak AI’. But even Weak AI can be pretty strong. For instance, the spatial mapping of a neighborhood in which a new building is planned helps ensure that the building fits with the other buildings. AI-based software can now perform this task in a fraction of the time it would take to do it manually, and produce a virtual multi-layered map that is far more informative than any 2D modeling.

Planning roads will be easier, too. Tesla uses Autopilot software in all their cars, which automatically uploads road and traffic information whenever a car is in use. Stored in a cloud, this Big Data could be accessed by urban planners for data-driven decision-making. The data would clearly reveal exactly how to make traffic flow more efficiently, by repairing or widening certain roads, changing specific signal light configurations, etc.

Municipal services – digitalizing urban assistance jobs

In addition to making the final decisions regarding urban planning, municipal governments are responsible for many of the services that keep cities running. URBAN HUB has previously looked at smart cities, a key component of which are the digitalized changes that make cities more efficient. So how is digitalization changing the work of such essential city services such as firefighting, policing and sanitation?

  • Firefighting

    Surrounded by intense heat and smoke, and weighted down with gear, firefighters must do their work with a severe lack of sensory perception. But by mounting a thermal-imaging camera on the helmet, and incorporating a transparent AR screen on the breathing mask, firefighters can more quickly locate people trapped inside burning buildings, as well as identify and avoid particularly dangerous spaces. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Vienna are working on a way to use in-helmet heat sensors and thermal imaging to create a virtual map of the firefighter’s surroundings, which can be similarly deployed on an in-helmet screen to improve everyone’s safety.

  • Police

    As “first responders”, police are the ones who show up first when citizens are in need. In Detroit, a devastating fire brought police and firefighters together and resulted in the development of a digital tool that both groups now use while on their way to an emergency. The too provides access to maps, locations of fire hydrants, utility shut-offs, placement of hazardous materials, floor plans, etc., including residents nearby who may need special assistance. Drones and “throwable surveillance robots” are also being used by police services to detect crime and keep bystanders safe.

  • Sanitation

    Critical to the public health of cities, sanitation covers such disparate areas as clean water and sewage disposal. What changes is digitalization bringing to this area? For starters, many city dwellers around the world live with “de-centralized” or non-sewered waste disposal systems. Eventually, these “toilet resources” (a.k.a. waste) can be integrated into the circular economy to create compost or biogas. In the meantime, low-cost remote sensors can alert waste collectors when a waterless toilet is getting full, eliminating premature action on the part of sanitation workers. At the same time, smart meters are transforming water utilities. Meter-readers no longer need to work door-to-door, and consumers can save money by choosing off-peak times to run baths, washing machines or dishwashers.

See how a thermal-imaging camera and AR glasses, integrated into a breathing mask, help firefighters stay safe and better locate and rescue people trapped inside a burning building.

Making the best transition to the digitalized workplace

Parts 1 and 2 in this series have looked at the first wave of a technological tsunami headed our way, and how the workplace is already changing because of that. Some jobs are being eliminated while new ones are appearing. But any way you look at it, digitalization is changing business as usual, and the jobs that go with that.

Realizing this, how can companies, governments and individual workers best prepare for and manage these changes? What are the experts saying? What is already being done, or tried, to smooth the transition for urban workers? And what specific roles do governments, companies and individual workers play in successfully adapting jobs to the digitalized workplace? URBAN HUB looks into those questions in Part 3.