Ask the Innovator: how are Human-Centered Bots Impacting Today’s Designers?
Where did the idea for BIMbot come from?
Jeff Walter: BIMbot originated on the VIVA Next project in Toronto which involved reconfiguring 12km of main streets to accommodate new transit. With a large P3 project like this, organizing meetings, emails, and potentially thousands of clashes and design issues under tight timelines seemed almost impossible. This demanded that we think about design differently.
We decided to shift out of email and onto a more collaborative platform, so instead of having face-to-face meetings we’re having online meetings on group chat, and all of a sudden, things take off. Now that we’re using Slack, we can build programs on top of it to find new efficiencies in communication workflow, which is where BIMbot came in.
How does BIMbot work and where has it been used so far?
BIMbot is a digital data bot. I think everybody has some idea of what a bot is, but where people tend to get a little bit confused is with the digital vs. the physical. A robot can also be digital. BIMbot works by ‘listening’ to our conversations on Slack, organizing them by task, and helping to decide which ones are important.
Using BIMbot for VIVA Next, we finished the project faster and smarter than if we were to have used a traditional approach. This then gave us the opportunity to test it out on other projects, and the first one that came up was Eglinton Crosstown. The decision was initially made to use BIMbot on one station and very quickly we ended up using it with all 15 stations.
The project involved 52 different sub-consultants and partners and BIMbot was introduced to at least five design firms where this would have been their first interaction with bots. Typically, this is a competitive industry and it’s very rare to find the barriers come down for the sake of industry-wide innovation.
Many people are resistant to the idea of bots in the workplace for fear of automation and the unknown. BIMbot seems to take a different approach by helping people beyond their own abilities. Should we be thinking differently about bots in the workplace?
The whole notion of bots playing a larger role in our work lives is a very important discussion. This brings up the whole spectrum of human emotions. The end user is central to our work which makes it essential to focus on human-centered design, maybe more so than any other tool that we’ve developed.
Our area of focus has been on the automation of menial tasks which can take up 75 per cent of the designer’s day. If we were able to come up with solutions that replace those tasks with friendly automations, that could really change the landscape for how design is done.
From a design technology standpoint, what’s most important to me is thinking about the experience of actually using tools like BIMbot. We must think beyond development and focus on the experience of these tools. What happens when a designer opens up their computer and begins that first interaction with virtual assistance? Is it helpful? Is it intrusive?
With growing interest for design technology and human-centered design, how is this affecting our role as architects and designers?
Because the industry is not usually at the forefront of technology adoption, it actually puts us in a better position to learn. The early leaders have discovered the importance of a human-centered approach, which we can really learn from.
As data is now at the heart of all that we design, design then becomes more critical than ever. Historically, an architect or engineer would produce their drawings and hand them off to a contractor. Usually at this point the designer’s role then starts to fade away and by post-construction there’s no longer a role at all. Now, as an architect, every single line they draw in a 3D model or CAD role, has data significance to it. This puts even more emphasis on the foundation of cities and neighbourhoods which all comes back to the designer.
As IBI Group pivots towards a technology-driven future, what are you most excited about?
To be honest, I’ve been dreaming about this for a long time and the pivot is the manifestation of that vision. We’ve got a great chance to push the industry rather than to respond to it. That’s a very different level of creativity.
I hope that we reach a place where technology influences our lives in a positive way and makes it not only easier for designers, but for citizens too, and who couldn’t get enough of that?