Q&A with David Manfredi, vice-president, design and consultancy services at Parsons
What are the key advantages of greater connectivity within the design ecosystem?

It’s important to visualise a design ecosystem in the context of who it serves. We can get distracted by the fact that we’re designing and delivering in an increasingly streamlined and digital way, but in the end the design ecosystem must support a community and be a connector of and for that community.

The advantages of this come out of the objectives set with that agenda. Greater connectivity means being able to deliver timely and useful information to users, operators and authorities in a way that is accessible, saves time, provides feedback, assists monitoring and maintenance, and can be tailored to be more immediate and interactive.

For example, there is a petrol station near my house that has recently closed temporarily for maintenance. The next nearest is in the opposite direction. Imagine the hundreds of minutes wasted by that errant journey made by multiple users. But it’s only the petrol service that’s closed. The shop, ATM and service bay are still operational. To receive a digital update would save time, not to mention fuel along with more accurate journey selection. Each group has a role to play to facilitate creating a happier, more productive and enjoyable experience.

Why is it so important to incorporate smart technologies, sensors and systems at the point of design?

Everyone in the industry would agree that it’s simpler to design something from new rather than take on a retrofit or refurbishment. This is no different. It depends on the vision of the client and their boldness to plan strategically from the very earliest stages. Overlaying a series of new ideas into a design is unsettling, inefficient and expensive – not as much as in the field, obviously – but it is not done just at the push of a button, so you need to start early.

At Parsons, we talk to clients across the spectrum, from those who have bold digital visions and those who believe they can allow a small service corridor and fix it later. We also have a strong delivery ethos built around the digital tools we use, digital solutions and the built outcomes – intelligent buildings, interactive and inspirational public spaces, connective systems and the like. If these are not considered at commencement, your project is in catch-up mode before you even start, and you might not even realise it. It’s a competitive market place and the stronger strategies sell. Parsons simply makes that happen and we do so by undertaking technology planning even as we create proposals for clients.

What regional examples are there of such systems at this stage?

There is an extremely healthy appetite in the Smart arena regionally, but you need to scratch the surface to get to the good stuff. I have seen many presentations and projects that simply add the word ‘smart’ in front of the usual list of city components, but fall short on delivering a real solution. No doubt they carry ideas, but rarely do they articulate a vision so you can’t really see where they wish to go.

Designers need to help clients clarify their vision, refine it, consult on it and deliver it. I hasten to add that there are some good examples. One of our measures of success at Parsons is fulfilling a vision by providing those solutions. We consider a solution as an overall strategic outcome that combines and connects many systems. It affects every decision we make throughout the process.

How do such technologies feed into the broader development of a smart construction landscape?

One of the most significant challenges in the industry is the lack of take up of digital by the construction sector. As designers, we offer the full digital experience, from virtual reality and augmented reality to the digital twin and therefore intelligent asset management.

Yet, it is still common for project tender stages to require hard copies. The whole process suddenly goes paper-heavy and the digital flow stumbles or, worse, simply ends. It is common knowledge that this part of the architecture, engineering and construction industry cycle has shown the smallest increment of technological progress when measured over decades, and it’s alarming when compared to other industries. Regionally, this may be due to labour costs or a lack of required talent, but actually it’s a global issue. How can a client take possession of a digital twin without the construction period embracing full participation?

How much regional infrastructure is being designed with a view to IoT-enabled functionality?

That’s hard to quantify, but it is rare now to not have that discussion and at least have digital aspirations for project outcomes. Parsons is doing a good amount of it and we’re providing connections to wider topics such as mobility, security and resilience as well.

The real test is how much of it is actually going to be delivered. You could parallel this topic with sustainability targets historically, and sadly, even now, where accreditation levels are initially set high and then costs hit the table and markets challenge ROI, clients start to trim. Some call it value engineering, some call it cost cutting. It is also dependent on the intentions of the developer. Is it a build and flip? Or do they wish to contribute to a quality built environment outcome that adds responsibility to the agenda? Is the commitment there?

The market will dictate success since the most desirable tenants, residents and users will seek out quality and that extra layer of interactivity, user experience, operability, and quality of life that this wave of digital opportunities can deliver.

What is the future for people’s interaction with connectivity within designed ecosystems?

There are several facets to this. It might depend if we are talking about systems within the overarching ecosystem that tell you about your day which might challenge security protocols between work and private data, to automation of errands which would require a huge leap in connectivity with your supply chain, to the predictability and security of transactions which brings in the blockchain piece.

One thing that’s certain is our collective appetite to consume digital products, be they devices or apps, is insatiable. And it moves quickly. That’s why at Parsons we work on and promote a solutions approach built on a relationship rather than a transactional interaction, which is relatively short term. Static outcomes are of markedly less value to our clients and to their customers. We need to go deeper.

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