Digital Construction Week - Dystopia or Utopia?

Last Thursday (or was it last Thursday?), I made my way to Digital Construction Week at ExCeL in London.

On the way down to the venue, I had to change at Canning Town station, noting that if I had been there earlier, I would have been stuck watching Extinction Rebellion protestors being pulled off underground trains by angry commuters.

On my journey, I happened to be listening to an episode of In Our Time, which was a discussion on H.G Wells The Time Machine. In it, a time traveller visits the world in 802,701 and views a dystopian world of the passive, ignorant, fruit-eating Eloi and the underground dwelling, troglodyte Morlocks, who capture the Eloi and drag them to their subterranean habitat, before eating them. At the time, the novel was seen as a comment on the subjugated working class (Morlocks) and the elite (Eloi)

I’ll leave you to join the dots between The Time Machine’s Eloi, Morlocks and Extinction Rebellion protestors being dragged off trains by commuters at this point. But it did resonate with the theme of time travel; had I made my journey two hours earlier what would I have witnessed? Back in the present, with the acts of the protestors and their need to save the planet still ringing in my ears, I arrived at the exhibition.

I entered just in time for my first seminar from Paul Swaddle, Megatrends: Global impacts on urban digital transformation, which was billed as the requirement for a new urgency to mitigate climate change, alongside health, wellbeing, security and safety challenges.

The presentation started off with a discussion on time. What would life be like in 10 years time, in 2029? Could we have imagined what 2019 would be like, if we were still living in 2009? What would 2039…2049 be like? My head was beginning to spin, as I was hurtling forward through time. The presentation then moved on to a theory by a group called the Long Now Foundation who suggest adding a zero in front of the current year e.g. 02019 (and would ultimately provide for H.G Wells’ 802,701), so that we recognise, as individuals, we are only on this planet for a short amount of time and that we should be conscious of who and what follows us (much in the same way that the ancient Egyptians wouldn’t have been aware of life on Earth after their death).

The presentation then focussed on each megatrend in more detail and the requirement for collaborative, digital processes that engage every level of project stakeholder and encourage the data-driven decisions essential to the future resilience of urban places.

It discussed that currently, our approach in the construction industry tends to focus on short-term thinking. It suggested that we all have to work together and think many generations ahead to ensure that new technologies and emerging trends are responsibly incorporated into the delivery of new urban infrastructure that optimises the use of resources, infrastructure and services.

This theory then hit me very hard, relating back to the year 802,701 from The Time Machine, with the Eloi living in small communities within large and futuristic yet slowly deteriorating buildings, eating a fruit based diet. Surely, we need to embrace the need for long term thinking, don’t ignore the voices from Extinction Rebellion and work collaboratively and perhaps avoid the dystopian vision of HG Wells’ novel.

By the way, in the last part of the book, the time traveller heads further into the future. No spoilers, but the Earth doesn’t end well.

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