The Truth Is Out There, says network dynamics expert John Taylor

John Taylor is a third generation AEC professional who has worked at universities for 11 years. He ran the Civil Engineering Network Dynamics Lab at Virginia Tech to help improve systemic change in the AEC industry, and currently runs the Network Dynamics Labit at Georgia Tech with a broader mission to investigate phenomena occurring at the intersection of people and the built environment. He received his undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate in civil and environmental engineering, and worked as a project manager and estimator before founding several technology companies. His Lab’s research focuses on change processes at the human-built environment interface, with a recent focus on issues of urban sustainability and resilience. He is also the group leader of the Construction and Infrastructure Systems Engineering group in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech, whose mission is to be a platform for change in the AEC industry.Read on to learn more about his journey from sweeping construction sites to receiving NSF funding for research to build resiliency during natural disasters. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.


What projects are you currently working on?

At the Network Dynamics Lab, in the area of urban sustainability we’re exploring energy efficiency in buildings and how we can use feedback systems to improve occupant understanding of their energy consumption. We are also studying visualization of the built environment through augmented and virtual reality tools we are developing, and how we can use social media to improve how we collect stakeholder feedback about the built environment. For example, we’re doing a HCI study on the Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, a building designed to meet the “Living Building” standard at Georgia Tech. We do full immersion virtual reality in that building to collect stakeholder feedback, and augmented reality so architects, engineers and contractors can go out on the site and see what it’ll be like when it’s put in place. In the area of urban resilience, we just received National Science Foundation funding to study the location of where people are posting microblogs [like Twitter posts] and doing cluster and sentiment analysis to calculate the degree and how dangerous specific emergent crisis situations seem to be. In [the recent disasters in] Houston and Puerto Rico, 9-1-1 lines were jammed so people turned to social media to ask for help. We’re creating a system to help first responders detect emerging crises within a larger crisis like a hurricane.

How long have you been part of this industry?

I’m a “dyed in the wool” AEC person. Both my grandfathers were in the industry; my father started a construction company. After I got my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I worked as a project manager and estimator, and then started a couple technology companies serving the AEC industry. I became interested in how industry adapts to changes. Over the last 11 years, I’ve been building the Network Dynamics Lab to help improve systemic change in the AEC industry.

What changes have you seen for the positive?

Definitely, IT and automation subtly making their way into how we do business. I did my undergraduate thesis project on making an early version of AutoCAD do automation and 4D, and now that’s a push of a button. I can remember lots of times with everyone arguing about the industry not changing, but it’s been changing the whole time.

What changes have you seen for the negative?

There are things that went slower than expected. I think we were hit with a lot of new ways to do things within the past 15 years. There are so many web-based project management tools, centralized modeling approaches, and databases. The industry is maybe burned by there so much change, so we approach change with more caution. Companies have to meet their project deliverables while being open to things that will improve their competitive advantage. People are a little bit shier to try new things because of the proliferation of new things to try.

What draws you to the technology side of things?

Being a nerd, I believe the truth is out there. There’s a much, much better way to do the things we’re doing. If we’re able to spend the time figuring it out, then I believe there’s a way to do things better. As Frank Lloyd Wright said, “The truth is more important than the facts.” Technology can draw us closer to that truth.

Why do you think this industry lags behind in tech?

I think it depends on the technology, and where we’re talking about. We were very fast to adopt mobile phones and 3D laser scanning. Other technologies that have gone slow here diffused really quickly in other countries. BIM was adopted much more quickly in Scandinavia, for example. The technologies that are slower, particularly in the U.S., are the ones that require us to change together in concert. It’s harder for systemic changes to take hold. Real productivity gains happen if we make the model once and everyone benefits. As the technology has dffused over the past few decades, different types of firms have created separate BIM models for their own use. We need to be able to build it once: for design, fabrication, construction, and operations.

Imagine you’re talking to a high school senior. What would you tell her to major in, and why?

If you’re not sure, be an engineer. The world needs more engineers. You get to make amazing things, and doing so will afford you a great quality of life. You can do a lot of things later in life if you decide you’re interested in them, but it’s hard to become an engineer later in life, so get it out of the way early.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in the industry?

Be humble about what you don’t know. A lot of students get out in their field and see people struggling with their smartphones and they think they aren’t as clever as they are. Go find someone with a ton of experience that you trust and respect, ask them to be your mentor, and then listen to them. Never forget they have a treasure trove of experience you can mine. If you do this, you’ll rise through the ranks quickly. I also recommend they subtly try to mentor up. As junior-level people, they can influence the technological direction of the whole company. When they improve the performance of their company, they improve the performance of the whole industry, and we need that.

What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?

“If there was a better way to do this, we’d already be doing it that way.”

What was your first job ever?

My father owned a construction company and you’d think he’d put me up with some cushy job, but his view was you start at the bottom rung of the ladder. During summers, I would go sweep construction sites, haul garbage, dig--whatever no one else wanted to do, they asked me to do it. It was hard work, but it was a valuable life experience to be out in the field to witness the camaraderie of the construction crew. When I was working later as a construction manager, I knew how to talk the talk with my employees and it helped to have the projects run a little bit more smoothly.

Tech Fun

What is your must-have smartphone app?

Runkeeper. I’m training for a marathon and triathlon this spring. I’m really enjoying exploring the science of heart rate and endurance coupling my smart phone with a heart rate monitoring sensor.

What are your three favorite technology tools you use throughout your day?

By far, my iPhone. I’ve modified the case with duct tape so it carries everything. Credit card, house keys, ID. If I lose this, I’m done for. 2. Dropbox--accessing my files in a pinch from anywhere is really handy. 3. The automation features of my car. For a decade, by choice, I had no car. When I moved to Atlanta a year ago I bought one with all the new features, and it’s amazing how helpful it is to have lane change warnings and backup sensors.

If you could wave a magic wand and create a new technology, what would it be?

Something we’ve been trying to do for a long time in my lab: figuring out a way to get people and processes into BIM models so we’re not just collaborating--we’re working together. One of the National Academy of Engineering “grand challenges” is to enhance virtual reality. We could unleash radical productivity gains if we could come together and work on the BIM model by entering into a functional, physics-based design and construction environment as avatars.

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