The Future of The Built Environment

The Future of Digital Adoption for the Built Environment

Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) professionals are not immune to the advances of a digitized and globalized world. Over the past several decades, AEC professionals welcomed the groundbreaking technologies, including advanced manufacturing, Autodesk software, computer-aided design (CAD), building information modeling (BIM), and project management (PM) tools, just to name a few. And with technological innovations impacting not only the work of the industry but shifting the way that work is completed, AEC professionals must address the challenge of adopting digital technologies.

The AEC profession is and certainly will continue to feel the impact of machine learning, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and drone integration in the years to come. The challenge of digital adoption by AEC professionals may even mirror the complexity of the new technologies themselves! As leaders within the AEC field steer the profession through this challenge of digital adoption, it is vital to understand the role of leadership, the power of systems thinking, and the value in using Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs).

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1. Role of Leadership

Peter Northouse (2013) is a scholar and educator who offers the perspective that leadership is a process that is inclusive of both a leader and a team. And, together, the leader and team pursue a shared goal (Northouse, 2013). The Northouse perspective of leadership shows AEC professionals that each individual has a role and impacts the goals of the organization. Take a moment to consider the role of the leaders within an AEC business. Leaders play a unique role in influencing their teams and organizations toward achieving shared goals. To do so, not only should an AEC professional continue to grow in technical expertise but also invest in their development as a leader.

2. Power of Systems Thinking

One powerful leadership principle for leaders in the AEC profession to leverage is called systems thinking. In contrast to most western thinking, systems thinking uses a non-linear mindset that is focused on themes including interconnectedness, dependency, and feedback (Anderson & Johnson, 1997). A system is composed of many parts, also called variables, that each fulfills a specific purpose or function (Anderson & Johnson, 1997). The variables fit together in a particular order and allow the system to complete its purpose (Anderson & Johnson, 1997). Within the system, variables provide either a positive or negative impact on the other connected variables (Anderson & Johnson, 1997).

By engaging systems thinking, leaders in the AEC profession are afforded strategic benefits, including ways to visually map complex situations, anticipate challenges in the future, improve efficiency and effectiveness, consider both visible and invisible variables, and collaboratively and iteratively communicate with the team. To achieve these strategic benefits that systems thinking affords teams, leaders may leverage tools including causal loop diagrams (CLDs), modeling, simulations, causal layered analysis (CLA), and polarity management, to name a few. In general, systems thinking allows leaders in the AEC profession a way to address any challenges they may face from a non-linear perspective.

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3. The Systems Tool of Causal Loop Diagrams (CLD)

Taking a more in-depth look at CLDs, leaders see the usefulness in graphically diagramming a system, linking variables together, and exploring the impacts (Anderson & Johnson, 1997). CLDs are extremely helpful for leaders bringing change to an organization, building collaboration to their team, and seeking identifying value within their organization’s system at large. Leaders can create a CLD of the organization’s current state. Diagramming includes mapping both the positive and negative impacts of the current structure. Then, leaders can iteratively develop another CLD that provides a visual for the desired future state of the organization. With the current state and desired state CLDs in front of the team, the leader can facilitate conversation, develop goals, and shift strategy with the team to work towards a desired future state.

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Applying the Systems Tool to an AEC Challenge

The construction industry has a reputation of being “notoriously slow at adopting new technologies” (Jones, 2018, para. 16). Although technologies, such as BIM are not new, AEC professionals will be forced to evolve due to technological advancements. AEC professions will be redesigned by the integration of technology that impacts what and howprofessionals work. Consider software for planning, drones for safety, 3D printing in construction, autonomous equipment for hazardous areas (Jones, 2018). A Future of Construction reports holds that “By 2030, Dubai plans to have 3D printed a quarter of all new buildings, making the most of a technology which can cut labor costs, speed up processes and create more environmentally-friendly structures” (Raconteur Media Ltd., 2019, p. 1). Further, the study holds that,

“70% of construction companies believe those who do not adopt digital ways of working will go out of business” (Raconteur Media Ltd, 2019, p. 1).

This data sets the tone for the challenge the AEC industry is facing with digital adoption by the professionals in their organizations. Critical aspects to this challenge include a lack of investment in the tools by businesses (Jones, 2018), a workforce that is growing grayer, and a lack of uniformity with software for the industry (Reizen, 2018). Digital adoption is not merely a future challenge, but rather it has been a historical and present challenge to the sector (Leeds, 2016). Critical trends for leaders in the AEC industry to wrestle with include staffing challenges, integrating technology, data integration, and increased automation (The University of Houston Foresight Program, 2019).

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Current State

Figure 1, provided below, is an example of a current state CLD for a generic business in the AEC industry.

Figure 1 Current State CLD

In the Current State CLD in Figure 1, leaders see the connectedness of essential variables, including:

  • Digital Adoption
  • Number of Staff
  • Percentage of Staff within the Millennial/Gen Z Generations
  • Generational Comfort with Technology
  • Access to Digital Tools
  • Training & Support
  • Productivity

Though the variables listed here are not nearly all the variables that impact an individual organization’s digital adoption, it offers a perspective for the AEC industry to consider. Note in Figure 1, there is both a balancing loop and a reinforcing loop. The reinforcing loop on the right side of the figure shows that as Access to Digital Tools increases, the need for Training & Support increases. Over time, after the Training & Support, organizations see an increase in productivity, which ultimately increases the organization’s desire for greater Digital Adoption. On the left side of Figure 1 is the balancing loop. Currently, the Number of Staff tends to be a lower Percentage of Staff within the Millennial/Gen Z Generations, which leads to a lower Generational Comfort with Technology. With this lower level of comfort in mind, there is a decrease in Digital Adoption, which fuels the need to increase the Number of Staff. Again, Figure 1 does not list all the variables that impact Digital Adoption but allows AEC leaders to start considering ways in which systems dynamics affect their organization.

Potential Future

There is certainly more than one potential future possible. One example of a potential future for AEC leaders to imagine is a desired state where the variable of Percentage of Staff within the Millennial/Gen Z Generations is changed. By changing this single variable, AEC leaders can imagine the impact on the system.

Desired State

Figure 2, provided below, shows a desire state CLD for a generic business in the AEC industry seeking greater digital adoption.

Figure 2 Desired State CLD

In the Desired State CLD, AEC leaders see a balancing loop again and reinforcing loop. Figure 2 sees a change one variable, Percentage of Staff within the Millennial/Gen Z Generations, within the balancing loop on that left side of the diagram that impacts the system. By increasing the Percentage of Staff within the Millennial/Gen Z Generations, there is an increase in the Generational Comfort with Technology, which then increases the Digital Adoption. From an increase in Digital Adoption, organizations will see a decrease in the Number of Staff needed to complete the organization’s work. Through the change in the one variable in the balancing loop of Figure 2, AEC leaders see how other variables within the system are impacted. Within Figure 2, AEC leaders notice the reinforcing loop, to the right of the diagram, remains the same as it is Figure 1 as it is still relevant and necessary for the Desired State in Figure 2.

Alignment & Fit

The systems tool of CLD involves more than merely offering the diagram, as shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2. Once the diagrams have been made, a critical next step is for leaders to identify changes, eliminations, and additions to the variables needed with a Current State CLD to achieve alignment to and fit within a Desired State CLD. As AEC leaders seek to move from the Current State CLD (Figure 1) toward a Desired State CLD (Figure 2), there is a critical need to bring about fit. AEC leaders have the opportunity to change a single variable, Percentage of Staff within the Millennial/Gen Z Generations, to impact the system. By changing a single variable from the Current State CLD, there is a more significant influence on three other variables within the system that affects the organization. Within the context of Figure 1 and Figure 2, the influence of one variable impacts multiple other variables within a system to bring about alignment and fit. As AEC leaders seek to bring this fit to life within their system, there are a couple of leverage points to employ.

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Leverage Points

With the Desired State CLD and Alignment & Fit insights in mind, leaders in the AEC industry need to maximize leverage points relevant to the challenge of digital adoption. Two leverage points critical to bringing fit toward Figure 2 include the mindset and the positive loop.

  • Firstly, AEC leaders must actively influence a shift in the mindset of the organization’s leadership. By shifting the mindset, dialogue, and culture to embracing digital tools, leaders can bring about greater digital adoption. A shifted mindset is essential to all aspects of the AEC industry, including associations, groups, manufacturers, professional services, technology providers, and researchers, for example. Over time a shifted mindset toward embracing digital adoption impacts other variables and decisions within the organization. Consider recruiting practices, a culture of development, learning opportunities, learning providers, financial investment in digital tools, etc.
  • A second essential leverage point for AEC leaders to maximize is promoting the positive loop. Think of the reinforcing loop identified in Figure 1 and Figure 2. AEC leaders must encourage, promote, drive the success of the reinforcing loop that is propagated by an organization providing their staff Access to Digital Tools, which requires more Training & Support. Both of these variables require a financial investment of an organization. And because of that, AEC leaders must continue to financially invest in those variables to promote the continuation of the positive loop.

Both a shift in mindset and promoting the positive loop are two leverage points for AEC leaders to maximize as they seek to overcome the challenge of digital adoption.


AEC leaders have the opportunity to leverage the leadership principle of systems thinking as they steer their teams and businesses through multi-faceted challenges. The CLD tool offers leaders a way to map the relationships and impacts of the variables within challenges. CLD provides an iterative and collaborative approach to bring about alignment toward a desired state by maximizing identified leverage points. As the AEC industry seeks to address the challenge of digital adoption by professionals, there are certainly many variables that impact digital adoption. As a specific organization with the AEC industry aims to bring about greater digital adoption, consider additional variables outside of those in this article that actively influence the system.

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What about your organization?


Anderson, V., & Johnson, L. (1997). Systems Thinking Basics: From Concepts to Causal Loops. Acton, MA: Leverage Networks Inc.

Jones, K. (2018, February 8). 4 Major Challenges Facing the Construction Industry. Retrieved from Construct Connect:

Leeds, R. (2016, August 15). Top 5 Challenges Facing the Construction Industry. Retrieved from Digitalist Magazine:

Morecroft, J. (2015). Strategic Modeling and Business Dynamics. Cornwall, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.

Raconteur Media Ltd. (2019, August). Construction Disruption. Retrieved September 2019, from

Reizen, R. (2019, December 19). Issues Facing the Construction Industry in 2019. Retrieved from Gould+Ratner: