Designing for rapid change and a cloudy future

We exist in a world of perpetual, rapid-fire innovation, fueled mostly by the need for enterprises of all sorts to maintain competitive advantage. At times it seems as if change is destabilizing every aspect of our lives.

As designers, innovation shapes everything we do. It affects our clients’ needs as well as our processes and opportunities. And yet despite ever-increasing calls to develop novel solutions, the assumption that newer is always better can be dangerous. In fact, continual change has made it increasingly difficult to achieve genuinely good design. Time can prove a harsh judge of our efforts to leap ahead.

Innovation in aviation

Aviation is a prime example of an industry in perpetual transformation. Dramatic changes in airline business models and structures are common. The steady push to develop larger, quieter, more fuel-efficient, longer-range aircraft models drives airline fleet and route restructuring. Regulatory shifts and unpredictable economic cycles can threaten airlines’ bottom lines. New technologies reshape the ways airlines engage with their customers.

This constant destabilization requires airport operators to alter their facilities in efforts to keep ahead of trends in design, operations, user experience, and more. The self-serve kiosks and online check-in that have become ubiquitous in recent years are obvious examples; another is the push to improve retail and dining offerings to improve the customer experience (and, not incidentally, increase revenue). Meanwhile, security and border protection agencies avail themselves of an ever-expanding arsenal of tools and procedures to detect and mitigate risk.

Credit Flickr user Jerry Woody

Terminal timelines

As an architect and airport planner, I’m very familiar with the ways in which this perpetual reinvention complicates terminal design. Up to a decade can pass while a terminal is being planned, designed, built, and prepared for operation. Add a useful lifespan of several decades, and the need to accommodate certain but hard-to-foresee change from the outset becomes clear.

Therein lies the design team’s primary challenge. One of the most expensive building typologies, the airline terminal represents a massive investment for airports, airlines, and ultimately passengers. Getting it right for both today and the future is critical.

Knowledge and speculation

Looking forward a few years to develop solutions for issues that we’re reasonably certain about is a relatively straightforward exercise. For example, an airline has a fairly good idea of what its fleet will look like in two or three years and can speculate about changes just beyond that. But try to visualize 10, 15, or 20 years ahead and the picture becomes increasingly cloudy.

We need to plan and design buildings that aren’t so finely tuned to the very latest trends that they risk becoming obsolete before opening day.

A significant portion of our standard design process involves working with our clients to imagine what the future might look like, then helping them give shape to that vision. How big will an airport get and how soon? How will the passenger experience feel? How will we move around an airport as it expands? How do we adapt the buildings to constantly evolving aircraft fleets and airline business models? How do we enhance the airport’s position as a regional or global hub? Speculating about these issues is essential, but in the end we simply can’t see very far ahead with certainty.

Taking the long view

In my view, the best projects — and the ones that cope best with change — prioritize timeless design principles over innovating for innovation’s sake or making large bets on radical new ideas.

Designers need to consider both immediate and future needs, and create solutions to address them. Capitalizing on the opportunities provided by new technologies, products, and processes is necessary. Just as importantly, however, we need to take a long view and understand the limitations of our knowledge. We need to plan and design buildings that aren’t so finely tuned to the very latest trends that they risk becoming obsolete before opening day.

Designing for the long term can mean building additional slack and flexibility into the project — more space in the terminal and on the apron, a little extra structural capacity, a generous approach to building services, room for the next stage of expansion. That can be a tough sell when every square foot of building space and aircraft apron costs a small fortune.

Designing for people

What constants can we rely on? Critically, the need to design for people, thinking about the way they experience our creations. If buildings fail to meet fundamental human needs, they risk becoming disposable. Light, space, ease of movement, a bit of flexibility, quality construction, and strong sense of place add longevity to airport terminals and other building typologies.

A quick survey of the world’s most enduring buildings and popular cities demonstrates that even in a world of perpetual, turbulent change, good design can remain relevant for centuries. As practitioners, we should strive for that kind of timelessness. I certainly feel satisfaction when I see that an airport terminal that I helped plan 20 years ago has absorbed and responded to the many challenges that have been thrown at it.

But can it respond to two or three more decades of innovation and change? Unfortunately, that’s less certain. Many of us who have been at this for a long time know that the pace of change continually threatens to make our best efforts irrelevant long before we thought possible. In fact, a huge percentage of our work involves reshaping older projects to meet new realities that simply could not have been foreseen.

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