Profiles in design: Technology consultant Dan Michaud

Starchitects aside, we hear little about the individuals whose cumulative decisions shape the built environment. To peer behind the curtain of today’s design field, we’re asking engineers, architects, policymakers, and others about their personal experiences and opinions.

Dan Michaud, a technology consultant and associate in Arup’s Chicago office, spoke with us about big data, the Internet of Things, and improv.


What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

We’re the folks that design the business communications systems that make your phones work, all the data. The data that comes into your computer, we’re the ones who create the highway for it, generally speaking.

Now my team is working on a new strategy as part of [Arup’s] Digital Americas, which involves figuring out the next steps for what happens with that data in the built environment — the big data analytics and such.

What’s your background?

My degree is in electrical engineering. I also studied naval architecture and marine engineering for a few years, and I was in the Peace Corps, so my background is a little different than most people’s. But a lot of the guys in our world may not have a degree at all. It’s a mixed bag.

Dan Michaud in St. Vincent and the Grenadines with the Peace Corps, 1989

How would you characterize the state of big data in the built environment right now? It seems like the design industry is still wrapping its head around what it means.

As of a few years ago the built environment was easily a decade behind. The iPhone had a lot to do with what’s going on now. In the industries we work in, the home drives what the business does. People got widescreen TVs in their basements before they showed up in conference rooms. And having an iPhone — everyone believing “There’s an app for that” — drove them to say, “Why isn’t there an app for that at the office?”

That started a huge investment in venture capital into software systems, so suddenly there’s somewhere to go with the data. There’s a lot more interest in the data you can get from buildings and how it helps you understand the workplace than there was just a few years ago. Who’s using what types of rooms and how? How are the systems supporting the people? Are we efficiently using our assets?

As of a few years ago the built environment was easily a decade behind.

I’ve been told that the Internet of Things will make a bigger difference in the average person’s life than the Internet has — do you think that’s the case?

That seems right to me. Sensor technology has greatly improved; suddenly you have sensors that you can put on anything, and the ideas are exploding as to where you can put them in order to better manage your built environment and help individuals.

Sensors embedded in a parking lot

There’s a downside to that, too. You can take it too far.

Yeah, there’s obviously a significant strain of dystopian thinking around these developments. What are some of the problems that people are trying to foresee and prevent?

Well, the truth is that we’re mostly there. The data is out there today. The data on your cell phone can easily be tracked. So in terms of the dystopian possibilities, it’s less about the built environment in some ways. It’s mostly a question of policy and law.

Data-sourced map

Are advances in digital buildings being driven by businesses? Governments? Universities?

Yes to all three. There’s a government component; for example, the General Services Administration is enabling its buildings to have a lot more sensory devices, starting with a focus on portfolio energy tracking and reduction.

You see the manufacturers creating the market. This happens a lot in technology. They’ll get together and agree what the market needs to be, have these great ideas, and start pumping them out.

But then you’ll see large firms saying, “How we do take advantage of these things?” One client, for example, knows that by using BIM [building information modeling] they can greatly improve how they roll out their buildings and track their built environment. They don’t know how to get there, though. That’s where my team comes in.

You see the manufacturers creating the market. This happens a lot in technology.


Your team’s based in Chicago. Is there one place in the world that’s leading this movement?

There’s no physical center. One of the challenges in North America is that we use the CSI model. All the design work goes through the Construction Specifications Institute process, and that puts disciplines in divisions. You take a big scope of work and break it into all these disciplines, but the smart building piece takes data from each silo and cuts across. Traditionally it’s been really hard to get that scope of work into the general contractors’ world because they have no idea what to do with it.

Arup has been pushing that envelope for a long time. We offer something called Division 25, which is a process that CSI created specifically to address integrating systems. Very few companies are currently using Division 25, and contractors are just beginning to understand it. That’s one of the reasons why our team’s offering is so powerful — we can help everyone involved figure out how to use the existing system to start creating smart buildings.

So this work is challenging not only because it’s new, but because it goes against the procedural operations of the industry.

Yeah. You see that changing slowly. Similar to sustainability — the first few years nobody wanted to deal with that either.

Can you give me an example of an interesting project you’ve worked on?

We’re about to work with a large technology firm, looking at how the Internet of Things intersects with their built environment to help them optimize that environment, but also to feed back into their own product development. If that’s not the zenith of what we could do, I’m not sure what is. You’re helping them become their own living lab.

I’ve always been in the space of making order from chaos. I worked on a big government project a few years ago — this goes back to the CSI bidding and contracting model; the client had moved forward assuming certain things and was already building when they realized that they’d way underestimated their needs. We worked with the design team as they were building to figure out what next to put in for pathways, but we had to custom design a host of technology systems in order to understand how they integrated, what their demand for fiber optics was — changing the documents just ahead of the construction team using them.

So we were doing something that’s not in your typical engineering brochure. It’s a totally different way of approaching things. Without us that client would have spent millions of dollars ripping things out and fixing stuff. They couldn’t articulate what the problem was; we went in and interviewed them and realized that we needed to figure out a new process and explain it to everyone involved.

That was something that not many groups could’ve done. The teams I’ve led, we speak engineering, we speak architecture, and we speak IT. If you sit in a design team and don’t have someone who can translate between those groups, you’ll have people trying to communicate about important issues and failing. You see that in meetings.

Any team that I’ve been on, I’ve tried to bridge that gap. Soft skills are a big part of it. I studied improv and that’s been a big influence on my career. A dream of mine is to help technical people learn soft skills, because they don’t teach you that in engineering school.

Why did you start doing improv?

I grew up watching Saturday Night Live and thinking, “I want to do that.” After I moved to Chicago I started studying improv at Second City. I spent three years going through their program. But then I got married and had kids and had to focus on my technical career. Improv is one of those things that you need a lot of time for.

Raquel Welch and Gilda Radner during a 1976 “Saturday Night Live” rehearsal.

But there’s a lot you can do with improv to help businesspeople think differently. There’s a thing called “Yes And–ing.” Let’s say you’re playing a husband and wife onstage and the husband says, “I really hated the way you made coffee today” and the wife says, “I didn’t even make coffee today.” She just negated the idea that progresses the scene. So you never say no in improv.

If you apply that to the business world, you don’t tell a client, “No, we can’t solve that.” Instead you say, “Yes, tell me more about your problem . . . and what if we did this?”

You never say no in improv.

I’m an advocate of teaching improv to engineers. It helps you to take a step back and think of the problem from another perspective, and it teaches you to be in the moment. If you’re thinking about what you’re going to say next you’re not hearing what the other person is saying; that’s a way of negating. You want to take the gift that they’re giving you, heighten it, and give it back. That exchange is what helps to build a story.

That’s the same thing you’re doing with a design solution, if you think about it — you take someone’s idea, add your piece to it, and hand it back. That’s how really great designs are made.


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