The World Economic Forum’s Global Council on Emerging Technologies recently released a list of the most promising technology breakthroughs that they believe will enable us to realistically and cost-effectively tackle population growth, resource demands, and other sustainability issues over the next several decades. On the list were a few notable technologies that may very well be disruptive (in a positive, evolutionary way) to the building industry.
One of the emerging technologies that promises to be a game-changer for the building industry is organic electronics—components that are produced with carbon-based polymers that are lighter, more flexible, and less expensive than inorganic materials (like copper and silicon). According to the WEF, “in contrast to traditional (silicon-based) semiconductors that are fabricated with expensive photolithographic techniques, organic electronics can be printed using low-cost, scalable processes such as ink jet printing, making them extremely cheap compared with traditional electronics devices, both in terms of the cost per device and the capital equipment required to produce them. While organic electronics are currently unlikely to compete with silicon in terms of speed and density, they have the potential to provide a significant edge in cost and versatility.”
Innovative applications include smart glass (which change light and heat transmission properties when voltage is applied) and electronic paper (a display technology that mimics ordinary ink on paper for a more comfortable reading experience.)
Perhaps the most impactful application in the building industry for organic electronics involves the creation of photovoltaic collectors. The cost benefits of printed, mass-produced solar photovoltaic collectors could open the floodgate for the transition to renewable energy. We’re already witnessing the rapid evolution and growth of solar power as prices decline, efficiency rates increase, and leasing programs enable home and building owners to access systems with no money down. Imagine adoption rates when the costs for purchasing or leasing a solar system is lower than conventional fossil-fuel based solutions!
Another breakthrough technology that will assuredly alter our status quo is three-dimensional printing, in which a solid structure is created from a digital computer file through an additive sequential layering process. WEF describes the process in the following way: “blueprints from computer-aided design are sliced into cross-section for print templates, allowing virtually created objects to be used as models for “hard copies” made from plastics, metal alloys or other materials.”
Three-dimensional printing is now being used for product development—from visualization and prototyping to end-production. Research is under way to create homes and buildings using three-dimensional printing with built-in plumbing and electrical facilities in one continuous build that takes less than 25 hours!
Because of the potential for home and small office applications (Sculpteo unveiled a mobile app at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show that allows a 3D file to be generated directly via smartphone!), three-dimensional printing has the potential to revolutionize the economics of manufacturing.
In a recent New York Times article, journalist Steven Kurutz said that “there is a growing sense that 3-D printers may be the home appliance of the future, much as personal computers were 30 years ago…. futurists and 3-D printing hobbyists are now envisioning a world in which someone has an idea for a work-saving tool — or breaks the hour hand on their kitchen clock or loses the cap to the shampoo bottle — and simply prints the invention or the replacement part.”
With desktop models available from companies like MakerBot for only $2,200, this technology has the potential to drastically transform global economics and trade, as individuals and small companies will be able to manufacture their own products on a local scale rather than purchase products from larger, international corporations.
Self-healing materials, a favorite of biomimicry proponents, will also have a significant impact on the building industry. The WEF asserts that these materials “have the capacity to heal themselves when cut, torn or cracked. Self-healing materials ,which can repair damage without external human intervention, could give manufactured goods longer lifetimes and reduce the demand for raw materials, as well as improving the inherent safety of materials used in construction.”
Think about the performance and financial implications if building envelope materials could repair themselves after damage caused by weather events, wind or snow loads, water intrusion, expansion or contraction, subsidence, engineering defects, faulty construction, or other natural forces. The promise of self-healing materials gives a whole new meaning to the concept of the ‘house as a system’!
Remote Sensing is another impactful emerging technology that will continue to influence the built environment as we know it. According to the WEF, “the increasingly widespread use of sensors that allow often passive responses to external stimulae will continue to change the way we respond to the environment.” In the building sector, we’re already seeing a proliferation of low-power smart products, controls, and sensing devices that harvest energy from ambient movement and can communicate with one another to adjust the climate, lighting, and other systems within a structure. These technologies will enable buildings to become more intelligent, efficient, and affordable.
It’s an exciting moment in time. As technologies get smarter, greener, and more adaptable, they pave the path that will lead us to a truly sustainable future.
What other groundbreaking technologies are you following? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.
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