Opinion—The Future of Construction: A Possible Scenario

Mar 29, 2017

The nature of how products and services are produced is shifting rapidly.

When you are in the middle of sociological upheavals, such as those that are affecting our society and the construction industry today, it’s difficult to focus on the long-view—how the cumulative effect of these changes will alter our industry over the next 10, 20 or 50 years.

It’s also difficult to predict the future. But we can examine some of the changes taking place. Hopefully, this gives a perspective, if only a hazy one, of what to expect in the coming years.

Robots, advanced mechanical, computerized machines, are displacing human workers in many of the sectors of our economy. Non-humans answer our phone inquiries; they are at the checkout counters where we shop; and they handle our banking needs. In the near future even complex tax returns may be completed by feeding information into data bases not examined by humans. Some analysts of the legal profession think that many tasks now performed by attorneys will eventually be done by computers.

It is reasonable to predict that online shopping will result in the demise of traditional bricks-and-mortar stores on an ever-increasing scale. Sears, Radio Shack, Macys, Barnes and Noble, even Walmart and Target, are losing business to Amazon and other online marketplaces.

Modern manufacturing facilities are eerily empty. You walk the floors encountering only machines; the few human technical overseers are encased in small rooms working on computers far from the production lines.

Will the vast numbers of clerical workers housed in multistory office buildings be replaced by artificial intelligence?

Where will the displaced workers find employment? For the first time since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the replacement of one industry by another may not result in new jobs for the displaced.

One of the mainstays of our industry has been the construction of retail stores; urban and suburban malls, and shopping centers. This construction has already slowed.

Another has been residential construction. People who are unemployed or under employed do not build houses and they struggle to pay their rent. This inhibits new single-family and multi-family housing construction.

Will the demand for office spaces occupied by humans decline as well?

Presumably, hopefully, infrastructure construction will remain robust.

Manufacturers will continue to require production facilities. Restaurants, medical facilities, and offices will continue to be built and renovated.

It is reasonable to assume there will always be a need for building contractors although the number of projects available in some sectors of our industry may be dramatically reduced.

Will robots replace human construction workers? Not in the near future but eventually? (An editorial in the March 27, 2017, edition of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL by Andy Kessler entitled Bill Gates vs. the Robots discusses Mr. Gates’ proposal to tax robots to help preserve human jobs).

The economic viability of our civilization is based upon the premise that we are paid to produce goods and services for others. With that money we, in turn, purchase goods and services produced by other people. When humans are no longer needed for production this economic construct will collapse unless a viable economic paradigm is developed to replace it.

This is stark view of the future. Humans adapt. Unforeseen technologies that create job opportunities not previously imagined may unfold.

Let’s hope this is the future into which we are moving.

Don Wallis has more than 40 years experience in residential and commercial construction, and land development. He also has a law degree and currently teaches Environmental Law at Santa Fe Community College.


Bil Gates vs. the Robots, Andy Kessler, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, March 27, 2017.