Children are already learning the skills they will need for a digital future through play, says Jaimie Johnston. The trick for the construction industry will be how to attract and harness this pool of talent

Jaimie Johnston BW 2018

Computer games may not sound like a big part of the future for construction design, but they could be. Through Minecraft, and games like it, kids are already learning the skills they will need to excel at virtual design.

For those of you who haven’t played it, Minecraft involves “mining” different kinds of 3D blocks and then “crafting” them into new creations. There are parallels with Lego, but Minecraft goes much further. On LinkedIn, tech commentator Joel Chappell says: “It’s like building something out of Lego after you made and moulded the plastic and dyed it with plants that you grew yourself, and then going on an adventure inside it through forests and deserts while monsters are chasing you”.

It’s entertainment, of course, but the skills required to play it are absolutely relevant to the process of virtual design. Players need to be able to build in response to different biomes (terrain), problem-solve in a “live” environment while facing pressure from monsters, use materials in creative and unique ways, and collaborate with others around the world.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Chartered Institute of Building, which has created “Craft Your Future” within the Minecraft world. Through it, young learners collaborate in teams to design, plan and build within Newtown, a specially created virtual city. Commercial and educational organisations have seen the potential of the system, too. When Sioux Steel was planning a new site earlier this year, young people were invited to contribute their ideas for the project through Lego and Minecraft. Also this summer, children in Northern Ireland had the opportunity to construct a virtual replica of the new Armagh collage campus through Minecraft.

All of this matters, because what the building industry needs from its designers is changing fast. A new generation of digital natives will work in partnership with algorithms. Their contribution will increasingly be the initial concept, which is where design value is greatest. A much smaller proportion of their time will go into documenting the idea than it does now. These skills will also be needed in many other industries, so construction must be able to compete to attract them – and some, like the

tech giants, have deep pockets.

The digital natives will drive a new kind of automated, or platform, construction. As in Minecraft, they will create unique structures from sets of standardised components, designed to fit together, as they do in manufacturing. This means much less waste and faster build times. And because efficient assembly processes can be designed in, site workers will need far less training than traditional trades require. The skills shortage we currently face makes that a very good thing.

Some might question whether digital natives can replace existing architectural training or cope with the practical challenges. A Minecraft building may not be structurally sound, for example. Yet structural requirements, and other standards – for fire resistance or electrical connectivity – could be designed in. The technology doesn’t exist yet, but it seems inevitable that it eventually will.

Others might argue that existing architectural education should simply be adapted to meet new needs, but architecture training is already very expensive – it can cost up to £120,00 for a five-year course. Moreover, technology is developing so fast that knowledge will need to be constantly renewed.

Ideas such as skills acquisition through Minecraft sound radical, but so does the future. The World Economic Forum estimates that 65% of children who are now in primary education will end up in jobs that don’t exist today. It’s a view echoed by Dell Technologies, which predicts that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t yet been invented. Few would doubt that technology is driving change at an ever-increasing rate, but it is also extending the scope of human creativity. Today, young people can learn virtual design through play. Our industry will need their skills, and so will many others.

Jaimie Johnston is director and head of global systems, Bryden Wood