A Take on Tech: Big Data
Douglas Wittnebel in A Take on Tech, San Ramon, Technology

Illustration courtesy of Doug Wittnebel

Following the rapid growth of cloud computing, the term “big data” has achieved peak media attention. It has also surfaced in a number of recent conversations with Gensler’s tech clients, and so it behooves us as architects to understand the meaning and implications of Big Data for our business, our clients, and the spaces we design for them.

I recently had the chance to listen to David Corrigan, a director of product marketing for IBM’s InfoSphere platform. This platform is a suite of tools for businesses that must confront large amounts of data, and Corrigan spoke with us about the implications of the question that’s on everyone’s mind: What is Big Data?

According to Corrigan, data describes the ever-growing volume, variety and velocity of information that businesses (and thus people) deal with. “Data’s coming at organizations more quickly than ever before,” he told us. In some cases, the insights they need to glean from this constant stream have “a really short shelf life.” And although there is a lot of hype around Big Data from technology trade publications and IT blogs, as well as mainstream media, he told us not to ignore it. The attention is deserved.

Here is my view on big data, announcements, hype, attention and glamour…

1. Why all the hype?

Every day we create 2.5 quintillion (that’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000) bytes of data. To put this in perspective, 90% of the data in the world today has been created in just the last two years.

Gensler’s clients are responding quickly to a growing link between personal mobility, digital devices, cloud computing, and Big Data, and in some cases have asked us to assist with the quick delivery of work/lab space for their swelling ranks of engineers and thinkers.

Illustration courtesy of Doug Wittnebel

2. How does Big Data change Gensler’s tech clients’ business?

In a recent Wired magazine interview, Oxford University professor Victor Mayer-Schonberger, co-author with Kenneth Cukier of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think,* had something interesting to say:

Wired: How is this changing computer science. Does everyone need to be a programmer?

Mayer-Schonberger: Yes, we still need a very large population of programmers, but programming will change in the sense that programming will focus more on Big Data and data analytics rather than web user interface or transaction programming as has happened in the past. At the end of the day, it’s still writing code to manipulate data, but it will have a different application and a different goal.

Gensler’s current range of tech clients includes numerous businesses at the forefront of Big Data, in multiple sectors, from the ways the data are crunched to how they are implemented. Here’s just a sample:

How will Big Data change the way these clients do business, in how their workplaces are designed and configured? It’s a question we’re beginning to help them answer. (But see point #4 for more.)

3. What does Big Data mean for us businesses?

Data is king for companies looking to attract new customers and keep their current ones happy. User feedback and interactions, purchase history, and other data are the information fuel that drives companies to stay ahead of the pack.

“Those who can analyze Big Data may see past market superstitions and conventional thinking,” notes Corrigan. “Not because they’re smarter, but because they have the information.” This data can generate tremendous value for those businesses that are able to use it — to improve decision making, to discover trends, to customize services, and to innovate new products and business models. “The problem is that most businesses aren’t ready to manage this flood of data,” Corrigan adds, “much less do anything interesting with it.” In other words, the potential to effect big changes in the marketplace, and thus for consumers, remains vast.

Illustration courtesy of Doug Wittnebel

4. What does Big Data mean to us as designers?

For Gensler’s design teams, grappling with the impact of Big Data means several things: Research will become more important, and our clients will be asking for more data-driven decisions. Our building designs will need to focus more on systems and feedback and incorporate metrics for energy delivery and building controls. Our planning processes for buildings, neighborhoods, cities, and regions are intrinsically tied to high-performance databases and future predictive context models.

In the end, however, as wonderful and helpful as all of this information can be, it has its limits, limits that we as designers are trained to work past. Like a lump of clay, Big Data is potentially terrific, but inert. On its own, it will never create anything. Instead, it requires the practiced hand of the designer, working in concert with the client, to make something not only useful, but even beautiful from the ever-cascading flow of Big Data.

The next Take on Tech blog will look at m2m and RFID topics.

*As the title indicates, Mayer-Schonberger, an Oxford professor who studies information technology, and Cukier, an editor at The Economist, are excited by Big Data, but their book is more than simple cheerleading from the sideline. It’s a nuanced and remarkably readable account of the technological changes that have made the Big Data era possible, and a primer on many of the interesting things that are happening at the intersection of powerful computer processing, machine learning, and data analytics.

Virginia Pettit
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at douglas_wittnebel@gensler.com.
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (http://www.gensleron.com/).
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