Innovation in AEC & the Gartner Hype Cycle

For many years, we've been referencing the Gartner Hype Cycle to describe innovation in the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry. We primarily use the Hype Cycle to demonstrate that innovation in AEC is difficult and that it takes time to develop strategies that overcome the limitations of technology. We thought we'd share additional insight into the Hype Cycle and how it relates to AEC. Here are three such insights: 

1. Projects push us through the Hype Cycle

The Hype Cycle defines the path a technology takes and how we engage it. In consumer technology, there can be a variety of ways that a technology moves along the Hype Cycle. A technology may move from the "Peak of Inflated Expectations" through the "Trough of Disillusionment" and into the "Slope of Enlightenment." This may be because the initial manufacturer of a technology was joined by other manufacturers at a later date and the improvement of the technology was driven by the lessons learned, exposure, or better engineering.

In AEC, projects and project teams push the movement of a technology across the Hype Cycle. Our technologies don't have the massive numbers of consumers or large number of manufacturers to push the Hype Cycle. What drives AEC and the Hype Cycle are teams of people on projects adapting technology into our people-based workflows and systems.

One example was the implementation of Autodesk Revit. In the early years, the quality and predictability of incoming Revit models for general contractors was highly variable and problematic. The standard practice for many general contractors became to remodel the entire architectural and structural model. We could teach a college course on the history of why this happened, but it's safe to say it was both a technology and user-based standards problem. This practice has now changed and it's a rare project that gets remodeled. The point here, however, is that project teams and lessons learned pushed us through the Hype Cycle for Revit implementation and not technology improvement.

It's important to point out that it's projects that push us through the Hype Cycle, because we should understand that it will be rare for a technology to be fully established. It takes people on jobsites to make AEC technology work. 

2. AEC lags consumer technology on the Hype Cycle

The AEC industry benefits hugely from consumer technologies. Consumers push through the Hype Cycle before the AEC industry, which affects the level and type of hype we encounter. A good example would be iPads. iPads were immediately a huge consumer phenomenon, and as a technology, consumers very quickly figured out the positive and negative aspects of the technology. Remember the articles that complained about the lack of USB ports and removable storage in 2010? Clearly, consumers moved through their own Hype Cycle rather quickly. For AEC, we went through our own Hype Cycle that was different and behind the consumer cycle for the iPad. We figured out how to protect them from damage; thought hard about bring-your-own-device (BYOD) issues; and waited for developers to introduce AEC-specific apps, like PlanGrid, which didn't exist until March 2012.

It's important to understand that the AEC Hype Cycle lags behind consumer trends because we need to realize that technology that's ready for consumers isn't ready for AEC until we work through our own implementation and expectation issues. 

3. There's never just one Hype Cycle

A while back, Gartner approached BuildingSP with a questionnaire to evaluate technology leadership in AEC. We were asked the following question:

How would you characterize a leader as best in class in utilizing digital opportunities in the construction industry today (what should be in place and what would they have achieved)?

We answered with the following response:

The best-in-class users of digital opportunities in construction are constantly evaluating and implementing technology. The typical construction company only deploys tech during major events, like an enterprise resource planning upgrade (every ten years) and on a firm-wide basis. Great companies have an ethos of constant improvement, and look at how tech can make a difference. This not only creates a culture of improvement but also the ability to quickly implement good tech. Those that are good at evaluating tech are good at implementing tech.

Another way of answering this question is to say there's never one Hype Cycle. Five years ago, many general contractors had figured out how to use building information modeling (BIM) to do coordination of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems. They had reached the "Plateau of Productivity" for BIM MEP coordination. But at that point, these same firms were learning how to use BIM for estimating. This took more trial and error. Even though firms had moved through one Hype Cycle, they were still moving through another.

The takeaway is that great firms know there's another Hype Cycle coming and the constant evaluation of technology is part of what makes a company innovative.

There are many other reasons why the Gartner Hype Cycle is an important mental model for technology innovation. Each individual firm can define particular events and moments along the curve. We hope this article makes you think about how your firm engages technology, the history of your past innovation, and strategies that help you consistently move through the Hype Cycle. 



As you may have noticed, we've been doing a lot of writing about the impact of computational BIM, generative design, and the future of how we work. One thing we haven't done is turn some of this thinking into more rigorous analysis. But now we're ready to do that! 

If you work for a general contractor, subcontractor, or design firm and want to collaborate on whitepapers that quantify how computational methods of working will change our industry, reach out to us and let’s talk about what we can do. We're open to collaborations worldwide and have lots of ways of measuring performance indicators to gain insight into change in our industry. Contact Brett Young at