Before the pandemic, the world was already facing a series of global transformations in the field of construction, where emerging countries were at the forefront of a powerful economic shift. As the world's population is expected to reach the 10-billion milestone before 2100, the construction sector should be able to understand and adapt to the megatrends that are reshaping the globe.
Demographic Growth and Shift of Economic Powers: Bigger Economies, Bigger Challenges
The global population is still growing fast, although it is expected to slow nearly to a halt by the end of the century. In fact, the world’s population is projected by the UN to reach approximately 10.9 billion in 2100. Of course, very different dynamics can be narrowed down to the regional level, where emerging countries are at the forefront of both demographic and economic shifts.
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As highlighted by the Pew Research Center, the UN predicts that Africa is the only world region projected to have strong population growth for the rest of this century, increasing from 1.3 billion to 4.3 billion by 2100 and concentrated primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, five of the world's 10 largest countries by population are projected to be in Africa, namely Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Egypt.
When it comes to the economic shift, Asian countries are expected to make up most of the top 5 countries in the world by size of GDP in 2024. Moreover, emerging markets (known as E7) could grow around twice as fast as advanced economies (G7) on average by 2050, according to a pre-pandemic investigation released by PWC.
With bigger economies comes bigger challenges, including, but not limited to, enhancing existing institutions and inadequate infrastructure while addressing the increasing percentage of both middle and very-poor classes. In fact, economic inequality had refloated as a global concern among experts and pundits even before the COVID-19-prompted economic crisis.
How are these trends impacting the construction sector in emerging countries? Unavoidable issues include the exorbitant demand for affordable housing, rapid new-build waves mainly in emerging markets, and the need to build fast and safe in ways that adapt to the hot and humid climates of many growing countries.
As expected, the projected demographic growth will be driven mainly by cities. Moreover, the urban population’s fast pace of growth is leading to a larger list of megacities—metropolitan areas with a total population of more than 10 million people.
Back in 1990, Tokyo’s impressive 30-million inhabitants in its metropolitan area constituted the highest population of the world's 10 megacities. Today, if it were a country, the population of the Greater Tokyo Area would rank above Canada. In 2030, the list of megacities is expected to grow to 41, located primarily in growing regions such as Dhaka (Bangladesh), Kinshasa (D.R. Congo), Manila (Philippines), and Madras (India).
When asked about the major changes in the global economy likely to occur in the aftermath of COVID-19, Michael Spence, Nobel Prize Laureate in Economic Sciences, suggested higher risk aversion, increasing investment in digital technologies, and the diversification of supply chains. Therefore, smart cities should expand rapidly in order to quickly gather enough real-time data to manage assets, resources, and services efficiently—while setting clear rules to protect people’s privacy.
Even though the sprawl as an urban planning model might stage a (short) comeback based on the already debunked myth that rates of COVID-19 are positively correlated to population density in cities, in the long run, multifunctional buildings and mixed-use neighborhoods might be the face of necessary territorial transformations as the world fights to produce responsive low-carbon cities. Simultaneously, companies, workers, policymakers, and citizens will test whether homeworking will endure as a feature of post-COVID-19 societies.
The Revolution of Technologies: From 3D Printing to Automation
Over the past decade, it has been clear that the future would become increasingly digital. Mobile and cloud platforms helped spread global and easy digital access to information, entertainment, and knowledge, while big data and artificial intelligence had been surreptitiously growing within everyday operations in ways that many consumers were not aware of—from price optimization to social media analysis to customer behavior prediction.
When it comes to architecture and construction, over the previous decade, architects and urban planners witnessed the consolidation of user-friendly 3D modeling and realistic architectural visualization software, the rise of parametricism as an architectural style in itself, and the first steps of using virtual reality and augmented reality for massive audiences. Nowadays, 3D printing, automation, machine learning, BIM implementation, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have attracted the most attention since they promise to ignite a revolution in the construction field—whether industry workers like it or not—by reducing construction and prefabrication costs, improving custom scalability, and reshaping architects’ required skills, including overseeing and managing as features in their job descriptions.
Moreover, it is expected the coronavirus will trigger a massive new wave of automation, accelerating the changes already underway. As pointed out by Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, “robots don’t get the coronavirus and don’t need to be socially distanced.” Even though previous industrial revolutions reveal that “each lost job is replaced by a new job,” historian Yuval Noah Harari states in his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that each of these instances is also a chance to automate.
On the other hand, the current pandemic has revealed the architecture of logistics as a potential field to explore for practitioners, theorists, and builders, as invisible and sometimes unexpected chain supply stages have been rendered visible due to the quarantine. Described by ArchDaily’s Andrea Cutieru as “the built environment of machines,” these stages encompass a range of typologies including but not limited to data centers, automated assembly lines, telecommunications facilities, and warehouses, raising questions “about the architectural significance and design potential of the spaces sustaining the mechanics of today's world”.
Climate Crisis: Energy-Efficient and Low-Footprint Solutions
At the 2019 Climate Action Summit, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated: “The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.” For the construction industry, this race is especially challenging, since buildings and construction together account for 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when upstream power generation is included, according to the UN Environment Global Status Report 2017.
Rising temperatures—prompted by the climate crisis—fuel environmental degradation, worsen natural disasters, and increase disaster frequency, leading to food and water insecurity as well as economic disruption due to unexpected changes in the production matrix, which may fuel geopolitical conflicts in turn.
Unfortunately, our society is grounded in cheap fossil fuels. Back in 2017, these energy sources accounted for 85% of global energy consumption according to a report by the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. These energy sources are everywhere: fossil-fuel-powered transport systems, food chain supplies delivered by these transport systems, the high embodied carbon of concrete—you name it.
Every year, 6.13 billion square meters of buildings are constructed. These buildings should be designed according to the climatic conditions of the present and, to reduce waste, be built for a 100-year lifespan. Moreover, the crisis urges architects to develop energy-efficient and low-footprint solutions for buildings and construction, and to explore recycling and the potential of a circular economy. Moreover, manufacturer companies should be on board with global-scale actions such as the WWF-backed Science Based Targets Initiatives (SBTi) and the Saint Gobain Net-Zero Carbon by 2050 initiative in order to decarbonize the market.
Supplementing these aims, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) works as a global blueprint for designers, developers, policymakers, and citizens to implement strategic policies and market incentives that will change the pace and scale of actions in the global buildings market.
On a finite planet, where infinite growth is expected to feed our growing population, these times require significant change.
Architectural Challenges in Emerging Countries
It is worth noting that these trends will not occur identically around the world. While some dense cities, mostly in Europe, have already observed a refurbishment trend in design to help optimize the built environment, megacities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America must develop metropolitan-scale urban planning and management tools in order to establish long-term visions for their development and to be able to respond to potential metropolitan-scale social, pandemic, and climate crises in real-time.
On one hand, as emerging countries get richer and denser, unavoidable issues arise in architecture. Proper and scalable HVAC design will be required in order to tolerate aggressive climate conditions as cities densify by verticalization. Superficial sustainability operations will no longer be enough, and humidity, dust, and heat will have to be attacked at the foundations of each project—including through duct systems and internal components—requiring more integrated and collaborative work with engineers, builders, and manufacturers.
On the other hand, the current pandemic and climate crises are reshaping the idea of resilience. After stress tests such as the COVID-19 outbreak or the frequent environmental disasters this year, should cities spring back to their original form? Cem Kayatekin points out that the definition of resilience as inertia is rooted in material science, whereas in ecology, for example, the jungle responds to pressure by "responding to changes, evolving over time."
Therefore, the main challenge for architecture and construction at this time is developing a built environment that can actually evolve, especially in emerging countries for which the consequences might be most severe. Moreover, as architects, designers, and developers, the present state of the climate crisis requires us to design projects that actively contribute to mitigating the effects of global warming. Does your project help or damage? We should develop energy-efficient and low-footprint solutions for buildings, while resilience compels us to create scalable and responsive solutions simultaneously.