Aarni Heiskanen recently chatted with Niknaz Aftahi, a keynote speaker at the WDBE 2022 conference. She touched on her path to becoming a construction technology advocate, her Big Why, the reason she started her own company, and so much more.
Niknaz went against all odds to become an architect. For context, she received her Bachelor of Architecture from BIHE, the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education – a unique university in Iran that started after Baha’is were expelled and banned from entering national universities right after the revolution. Later, Niknaz relocated to the US, where she pursued a master’s in architecture at UC Berkeley.
Niknaz traces her interest in technology’s potential applications to when she worked on a public space design proposal with a computer scientist. She never looked back. Niknaz also worked as a designer in a couple of architectural firms in the US and also had a stint as a design professional at ELS Architecture and Urban Design in Berkeley.
During employment, something about Niknaz’s career irritated her:
“When you’re working as an architect, sometimes you get frustrated by the very slow pace of traditional design and procurement workflows.”
Niknaz further explains how some of the processes were mind-numbing, and the only time she felt alive was when she was actively involved in design work. Fortunately, the leadership in ELS Architecture and Urban Design embraced new technology. Seizing the opportunity, Niknaz’s passion for technology stood out, and she was allowed to form a design technology committee. Here she worked on diverse initiatives that exposed her to the potential of build tech, which ultimately stoked her curiosity to learn more about construction technology.
Something keeps Niknaz awake at night. She takes note of the building industry’s slow growth and how building professionals struggle to learn about new tools that can increase their efficiency. For this reason, here’s Niknaz’s mission:
“My vision is really creating a community, a searchable database or space where everyone can easily and instantly learn about new innovations that are relevant to their work and can benefit their work.”
Niknaz further explains that growing client demand and government regulations are some of the reasons to embrace new technology. She acknowledges that small and mid-sized companies can also benefit from innovations despite the technology adoption process being challenging and costly. The good news, Niknaz has a plan:
“My vision is helping these mid-sized and small-sized firms find the right tool for their project.”
She is deeply convinced that these businesses play a crucial role in cities by building critical structures such as apartment buildings, hotels, car parks, and commercial spaces.
Niknaz is excited by the diverse technology applications in the construction sector. But if you were to turn up the heat, 3D printing captivates her most. She admits the technology is far from perfect, but with more players getting involved, the future is intriguing. In other words:
“The construction sector is responsible for almost 40% of carbon emissions, but the less time the project takes, the smaller its environmental impact, which is great.”
Niknaz and her cofounder, Kevin So, noticed that AEC firms didn’t have a reliable way to discover new technology. Yes, there was a lot of innovation happening in the industry, Niknaz notes, but there was still no reliable way to keep track of the new developments. In fact, most construction professionals rely on their networks for technology recommendations. The challenge with this approach is that it’s time-consuming and inaccurate, especially if you’re talking to the wrong person.
To put it differently:
“Based on our data, only 1% of firms have a designated person or team functioning as a technologist who are either making in-house tools or are just learning and adopting new products from outside,” Niknaz observes.
And the idea behind aec+tech:
“The basic logic platform we are providing is basically a centralized online resource and a database for users to keep up with the latest and greatest, discover the innovations, and then see the real-world application.”
In other words, aec+tech helps AEC companies find the best tools while at the same time also helping tech companies find the right customers for their software.
Niknaz believes that:
“One of technology’s greatest gifts is the ability to scale ideas and knowledge.”
She further reveals that the industry suffers from a lack of openness. That sharing lessons and scaling ideas is something alien in the industry. To curb the opaqueness, Niknaz suggests embracing the open-source concept that is prevalent in the tech world.
For instance, she shares a conversation she had with an Autodesk researcher about the challenges of accessing public data and the low number of researchers and data scientists dedicated to the AEC space.
“…the lesson from the tech world is that it’s not going to be about one particular tool or one particular piece of technology that will take over and we will all use to solve all our problems. That’s not really true, that won’t happen, but it’s rather the interplay and integration of different products that is the future,” Niknaz clarifies.
All in all, Niknaz believes that the best approach is having all these tech companies work together to revolutionize the industry.
This excerpt is just the tip of the iceberg. You can meet Niknaz at WDBE 2022 and learn more about her thoughts and ideas. Here’s how:
Listen to the whole interview on WDBE Talks.