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The role of automation and creativity in a waste-free future 

automation
illustration by Goncalo Viana

OPINION: If you look at infrastructure in the developed world, there’s much that needs to be redone. Rushed construction is already crumbling, trains are packed and roads are more congested than ever. 

In emerging countries, new infrastructure needs to be built including rail, roads, tunnels and bridges. 

The world population is expected to grow to nearly 10 billion by 2050 — and 75 per cent will live in major cities, with almost half to be part of the middle class.

To accommodate this growth, the construction industry will need to build an average of 13,000 buildings per day in major cities, according to research firm Statista. And trillions of dollars must be invested in infrastructure. 

More demand faces the reality of less 

With 400,000 people joining the middle class each day, living standards and earning power are strong. But along with earning power comes more demand for almost everything — from energy to housing to cars to products. 

At the same time, we must confront the reality of less — fewer natural resources, less space, less waste — because there’s simply not enough raw materials or money available to do things the way they’ve always been done. 

Construction generates nearly a third of global waste, with volume expected to double by 2025. And the manufacturing supply chain wastes roughly 70 per cent of spare parts. 

In Australia, around 40 per cent of waste comes from the construction industry — a number that hasn’t improved since the 1960s. In fact, the December 2018 National Waste Report shows that construction waste is growing at 2 per cent a year, outweighing municipal waste. 

To meet increasing demand responsibly, make things better and make them with less negative impact on the world is a massive challenge. But it’s also the biggest opportunity designers and makers have ever had. 

Automation connects ideas and data 

Automation presents an opportunity to embrace new construction and manufacturing processes with less waste and better outcomes. Technology brings information together, spurs stronger ideas and helps people make better decisions. 

We must welcome endless learning and creativity, working smarter, not harder, as we make the best use of existing resources to do more with less. 

Imagine if architects, engineers, and contractors could team up to build something virtually before they built it in real life. Working from one building model, they can explore dozens of options early in the design phase to facilitate ideation and collaboration before construction, helping conserve resources. Real-time feedback on the cost, reliability and risk of designs can make the final outcome better. 

A new era of automation creates more meaningful work 

Surprisingly, in the new era of automation we face a shortage of skills, not a shortage of jobs. Workers will have to adapt to a more technologically sophisticated work environment. Collaboration with machines, such as robots, will lead to better opportunities and more meaningful work. 

People will need to build and maintain those robots, plan and coordinate projects, and set up the robots on the sites. 

In Australia, robot-driven productivity is estimated to boost the economy by $1 trillion by accelerating the rate of automation. By 2025, automation in manufacturing are predicted to increase Australia employment by 6 per cent, while workplace injuries are set to fall by 11 per cent as dangerous manual tasks become automated. 

For example, Australian construction and infrastructure Laing O’Rourke used the deep-integration of robotics with its Austrak rail manufacturing facility. It developed a robot with sensing and perception capabilities that could make recommendations to frontline workers, freeing them from routine work to do more creative tasks. 

Better opportunities ahead 

What if the model could be applied to whole cities? What if citizens were involved in the ideation process? This requires a new mindset and clear vision, but anything is possible when we reimagine the way we work. To succeed, let’s embrace adaptability, resiliency and community. 

If Australia invests wisely and shares people, data, and solutions across sectors, it can grow a national capability to support and expand niche manufacturing expertise and remain globally competitive. 

Digital, flexible tools will help workers learn, grow, and adjust to the new world of work. Technology adoption challenges are real, and have to be tackled, today. Ultimately, we have to bring people together and prioritise automation to positively impact local economies, balance the inevitability of more demand, the reality of less resources, and our aspiration for better. 

Automation is our ticket to better. 

Andrew Anagnost is president and chief executive officer of Autodesk. 


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. Spinifex may be inconvenient or annoying at times, but in fact, it’s highly resilient in a hostile environment and essential to nurturing biodiversity and holding the topsoil together. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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One Response to “The role of automation and creativity in a waste-free future ”

  • Jake Hickey says:

    Interesting article. Robot bricklaying systems are well developed and have built test homes in Western Australia. With Automation we can solve labour allocation issues and potentially use less resources to build more structures. However we need to be mindful of the ability of any new systems capacity to be recycled and reused in a closed loop to retain valuable basic raw material. The aforementioned bricklaying robot uses glue not mortar to lay bricks. Making salvage difficult and recycling into tracking or road base nearly impossible as the glue might contain chemicals that are not suitable for use near the water table.

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