The head on the screen, severed but still talking, has a warning to give you. Unless you leave your futile attachment to things of paper (with the exception of magazines, obviously), you face a future of non-existence … Thomas Lane made a record of the seance
A ghostly Nosferatu-like figure leans forward out of the darkness and talks about the death that awaits those who fail to follow him. This apparition, which calls itself “Tony Fitzpatrick”, is actually the chairman of Arup’s US arm, and he is in the process of giving an interview to Building magazine about how he has achieved life after paper. The death he speaks of is the commercial extinction of those who fail to do the same.

The reason Mr Fitzpatrick looks so sinister is that he is talking from 6000 miles away in San Francisco on a video link. When he zooms the camera out, he is sitting at an ordinary boardroom table. As an advertisement for the technology he advocates, the link works very

well. There is no lag between question and answer, and when he waves his arms around energetically, his enthusiasm synchronises with his speech. This is what he has to say …

Why do you use video links?
Our principal offices are New York, San Francisco and Boston, and we have smaller ones dotted around the USA. We operate completely as a virtual single group, so we have our business centred here in Los Angeles, our finances in San Francisco and our personnel and human resources in New York. You either use IT, or you don’t – and die. Arup has a global network and we have extended that in the USA so that every office is linked by video. Once you’ve got the equipment, the cost per hour is virtually zero. It’s cheaper than making a phone call.

What do you use it for?
It’s continually been used. I use it to stay in touch with former colleagues and to meet clients. Other people use it for skills networks, or to share work between offices. It’s great for production, too, if you have a problem to solve. We can do four-point video, so we can connect four offices; we frequently have New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles on at the same time every day, and two or three times a week we will have Boston join in as well.

Does that mean you never have to leave the office?
You can only go so far with distance communications. Leadership is really about keeping people motivated and having people feel that their problems are being listened to. Also, when you are dealing with strategic issues, then you do need face-to-face meetings. Half of my time is spent looking six months or more ahead. I try to go to each office and spend time with the leaders in each, and clients, too, twice in three weeks. So I try to be in San Francisco on Mondays and then I travel.

How do you keep in touch when you are out of

the office?
Travelling means that there is no way conventional communications will stay with me. The old days of getting on planes with a box of paper, reading it and writing notes, then having to hump the paper back to the hotel at the other end … just forget it. These days I don’t keep any of the firm’s correspondence on paper; it’s all on the laptop along with my email.

I run my laptop with Net Switcher, which means I can log into any part of the network from anywhere and upload and download. We use a VPN, a virtual private network to log in over the internet from the hotel, and I have a wireless connection, which goes through my cellphone – although it’s so slow you can’t really download.

I run three cellphones, two US ones and one for clients in Europe.

I have a UK-based number for them to use, and I check the voicemail regularly.

What IT issue causes you the most problems when travelling?
Right now, my biggest bugbear is bandwidth. People who just sit in an office have no feel for the effect of bandwidth on file size. They are used to a 100 Mb system that will take anything, so they don’t check the size before sending. But on my system, I’m very aware of the limitations. People don’t understand that if I am in a hotel I can rarely get a broadband connection, and if someone sends an email with a 5 Mb attachment, it is really painful to download it. The world is not designed for the serious IT traveller.

What single piece of new technology would most improve your quality of life and bring the most benefit to the industry?
Wireless broadband. Bandwidth is totally, totally king. Right now I feel completely hobbled. The other week I took some photographs down at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 with my digital camera, as I am still the project principal. I had to be careful with the resolution so the files didn’t get too big because I am trying to send them over the internet.

Wireless broadband means I could sit in an airport and send a 2 Mb file and not worry about its size. When I have a seven-hour flight, I don’t want to have to wait until midnight when I get into the hotel to send stuff on. It can take an hour to send something. I want to send it from the plane – fast.

What is Arup USA’s latest IT tool?
We are rolling out a tool called Causeway Collaboration. It can be used to run projects or as an enterprise-based system. We have secure access into a set of central servers located somewhere like High Wycombe and they act as the central filing system for our US operation. It means that I don’t have to email a document to anybody; I just email them the link to the central depository and they click on that and view it. It saves me having to email the same report to 10 different people.

These are going to be the new generation of software tools because people are finding there is too much flying around on email. The great thing about this new system is that it is structured, with an excellent search engine. This allows you to find a report easily, or when you go and look at the report, then all the previous ones are in the same folder. This will be a big benefit as one of the biggest problems working electronically is document retrieval.

Will you be taking advantage of the new Tablet PC, the laptop where you can draw directly onto the screen?
In my view you are far better off learning how to type – my typing has improved quite a lot with practice. I also don’t think Tablets are any good for marking up drawings on screen. The people who have designed those tablets have not understood how the brain interacts with a drawing. Put an A0 drawing on the table and your brain can take in the overall scene and know what it’s of and where it is. You can zero in on the bit you want to look at, and then you can comment on that and move across very quickly. But you try doing that on a screen; it’s almost impossible. Even if you can see the whole drawing, you can’t read anything on it; when you zero in you lose your context completely. When someone is doing the final check of a fabricator’s drawing, you print it off and work on it because it is so easy to make mistakes. The answer might be much, much larger screens.

Do you think we will ever have completely paperless offices?
You can go word-paperless very quickly; in fact a lot of us are almost there in the USA. If a letter comes in through the post that I want to keep, I get it faxed to me by my secretary. No paper comes out of our fax machine, it scans the image and directs it to the individual by email. If you send me a 100-page fax, it never comes out as 100 pages; all I get is a 10 Mb email. When I get the fax I put it on my laptop because I have no files, no actual paper. Once you go 95% paperless, you have to go 100% as you have got no filing system. Because I have no files, I can’t keep a letter; I’ve got nowhere to put it.

Where do you think the technology will be in two years’ time?
I am very hopeful that we will have improved the screens; that you can get bigger screens that are affordable. And bandwidth, sorry to keep coming back to it – it’s bandwidth, bandwidth, bandwidth …