Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For opening up a world of possibilities through parametric design

It was supposed to be an 18-month work-study program. But when global engineering giant Arup offered Ilona Laskowska a full-time position, she shelved her original plans and joined the team as its youngest member. In the five years since, she has worked in six countries, pitching in on everything from a zoo in Warsaw to a 16th century building in Venice. Along the way, she also earned an advanced degree in structural engineering, and studied parametric design both at Arup and through online courses, eventually focusing on it for her master’s thesis.

"Parametric design and scripting helps make our designs better and more efficient," Laskowska explains. "One person or one team can compare only a few different design options, in terms of measures like cost or sustainability. But with parametric design, we can check a thousand design options. We’re able to go beyond the usual limitations."  

That kind of potential is driving the adoption of parametric design across the construction industry. In Europe, for instance, project teams must meet legislated sustainability directives—which is far faster and easier to do when it takes just seconds to calculate how swapping out one material might impact carbon dioxide emissions.  

Laskowska first used the approach on a project to build metro stations in Copenhagen. "Initially, I thought it would be a tedious project because we were doing the 3D design modeling manually," she says. Every time the contractor made a change, the engineering team had to rework the design. But then Laskowska and her colleagues introduced Python scripts (a collection of commands in a file designed to be executed like a program) and automation to handle the modeling. "It was a gamechanger," she says. 

But Laskowska didn’t simply copy and paste that approach onto future projects. She has tried to stretch both her technical skills and people skills by leaning in to new opportunities. While working in Milan, she learned about seismic design, which hadn’t been part of her coursework in Poland. Then, when Arup was looking for someone who knew both parametric design and seismic design to work on a stadium project in Madrid, Laskowska was ready to raise her hand. 

"At the beginning of my career, I was very shy, and as the youngest person on my team, I thought I should follow more experienced colleagues," she says. "Overcoming that has been a journey. Now people don’t believe I was shy at first, because I speak up so much."     

Q&A: Ilona Laskowska on intergenerational teams, learning from mistakes, and Thinking, Fast and Slow

What’s the most influential project you’ve worked on?  
Last year, I worked on a new airport hub project in Poland that also involves roads and railways. The design will impact so many people’s lives. And using parametric design, we were able to consider many parameters, such as minimizing time travel, noise and environmental impact.  

How are young people changing the world of projects? 
Young people sometimes don’t have enough knowledge, but they do have a lot of ideas, they’re very skilled with technology and they can adapt quickly. Older people have knowledge and experience, but they can be skeptical of new technology. I think it’s better for projects when you combine team members from different age groups.  

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?  
Be less afraid of making mistakes. At first, I wanted to do everything perfectly. But you learn by making mistakes.  

What book are you obsessed with recommending right now? 
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economic sciences. It’s about how our brains have two systems: one slow and more analytical, the other fast and more intuitive. It’s a really interesting book about how the brain works.