03 Nov 2020 • Work
The Conscious Office: A manifesto for a workplace that truly understands its users
Itai Palti and Torben Østergaard explored how we might create environments that are better able to account for their inhabitants' needs during our seventh Frame x ORGATEC: Agile Working event on IBA Forum.
Smart buildings have the potential to fundamentally transform the relationship between workplace and user. Itai Palti, director of Hume and The Centre for Conscious Design, and Torben Østergaard, partner at architecture practice 3XN, joined Frame, ORGATEC and IBA to envision a future in which buildings are truly conscious of their occupants.
This was a subject of some pertinence for Østergaard. Earlier in the year, one of 3XN’s landmark projects – Cube Berlin – had been due to open just as the pandemic enforced at-home working. Billed as one of the most advanced smart offices in the EU, Cube Berlin features an AI ‘digital brain’ that connects the majority of internal systems to users via a mobile app. Operations that are usually isolated – such as access control, lift operations and HVAC – are linked so that they can work in tandem, learning from occupant preferences as well as their general behaviour. It can even let you know where to find a quiet spot in the building for concentrated work, or where colleagues you need to collaborate with have set up.
‘We wanted to create a building that would help its users have a better everyday quality of life,’ explained Østergaard. For that to happen, 3XN believes smart buildings require systems that show the same degree of reciprocity users are used to in other aspects of contemporary experience. ‘In many cases, buildings are actually more restricted than the spaces right outside, where you’re connected to all kinds of services that people are willing to invest with their data,’ said Østergaard. 'To run a building that operates successfully digitally, you also need to have the users’ support; if they’re not onboard, you’re not going to generate the sort of data that [makes the system useful].’
The architecture of motivation
For Palti this discussion is one not only about how technology will transform the workplace, but the nature of work itself. He thinks we need to start by looking at the history of labour and the way in which ‘human health has been systematically traded for economic growth’, from the field to the factory to the computer-equipped office cubicle, in which any time away from the machine is considered time wasted. ‘Around ten years ago, when the conversation around neuroscience and architecture was still in its infancy, I and many of my contemporaries unknowingly walked into this same trap of efficiency,’ said Palti. ‘That meant most discussions were about levels of light or acoustics or materials. And that was the approach evidence-based design took when creating spaces of productivity.’ What that discussion was missing, he argues, was a deeper analysis of ‘the science of creativity and motivation, which goes far beyond comfort levels.’
We need to think much deeper about organizational goals and structures, and in turn that will generate new architecture typologies
Palti believes the importance of filling this research gap is particularly pressing as we shift towards workplaces that are ever more inflected by automation and artificial intelligence, in which the tasks that are left to humans can’t be optimized or measured in the same way. ‘What’s going to be left over for people is to do the things that machines can't do. What that means is high cognitive processes and actions like creativity, collaboration and social engagement,’ he said. 'What’s interesting and different about these skills is that they rely on motivations that might not be completely compatible with the organizational structures that we currently have. How do we create spaces that acknowledge aspirations and needs of people? Are the current business models we have and the spaces they create still relevant?’
New metrics for success
Palti pointed out that for many in today’s workforce, ‘the economic benefits don't seem to match the sacrifice.’ That continued decoupling of wage from motivation is going to have a significant impact on the workplace. ‘If we're not going to get rich, we'll at least need to have purpose,’ argued Palti. ‘This explains the trend towards micro-businesses in which people turn their passions into their work; it's predicted that over half of the US workforce will be independent within a decade. But that doesn't really mean working alone from home, it means adapting to new forms of collaboration between these independent people.’ For that to be a success, Palti suggests that the future workplace needs to move beyond motivational ideals such as ‘ease of use’ and ‘comfort’ and towards ‘metacognitive domains like identity, belonging, and meaning’. That’s something that will require ‘rethinking some of our business models and how they manifest in shared space. . .we need to think much deeper about organizational goals and structures, and in turn that will generate new architecture typologies.'
This need to move towards a form of more anticipatory architecture was seconded by Østergaard. ‘In 60s and the 70s, and when I kicked off as an architect, the mantra was always “is it fit for purpose”,' he said. ‘I think we should drive that question in a different direction, because it's impossible today to fix a single purpose, and also acknowledge that work is a social activity.’ He referenced a project for a high school in Copenhagen that the practice had worked on a number of years ago: ‘It was the result of an entirely new perspective on teaching, which actually was not focused so much on teaching at all, but creating new forms of relationship between students and teacher.’
The future will be architecture (aided by digital systems) that allows the user to negotiate the use of spaces
As a result the building was created against the ethos of enforcing hierarchies, both between people and the spaces they inhabit. ‘Architecture that is instrumental in the sense that it is telling people what to do is part of the past. The future will be architecture (aided by digital systems) that allows the user to negotiate the use of spaces. Maybe architecture’s role is now more one of proposing, suggesting, hinting, but not really determining what people should do.’
Miss out on the Frame x ORGATEC: Agile Working virtual event? Find the recordings on IBA's platform.