Gensler’s work in digital experience design (DXD) is part of an industry-wide trend focused on how to integrate software and new technologies into office design to create a connected workplace. Intelligent systems, new types of building software, and sensors are allowing for unprecedented connections between people and the places they live and work, and this is opening up exciting possibilities. We sat down with Gensler’s Richard Tyson to talk about how new technologies are shaping office design, and what Gensler and others should be doing to prepare for a new type of connected workplace.
Can you give us an idea of what we mean when we talk about “connected places?”
Historically, when architects and designers have talked about digital experiences in physical spaces, they’ve tended to mean immersive experiences driven by screens, projection, and spatial interaction. Today, that often means augmented reality and virtual reality that can place digital information in a space. But that’s no longer the extent of it.
Increasingly, we have to design for how people are connected to their workplace through mobile and wearable technology, as well as the intelligence we can apply from the sensing and data that these technologies enable. As more and more things in the built environment are connected to one another over the Internet or through the Internet of Things (IoT) — screens, sensors, mobile phones, cameras, elevators, etc. — the experience of place is increasingly about the ways in which software services can tailor environments and empower people. Places should be immersive, connected, and intelligent.
I’ve heard you say that we’re moving from a hardware world to a software world. What do you mean when you say we’re living in a software world?
Well, let’s consider the traditional doctor’s office waiting room. In the past, you used to check in with the receptionist and then sit down to wait until the nurse called you in. Now there are digital platforms that will allow you to make an appointment and check in without having to be present. Your phone is the waiting room. And in theory this means that you don’t have to design a waiting room any longer. That’s an oversimplification. The bottom line is that we’re in the midst of a radical transformation of physical things and places because of advances in software and the application of data. You could argue that the nature of work is changing because of this shift.
Can you expand on that? How is software impacting the workplace?
The boom in coworking and flexible spaces is only possible because of software. How can you have hot desking and know which desk is free without sensors and software? For developers and building owners who are getting into real estate as a service, you must be able to track occupancy and put your inventory online. That can only happen because of cloud services.
The orchestration of many online services — which are software-based services — is what makes a flexible space possible. It’s also how we can create truly connected places. Coworking is as much about connecting people together in a meaningful way as it is about offering a place to work.
So, when you talk about flexible workplaces and connected buildings are you really just referring to cloud-based software services?
The cloud plays a big role, as do software as a service (SAAS) applications. But it’s also about how people and places and things connect to each other. Some of these connections are visible, but most are not. When we say “digital” we mean everything from what we can do on screens at the presentation layer, to how we connect people, places, and things in new ways that transform our traditional ways of getting work done — things such as mobility, social networking, meeting and collaboration, resource discovery, health and wellness, and learning and performance. All these types of things are transformed through digital tools and through new kinds of intelligence that we can glean from big data sets. Now, we can actually learn from our connections.
Are you saying that building design is changing because of our desire to interact with each other?
Yes, but that’s not a new idea. Historically, the development of urban places really has been about the lowering of the barriers to human connection and interaction. Think about marketplaces in early cities. In one sense, cities exist to lower the barriers of connection and collaboration among more and more people over a wider and wider area.
You can trace this evolution throughout modern civilization. The invention of the elevator allowed easier connections to higher floors and those high floors became more valuable because you no longer had to walk up to them. What’s different now is that the acceleration of human interaction is happening because of the cloud, mobile, and the Internet.
What does this mean for Gensler?
Gensler is in the place business. Our future value as a design firm depends on how we are able to integrate and apply software, data, and intelligence to place. And that’s not just with screens. The question is, How can we design for a software-defined experience? Or the data-enabled experience? Gensler is committed to understanding what that means for the designed environment.
Can you tell us any specifics about how the firm will go about doing that, specifically as it applies to the workplace?
There are many things that will matter more over time to the work environment, but there are three in particular: experience, intelligence, and agility.
Our experiences with work and life are changing dramatically, and our expectations of how digitally-driven services are supposed to work are being defined by groups like Uber, Amazon, and Google. Those types of experiences are being projected onto the workplace. In short, if you have a powerful and simple experience calling a car or ordering dinner, you’re going to expect similarly powerful and simple experiences where you work. Companies have to be aware of this if they want to attract talent.
The shift from a hardware world to a software world is a shift from thinking about work as functional to thinking about work as something that is defined by experience. To provide great experiences, a company has to understand what experiences their people want, and this is where intelligence comes in. Are you actually capturing the signals from the data you’re gathering in order to give your people super powers so they can compete? How can you harness data so they can be better employees, be more healthy in their environments, etc.? These are the questions Gensler is asking.
Finally, we’re thinking about the designed environment in more agile ways so that companies can adapt and plan faster. Remote work and spatial planning will only get more dynamic as you attract talent that has high expectations.
Sam Martin is editorial consultant at Gensler, based in Austin, Texas.