New lives, new spaces

It’s time to redesign the spaces where we live and work

Over the past 30 years, globalization and the rise of digital technology have upended the spatial constructs underpinning our lives. The way we view and use spaces for work, education and healthcare has changed forever. We should take advantage of this opportunity to redesign these spaces and improve our quality of life!

Taylorist spaces versus new practices

Our cities, companies, hospitals, classrooms and even our living spaces are governed by functionality, productivity and economies of scale. While this industry-derived approach has long sustained global economic growth, it has not always lived up to its promises of quality of life for individuals and appears less in step with emerging practices than in the past.

We live in an era of collaboration and “project mode” in the workplace. We only relied on others during 30% of our working hours in 1985, versus 80% in 2010. In many professions, “going to the office” is a concept that needs to be redefined, especially for younger generations. A laptop and a cellphone are sometimes the only tools people need to work, whether they are at a co-working space, working from home or actually at the office. Some companies, like WordPress, have taken the logical next step – all their employees now work solely from home.

In fact, this trend affects all the shared spaces in our lives. Spurred on by MOOCs, distance and online learning continue to make strides everywhere. At schools, a growing number of teachers are using innovative interactive techniques like the “reverse” classroom, which is rendering the traditional layout of desk and chairs obsolete, and the rising use of digital media is expanding learning outside the classroom. Meanwhile, hospitals are transitioning from long stays to a place of transit – in the United States, outpatient care is expected to increase by 30% by 2020, versus a meager 2% rise in conventional hospitalization. Remote patient monitoring and even remote surgery performed by robots stand among the innovations that will radically change how hospitals operate.

New standards, new trends

There is a tendency to overestimate the value of shared spaces – both physical and virtual – in our collaborative, network-based economy, which leaves us pondering the fine line between collective and individual spaces, between public and private, in our everyday lives. In the business world, “flex” office space appeared to be an ideal solution for many companies. But it hasn’t succeeded in breaking down every silo and boosting creativity, and has caused employees at some companies to lose their bearings. In emergency rooms, the push to break down walls has been cause for debate, with some staff lamenting the loss of private spaces for communication with patients and between professionals, which are key to preventing medical mistakes.

The second trend is informality. Taking cues from the relaxed atmosphere of Silicon Valley campuses, many companies, universities, shops and airports are adding game rooms, nap pods and “creativity spaces.” Ironically, this quest for originality and informality risks creating a new form of standardization that is ill-equipped to manage diverse practices, needs and people.

Finally, the pressing need to digitalize has sometimes led to us to focus on equipment – devices and collaborative tools – to the detriment of processes and practices. When designing the classrooms of the future, for example, rethinking students’ learning process and relationship with technology is vital. Failure to do so could lead to scattered minds and “technostress.”

Three keys to restoring the human element in our spaces

Have faith in collective intelligence. “Space management” has been governed by a one-size-fits-all approach for too long – it’s actually an eminently cultural issue that should always serve as the jumping-off point for discussions on workplace methods, relations, decision-making and diversity. That information is crucial when working with users to develop spaces that truly suit their needs, as is the involvement of all in-house and outside resources – networks of partners, start-ups, etc. – which often have highly complementary expertise.

Think in terms of practices and experiences. For instance, an understanding of when hospital patients experience stressful moments can be used to redesign signage or develop innovative games to calm down young patients undergoing a scan at a children’s hospital. A comprehensive analysis of consumer data and information from buildings and their smart interfaces and sensors should be gathered to develop tailor-made experience processes that reflect the full range and complexity of users’ practices.

Make sure everyone finds their place. These is no team without individual fulfillment, or innovation without a sense of freedom. The main aim here is to pay attention to individuals’ physical, emotional and interpersonal experiences and give them the power to have control over those elements. Several studies have shown that teachers are more motivated when they can control air conditioning, lighting and similar factors in their classroom.

This is the exciting challenge that all organizations face today – adapting spaces to those who use them, and not the other way around!