Are we designing places or non-places?

Last week I mentioned an interview with Ivor Southwood. In it he brought up the notion of workplaces as 'non-places' which, as I started to think about that, and look around the places I was in, became an intriguing idea to explore further. In the interview Southwood says that:

"Non-places is a term I came across in a book by the anthropologist Mark Augé. He was talking about transitional places, in particular places like airports, supermarkets, and motorways, etc. These, I suppose, are part of the architecture of neoliberal capitalism, in that they seem frictionless although, of course, they aren't. People with long commutes to work, for example, are always coming across glitches.

We're spending more and more time in 'non-places'. People are commuting for longer and longer times. What kind of time is that? It's sort of non-time, in a way. It's time in a non-place. What can you actually do? Who are you with? You're not with your colleagues or with your friends. You're on your own with passengers who are not talking to each other. Non-places are places of solitude and also places where your identity is suspended."

Another aspect of non-places is amnesia. They kind of resist remembering. That possibly applies to a lot of work now. You finish one assignment and then you erase it and go on to the next one."

This whole notion of workplace as non-place is worth considering as corporate real estate people, architects, interior designers and others rush down the route of hoteling, hot desking, desk sharing, open plan, huddle spaces, and other types of layouts which aim to reflect the mobile working pattern that technology advances now encourage, and simultaneously reduce real estate footprint. Are we, in fact, creating 'non-places' that alienate people and have the opposite effect than the stated intention – of supporting collaboration, community, and shared knowledge (rather than only reducing real estate footprint)?

As inevitably happens, two related pieces crossed my path as I was thinking over this 'place or non-place' question. The first was another interview this one with David Sloan-Williams, Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University in New York. He's got some very interesting perspectives on biological evolution and design. His book The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time sounds like a fascinating odyssey into what makes places rather than non-places. (Another one for my Amazon wish list).

In the interview he explains how he and his research team have been able to "derive a list of designed features that cause just about any group to function well" He makes the point that

"This is based a lot on the work of Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009. Her contribution was to show how groups of people attempting to manage their common resources, such as farmers or fishermen or forestry people managing forests, how they're capable of managing their affairs pretty well, but only if certain conditions are met. Those conditions are very conciliant with what we know from an evolutionary perspective about pro-sociality and cooperation."

What's so interesting about the list is that it is perfectly applicable to organization and workplace design of place, rather than non-place. Here's the list:

  • Number one: There has to be a strong group identity and a sense of purpose for the group. So a person has to think that they're a member of a group and that group has to be a purpose that's clear to everyone.
  • Number two: a proportional cost in benefits. It cannot be the case that some people do all the work and some people get all the benefits. There has to be some sense in which the benefits are scaled to what you do for the group.
  • Number three: consensus decision-making. People hate being bossed around and told what to do, but they'll work hard to implement a consensus decision.
  • Number four: monitoring. Most people are cooperative, but some people misbehave. Unless you can monitor that, then the group will not function well.
  • Number five: graduated sanctions. If someone does misbehave, you don't bring the hammer down immediately. You correct them in a nice friendly fashion, but you also must be prepared to escalate.
  • Number six: fast, fair conflict resolution. If there is a conflict, it must be resolved quickly and in a manner that's regarded as fair by all parties.
  • Number seven: local autonomy. In order for the group to do the previous things, they must have the ability to make their own decisions and to organize their group their way in order to make those decisions.
  • Number eight: polycentric governance. When groups are nested within larger groups, then there must be coordination among groups which mirrors the same principles.

And finally to promote learning he suggests providing a safe and secure environment which promotes a playful, relaxed mood. And makes the point that learning in any species does not take place when all of the costs are in the present and all the benefits are in the future. As he is quoted as saying in the book, "We merely need to do what is manifestly good for us."

The second piece my brother sent me. It's part of an article on responsive web design (which raises a different question for another blog piece about the consumer/employee interaction with a company's physical and virtual space) by Ethan Marcotte. But in this Marcotte points out that:

"Recently, an emergent discipline called "responsive architecture" has begun asking how physical spaces can respond to the presence of people passing through them. Through a combination of embedded robotics and tensile materials, architects are experimenting with art installations and wall structures that bend, flex, and expand as crowds approach them. Motion sensors can be paired with climate control systems to adjust a room's temperature and ambient lighting as it fills with people. Companies have already produced "smart glass technology" that can automatically become opaque when a room's occupants reach a certain density threshold, giving them an additional layer of privacy."

He continues by saying " In their book Interactive Architecture, Michael Fox and Miles Kemp described this more adaptive approach as

"a multiple-loop system in which one enters into a conversation; a continual and constructive information exchange." Emphasis mine, as I think that's a subtle yet powerful distinction: rather than creating immutable, unchanging spaces that define a particular experience, they suggest inhabitant and structure can-—and should-—mutually influence each other."

This seems to be another take on designing places rather than non-places. So as we think about designing workplaces what can we do to make them places and not non-places? Do you agree that that's what needs to happen or are non-places ok to work in? Are we designing places or non-places? Your views welcome.

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