Futures Rambling #101

In the book, The Enigma of Reason cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber help us understand the concept of bias using the analogy of a mouse who is bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats in the world. One can quickly see the inherent danger when the mouse becomes a kitty snack. On the world stage examples abound from the silly, e.g. Trump’s ‘birther debate’ to those with broader implications, such as denying climate change.

Sadly, to add to the list, we humans have another fault referred to as ‘myside bias’ clouding our reason. People are amazingly efficient at spotting weaknesses in another’s approach, but can be completely blind to their own. Sperber and Mercier suggests this occurs when the pace of change in the environment is too fast for natural selection to catch up. There are many examples, one is the dizzying speed that technology and digital interfaces have entering our environments, and the impact they have.

Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, also cognitive scientists, put it another way. They say people are simply dumb and believe they know more than they actually do. Ignorance fuels bias. To make the point they suggest thinking about a toilet. It’s of course one thing to flush one and another to know how it actually operates.

As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding. This is particularly worrisome when people who think alike collect together and form dangerous communities of stupidity. One excellent example would be the Trump’s cabinet and their highly inexperienced advisors. Really, who knew selling handbags and shoes was transferable to running a nation, but has it kept Ivanka from the West Wing?

Humans are so flawed, even our own physiology sets us up for failure. We experience a rush of dopamine when our beliefs are reinforced by others. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that control the brain’s reward and pleasure center; consequently, thinking you’re right and sticking to your guns, even when you’re wrong, produces a rush of dopamine. We actually get high. It’s sick and warped in the same cruel way a dopamine rush from checking email is.

A final addition to the list of flaws is implicit bias. They are learned bias associated with various qualities or social categories such as race or gender. These are currently playing a critical role in America right now, think about the Black Lives Matter debate. Implicit bias are hard to correct because they’re based on rehearsed, or learned, neural connections in the brain. Unfortunately, our brains are very good at leaning, they are not very good at unlearning.

If we can’t rely on data, because no one believes in it anymore and logic and reason are prone to bias, might we perhaps we turn to intraception? This is the term psychologist use to describe those who process the world primarily through their feelings or emotions.

Lisa Feldman Barret, professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, discusses this approach in her book How Emotions are Made. The long held belief that emotions are hard-wired in neurons in the brain is one she challenges, the status quo thinking is these neurons are automatically triggered when something happens to produce a specific emotional response.

Instead, she suggests emotions are more complex. For example a smile cannot provide clues to appreciate the nuances of a given emotion because there is more than one type of sadness, happiness or awe and emotions vary from culture to culture. She’s coined ‘the theory of constructed emotion’ which posits the brain relies on the past to construct the present. It predicts what to expect, and what actions to take, from sensory input based on experiences rather than hard wiring.

Thinking about this from your brains point of view it makes sense, it’s in your skull with no access to what causes the sensations it receives; it only has the effects. Given the plethora of human flaws outlined above what’s great about this is that Barret believes it is entirely possible to invest energy into cultivating new experiences that in time, if practiced, will become automated emotional responses.

Architects and designers can learn from this. If we know people’s immediate emotional response to change is ‘no way, no how, not doing that’ and we also know banging our heads against the wall trying to change beliefs hurts, we should stop talking and start creating experiences. It’s not complex, in fact the benefits of exposure to new things was introduced by the famous Dr. Suess in the legendary tome Green Eggs and Ham.

If all else fails there is always professional help to be sought. Extreme lost causes can be sent away for neuroscience-based coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy. Yes it’s a real thing. There are even programs to overcome implicit bias called Raciest Anonymous, naturally this concept was conceived of and is held in California (there’s an example of implicit bias in action). Finally, if the people you deal with are just plain stupid, perhaps suggest they immigrate to America. I hear there are still spots in the Trump administration up for grabs.

 

 

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Bias and  the Complex Task of Changing Minds. (first in a two part series)

By Laurie Aznavoorian

 

Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of entering into a political debate with a person of the opposite party in today’s politically polarised world will appreciate the challenges of attempting to change a person’s beliefs, particularly when their mind is set. It is a conundrum so many of us are all too familiar with: whether we’re trying to nudge a crazy relative’s position at a holiday dinner or shifting mindsets in a professional setting. That the beliefs you’re hoping to alter are based on flawed logic, or even complete rubbish, rarely plays into the debate.

This is by no means a new phenomenon; man has contemplated epistemology: the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge, justification and the rationality of belief for a very long time. In 210a Plato defined knowledge as a ‘justified true belief’, in other words: if one’s belief is their knowledge, and they believe it to be true, it is justified.

In this discussion it’s important to appreciate knowledge and belief are two separate things. It’s easy to distinguish the difference; you can believe things that aren’t true, but you can’t know things that aren’t true. What causes us trouble is when reason enters the mix because reason is not always related to reality, and it has the power to override evidence. Imperfect reason is what causes the daft person to think their beliefs are actually the truth.

The fire is bellowed when beliefs becomes stronger than evidence, motivating a person to shut down and refuse to enter into debate. The implications are both significant and dangerous. In order for any of us to interpret reality correctly, we absolutely must be prepared to question our thoughts.

Designers face similar obstacles every day in discussions related to workplace transformation. Inevitably these lead down a path of exploring worker mobility and the need, or want to own space. The exchanges can become quite tiresome when they’re had with ‘know it all’ workplace deniers who reject the impact of change: new technologies, social expectations, economic pressures, evolved attitudes and ideas.

For deniers workplace design is simple. Provide a space for 200 people like the one they currently have, but instead of a blue carpet, bust out and innovative, go with orange. A more evolved, but equally shallow approach, comes from those willing to enter into debate only because they are itching to get into an ‘to ABW or not to ABW, that is the question’ skirmish.

During these exchanges it never seems to fail that an article proclaiming Activity Based Work as a colossal failure gets produced and waved in your face while the person spits and sputters anecdotes about living and working and how they’ve done both and know all there is to know. Even when presented with vast amounts of evidence to the contrary, data that tangibly demonstrates spaces are underutilised today and therefore a waste of money and energy, they adopt the disbelieving stare of a five year old who’s been told the tooth fairy isn’t real.

Such attitudes have an uncomfortable parallel with what is happening in politics, we’ve entered an unsettling time when facts no longer have authority and people believe what they want to believe. For some, their only motivation for conversing is to let you know you’re wrong. In the case of workplace, their message is unequivocal: take your activity based, well-being, brand communicating, and talent attracting workplaces and put them where the sun doesn’t shine.

Rather than debating ABW, or any other workplace, the focus of this conversation is impressions and how remarkably perseverant they are. It’s a phenomena that’s so rampant today that it’s been given a name, confirmation bias, which describes why people hang on to persistent beliefs that are not only false, but sometimes dangerous. The tendency for businesses to cling to information that supports their belief, while rejecting anything that doesn’t, is especially troublesome because it blinds organisations to new or underappreciated threats and halts innovation.

Futures Rambling # 100

By Laurie Aznavoorian

This is the third and final post on the Digital Revolution

Most of us are aware of the wide range of opportunities we have to capture data in the modern workplace using heat maps, sensors and the endless range of analytic tools now available. In addition companies like Johnson Controls, Siemens and Schneider Electric, to name a few, offer smart building technology and monitoring that help tenants get a clearer picture of potential energy savings and efficiency improvements. We’re spoiled with data; consequently, the larger issue today is in ensuring that what we have isn’t just data – but meaningful information that leads to greater knowledge.

The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that smart systems don’t talk to one another. The day when all the smart technologies speak the same language will be the day those interested in real time dynamic measurement and analysis can celebrate. In the meantime, keep the cork in the champagne and relish the advancements we have made. Without meaning to disparage the value these technologies bring in obtaining a snapshot of workplace efficiency, this third and final post on the impact of digital on physical office design will follow the lead of the others and focus on people, their efficiency and experience in the workplace, rather than the physical environment itself.

While smart building systems do smart things around us, most of us carry a secret digital weapon in the palm of our hand, our mobile phone, when properly outfitted it has the potential to radically increase our personal efficiency. The possibilities are even greater with new chips that enable instantaneous artificial intelligence. Combined with a digital personal assistant and an army of ‘bots’ to do our bargaining for us, our mobile can be transformed into a performance tool that has the potential to do more for an organisation than any space analytics tool. This is critical, because at the end of the day, improving personal efficiency and supporting people is why we have a workplace.

Consequently, developers like Apple, Google and Facebook have shifted their focus from personal computers to mobile devices and messaging and they’re hard at work improving the effectiveness of messaging with the goal of making it a portal for all things we do on mobile. The tech giants are no dummies, they recognise messaging is the prime means of business communication in parts of the world like India and Indonesia and in the West, there’s deep market penetration with various messaging apps like: Facebook Messenger, iMessage, WhatsApp, Kik, Line, Viber, Telegram, Slack and Hangout.

Given its breath and the amount of time we spend on our mobile, there’s a priority to humanise messaging, as well as study how digital technology affects the way we experience and convey emotion. Machine learning has the ability to ratchet up messaging with smart replies that are calibrated to the content and context of a conversation, causing them to be more natural over time. As we experience better face to face and voice to voice interactions we’ll see text based communications replaced with multimedia offerings. Emojis, GIFs and short videos have great potential to augment text and assist in expression.

A persistent issue with emails and written communications is misconstrued messages due to the limitations of typing in expressing ourselves. Following the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, recently launched apps like VidiiChat illustrate how AI can be engaged to improve our ability to get our point across. Vidii provides the option of adding high definition, full audio video to ordinary text messages and then uses the phone’s camera to scan facial expressions to analyse the recipient’s emotional response. The app issues the sender an emoji receipt to confirm the recipient enjoyed the message.

Many of these offers are larks at the moment, intended to be used to communicate with friends and family. Never the less, it isn’t hard to imagine how improving written communication and offering immediate feedback could help with common problems many organisations face today with low employee engagement scores and widespread lack of emotional intelligence among people.

Another area with the ability to improve workplace performance comes from the many voice activated personal assistants on the market today: Siri, Cortana, Alexi or Google. Now that they’re using Artificial Intelligence algorithms they’ve moved from being cute developer parlour tricks to useful tools thanks to machine learning and its ability to recognise and process speech and connect to The Internet of Things or an army of bots.

Bots are rapidly taking over for Apps as the go to method for communication on mobile devices, they’re software applications that perform repetitive tasks and their advantage is they perform them faster than you or I and they don’t complain. A common bot task is chat. Some times when you think you’re chatting with a person, you may be actually chatting with a bot, because they mimic human interaction and conversation and have a high level of intelligence with, theoretically, some capacity to learn.

There are E-commerce bots that assist us in buying goods and services. Food bots to order dinner. Content bots, Watcher bots, Workflow bots, Concierge Bots and Banking and Trading bots that provide financial services. These new business bots have crossed the divide to make our worklife more productive, particularly when working in tandem with a personal assistants like Google’s assistant Allo. Imagine messaging a colleague about a meeting and simply typing “@google” to instruct the assistant to organise inviting attendees, reserving the video conference room and ordering lunch for your meeting.

As we begin to experience the workplace differently the Digital Revolution will have an impact on the physical environment no doubt, but right now it’s busy improving the EX – employee experience. As has been mentioned in past posts, this places the onus on designers to broaden their horizons and move beyond form and function toward end to end employee experiences. And in the meantime it would serve us well to not only understand, but make interfaces and software our friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Futures Rambling # 99

By Laurie Aznavoorian

This second of three posts written for the Worktech Academy

There are many reasons it is a challenge to describe the impact of digital on physical workplace design, one is that digital is manifested more through the experiences we have in spaces than in their outward physical appearance. Another is workplace has been very slow in coming to the digital party. Other types of environments, such as retail and entertainment, were early adopters and have now advanced to a point where a seamless digital experience is all but expected.

Contributing to the sluggish uptake in workplace is our propensity to want to measure and relate what we do in the environment back to return on investment before we will commit to major works. Clearly this is easier when repeating a design that is tried and tested, not so much when we hope to implement new ideas. This highlights the critical role of belief in promoting innovative workplace design, because when it comes to challenging the status quo, clients must believe in ideas before they are willing to take a leap of faith. Of course at some point they will have no choice but to go out on a limb. It is our job to build the belief that will help them overcome fear.

Belief trumps truth every time. As designers we should never underestimate its power, for evidence of this one need not look any further than the vast amounts of workplace data that unequivocally proves the typical desk is frequently unoccupied, yet users swear hand on heart that they’re in their seat for a majority of the day. Even though the data says the opposite they believe what they believe – and that is why it’s important for us to acknowledge that beliefs do not need to be ‘true beliefs’ for people to wholeheartedly buy into them. As we’ve seen with the US election and the Brexit vote, facts are often optional in the decision making process.

Another pitfall to be avoided is short changing the critical role design plays in building belief. This begins with the development of a robust workplace strategy linking the organisation’s sustainability to the physical solutions we create. The relationship is the foundation for a rich narrative both designer and organisation can use to build broader buy in across an organisation. Finally, once a design is created it must put EX, employee experience, first surpassing pragmatic form and function to create a space that focuses on people’s experience. This is the blueprint for building belief.

Wonderfully conceived and designed spaces supported by convincing stories are an excellent start, but it still may not be enough. Fortunately we can now call on digital tools to help our clients overcome their natural aversion to taking risks. In the last post we talked about chip maker Qualcomm, one of the many working with Virtual Reality and instantaneous Artificial Intelligence. These new chips present audio and video, track eye, head and gestures and also track audio, all of this paves the way for virtual experiences that are more realistic than anything we’ve seen to date. Once relegated to the realm of video games, they’re now frequently used to enhance the design process.

Tech enthusiasts have been talking about Virtual Reality headsets since 2012, in March of 2016 the long awaited ship date of the high end consumer virtual reality headset Oculus Rift arrived and that is significant because to date there were none on the market that offered the quality an architect would require to use it as an effective design communication tools, not to mention their ability to afford it. At $1,500 USD for the headset and computer that it operates on, Rift is affordable and sophisticated and is rapidly making its way into design practices.

A second digital tool the Holograms has also moved beyond the lark stage to play a role in supporting designers. Today in Lowes, a home improvement retailer in the United States, which is neither high end nor exclusive, offers their customers the opportunity to cruse the store and use Pinterest to drop pins on products they’re interested in. Then donning a pair of Microsoft’ HoloLens goggles they can view a high definition hologram of their kitchen remodel. It would be hard to find a more powerful tool in the today’s market to help workplace designers build belief.

These technologies are quickly evolving from being follies and fads to tools of the mainstream and with their rapid development we’re quickly moving to a place where we’ll have real time dynamic immersive 3-D experiences. Products like Magic Leap, currently in development, but on the horizon, employ ‘augmented reality’ by creating realistic holograms superimposed on the field of vision. It is predicted such headsets will eventually scan our brains and transmit our thoughts, the technology will communicate a full sensory experience with emotions through thought.

When that day comes it will be much easier for us to build belief, in turn we will have greater license to explore the boundaries of innovative workplace design.

 

Futures Rambling # 98 by Laurie Aznavoorian

This is the first of three posts written for the Worktech Academy

We are on the precipice of a major turning point in human history and similar to past periods of rapid change: the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions, today’s era is driven by new technologies and processes that are forcing us to radically reorient the way we think, behave, communicate and work. Coined the ‘Digital Revolution’, the catalyst for this turning point is a combination of new technologies: robotics, advanced mobile, life sciences and artificial intelligence that are emerging onto the scene.

The intention of this series of posts is to explore what impact digital will have on physical workspace design. It is a task fraught with challenges, because while digital is all around us and impossible to ignore, it hasn’t yet made its mark on workplace. Consequently, the assignment will be approached by looking at new technologies, considering their applications in other industries and projecting possible roles they will play in workplace once they are adopted. This post will provide context, the next looks at the impact on design process and the role digital plays in building belief and the third will explore digital’s role in increasing workplace efficiency.

Sources vary, but most suggest this evolution began in the 1980’s when advancements in technology led a shift from analogue electronic and mechanical devices to technologies that enabled the consumption of media and use of business applications on mobile devices. Advancements currently in development will make the integration into workplace much more likely. While it’s still early days, the annoying creases that made digital clunky and only attractive to nerds and developers are rapidly being ironed out and it’s clearing the way for general acceptance in the population. Digital is poised to make significant changes in how we experience space and this is where it will have the greatest impact in workspace.

There are two dimensions of the current chapter in the digital revolution that are significant and underpin everything that is now possible, without them we would not see the progress we’re seeing today. Each dimension represents a part, either the quantitative or qualitative halves, of the digital equation. These dimensions are chips and burgers.

No joke, chips are critical, not those made from potatoes, but from silicon. Manufacturers like Qualcomm are currently producing versions that push mobile Graphic Processing Units, or GPU. GPU is related to the CPU we’ve all heard of, the Central Processing Unit or brains in your computer. But the important distinction is that a CPU primarily works sequentially, while a GPU is able to perform multiple straight forward duties in tandem and is therefore able to do an amazing number of computations very quickly, in fact GPU can perform 11 billion calculations in a tenth of a second.

GPU does this by employing a deep learning technique called Convolutional Neural Networking, modelled on the way the brain’s visual cortex works. CNN is a staple for all modern image recognition, we have video games to thank for it because it was gamers demanding more realistic mobile applications that accelerated its growth. The critical point to take away is that these chips not only work incredibly fast, but they do it in a mobile device which opens the door for an exciting and growing movement toward handheld artificial intelligence.

Burgers will be used to introduce the second critical dimension of the digital revolution, the concept of disintermediation; this is an economic term that simply means cutting out the middle man. Imagine a hamburger with nine beef patties and one bun. You’re probably not aware that you’re envisioning a Monster Mac, one of the many items on McDonalds’ secret menu. Frequent diners at the restaurant, who connect with other fast food aficionados using sites like #HackTheMenu, could tell you all about the Monster Mac, The McGangBang, the McKinley Mac and the Air Sea and Land Burger. The point to take away here is that McDonalds has absolutely nothing to do with the secret menu. It is the result of customers wanting an experience and a burger that is unique to them.

Now consider the impact of this line of thinking on the workplace. What if employees decided to #HackTheWorkplace by effectively cutting out facilities managers and designers from the process? It’s an idea that incites gag responses for some, but never the less something we should consider. We have all heard the term UX, user experience, which has been superseded by CX, customer experience, and as creators of workplaces it would serve us well to turn our attention to EX – the employee experience.

Fast chips embedded in every object from your fitness bracelet to your desk chair and a mobile phone powering new interfaces that bring the power of artificial intelligence to your hand held device combined with employee’s attitudes of empowerment will be the foundation for what’s to come. As designers this will mean we need to reinvent our design process and begin to consider space beyond its immediate function or physical appearance and embrace the concept of designing end-to-end experiences that merge the physical and digital worlds.

 

 

 

 

Futures Rambling # 97  By Laurie Aznavoorian

Over a year ago the quick actions of three American off duty marines stopped a terrorist attack on a French train. Experts say the reason they were able to react while others sat stunned and nonreactive is due to something called ‘situational awareness.’ When you or I hear the sound of gunfire we’re confused, it takes time for our brain to process what the sound is and we lose time, but a marine is programmed to immediately and appropriately react.

While it may seem a stretch, adapting to new work environments requires a similar type of awareness for individuals and organisations to successfully conceive and accept new ways of working. Over the past decade workplace experts have understood the impact of mindset and the incorporation and integration of new technology in creating successful workspaces, this workplace ecology or comprehensive approach, is all the more critical as new types of work environments seek to redefine what it means to work.

The notion of workplace has evolved from being a desk we sit in to incorporate the floor that desk is on and the entire buildings and precinct it belongs to. We continue to expand the concepts of what workplace is by exploring the digital environment along with the physical, we are also beginning to really challenge the status quo approach to procuring space through the emergence of co-working spaces. The global rise of Co-working spaces could arguably be one of the most significant changes to workplace that we have seen in the last half century.

Co-working spaces are shared work environments generally located in prime CBD buildings. The main difference between a Co-working centre and the traditional hired or temporary office space provided by companies like Regus, is the acknowledgement that work today is less about completing a series of tasks and more about connecting, collaborating and from a personal standpoint, feeling part of a community that inspires and delights.

The typical Co-working venue provides a worker with a place to set a computer, coffee cup and their backside, and also offers the service of savvy centre managers to facilitate professional introductions when a specific synergy or skill set might be beneficial, for instance pairing an accountant with a web-designer. Centre managers in Co-Working environments organise seminars and learning opportunities to educate their constituents, creating a state of constant stimulation for those who work in them.

The advantages to small or start-up organisations are obvious. Following the popular shared economy trend seen in companies like Zip-cars, Co-working cultivates an immediate network to deliver and receive services. For workers whose alternative is to work from home, Co-working satisfies the human need to be a part of a professionally and personal community. Anyone who’s attempted bouncing ideas off the family pet can appreciate this concept.

The big ‘ah-ha’ that’s emerged from Co-working is that it’s proved to be just as attractive to small operations as to large established companies who see Co-working as a means to dial up innovation by expanding the circle of professionals people can liaise with to inspire and provoke. For organisations who have merged, or acquired new business to expand and complement a skill set, but find they are suddenly dealing with cultural opposites, e.g. big banks or accounting companies with newly acquired digital teams, Co-working is a very attractive solution.

Given the benefits of Co-working and flexibility it offers from a real estate perspective one might question why every organisation hasn’t gone down this path. For that matter we might question why there are still companies who insist on having offices, high partitions, who insist on presenteeism and forbid use the internet at work. To understand why new concepts with such promise don’t always succeed we need to explore the important impact of people in the workplace equation; in particular note how awareness of one’s self, of the personal surroundings and of the situation can impact acceptance.

To take advantage of new ways of working: such as Activity Based Working or Co-working environments we must encourage people to build greater self-awareness by asking individuals to must make an honest assessment of what they’re good at and areas where they’re not as proficient. This type of awareness is rarely seen in today’s corporate environment where workers are busy masking flaws, blaming others or their physical environment for internal challenges they have, are unaware of or don’t care to address.

Cultivating greater self-awareness by accurately and honestly assessing professional performance and contribution and letting go of the façade many don of believing they’re really good at what they do, when in reality they’re following a template that delivers mediocre status quo results, is a first step. Those with the guts and audacity to critically self-reflect may gain an understanding of how to control or correct the environment to better leverage their skills and the skills of others around them.

Self-awareness is impacted by culture; therefore, it’s important to appreciate some may have a greater challenge in developing self-awareness than others. For instance, in the United States there is great weight placed on personal freedom and decision making, the typical American vehemently defends their right to choose, while their Asian counter parts have a cultural expectation of alignment. In Australia the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ discourages individuals from calling attention to their needs and expectations.

It will not be enough for an individual to make the effort to understand their unique workstyles and productivity triggers, if there is nothing they can change in the environment to remedy the issues they discover. Challenging the status quo and exploring new notions of how environment might support uncovered issues will require greater accountability and environmental awareness. By thinking differently individuals can take responsibility and contribute to an expanded set of workplace options to address how a problem might be solved. This is where real innovation will begin – the kind that has given birth to ideas like Co-working that critically analyse whether the way we currently do things is the only or best way they should be done.

Unfortunately, workplace design is one of the few areas where an individual, or company, frequently revert to their own experiences over the council or advice of a professional. This can be very limiting because there’s a tendency is to envision the future based on the existing and a propensity to approach new workplace design with preconceived notions based on what is known and familiar.

One obvious flaw is many offices are outdated, leaving occupants few experiences and examples to draw from, they don’t know what they don’t know. Additional problems arise from ignoring what is new: the changing needs and expectations of an emergent workforce, the impact of new technologies and changing economic pressures. All are critical considerations.

Combining greater self-awareness with expanded environmental awareness will produce a larger number of choices for people to customise their work experience for greater effectiveness. Encouraging people, who are a key ingredient in the workplace ecology equation, empowers the individual to take responsibility for examining their own internal issues and creatively engage with the environment for support, effectively shifting responsibility.

Finally, it isn’t enough to for us to suggest workers become more self-aware and expand their environmental awareness, to take advantage of the rewards a physical environment can offer they must have the ability to perform like the military personnel on the train, they must intuitively think and act quickly and have the permission from their organisations to do so.

Futures Rambling #96

By Laurie Aznavoorian

One of my favourite questions to ask at the onset of a workplace strategy is – What keeps you up at night? The intention is to gain an appreciation of disruptive changes in an industry that could significantly impact the type of workplace design they should have. Not voyeurism. As I always say, if we were debating the brief for a new film processing plant for Kodak and no one had the brains to ask about digital photography we’d be real buffoons.

The point of completing a workplace strategy is a quest for meaning. By considering a broader range of issues and imperatives when articulating the problem we are solving, we can get beyond the easy picking, rainbows and unicorns items that float on the surface when a brief is being compiled to leverage the physical environment to do more. Consequently, it came as no surprise when the sticky topic of automation rose to the surface when I asking architects this question. It appears they’re scared sleepless by automation.

It’s said technology has created more jobs and industries than it’s destroyed, but recent research from the US suggests mechanized robots, both humanoid or drone types, along with Artificial Intelligence may eliminate 6% of jobs in America in the next five years and it won’t just be low-wage work on the chopping board. Industries that rely heavily on data are at particular risk including: radiology, law and accounting. Some estimate 95% of accountants may lose their job in the next ten years.

According to some creative fields will be safer and therefore one could surmise the fear architects have of being replaced by robots anytime soon is unfounded. When you think about it one could attire a robot in black and give it a groovy haircut, but can a robot bring the passion and common sense architecture requires? I doubt it, but on the other hand, we too work in an industry that is heavily reliant on data which is what radiology, law and accounting have in common.

The challenge we breathers have is a computer outfitted with the right algorithms thinks faster and more accurately than a person, and that is why start-ups like The San Francisco’s Enlitic are doing so well applying deep learning to the analysis of X-rays and CT scans. They’re giving doctors a real run for their money in tests against human radiologists. The Enlitic system was 50% more accurate in detecting malignant tumours and had a 0% false negative rate, humans generally miss 7% of cancers.

They’re trialling another new technology here in Australia which will detect wrist fractures and sadly the early trials are not looking good for humans who are once again being outperformed by computers. I’m not sure why they’re testing that here, perhaps it has something to do with Mr Trump bullying the company into leveraging the skills of unemployed factory workers in the Midwest to read scans? Could be okay as long as they don’t blur their vision by drinking too much Wild Turkey, but then does it matter? Who’ll be able to afford to get a wrist set without health care?

Fellow architects might take comfort in the findings of a 2013 study that found the half of the workforce at high risk of losing their job due to automation were less likely to be in creative fields. The study highlighted architecture as being at a lower risk because it’s non-routine and highly paid, ha ha ha ha, this is of course in comparison to cleaners or burger flippers, not other fields that require a university degree, internship and nasty exam to get a license.

That study was done in 2013, clearly they hadn’t heard of Magenta. This is a project launched by the Google’s Brain team and inspired by DeepDream. Magenta uses machine learning to explore content creation and creativity. Yep, creativity. They’re currently using it to compile music and art. What makes Magenta possible is deep learning or deep neural networks which mimic how the human brain works. Prior to that machine translations were based on algorithms that used statistical methods to guess possible outcomes.

Go ahead, be smug, argue there’s no way a computer could possibly be as creative as a human. Tell that to Android Lloyd Webber the computer that wrote the musical Beyond the Fence, while the reviews weren’t rave: “this show is as bland, inoffensive, and pleasant as a warm milky drink”, it played in London’s West End which is more than many composers can claim. Similarly, Nick Montfort, a professor of digital media at MIT who wrote the novel “World Clock” using a computer and algorithms that outlined characters, locations and actions produced a smash hit.

I guess this means we architects should be scared and pay close attention to the words of Sebastian Thrun, an AI professor at Stanford, who says “we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. No office job is safe.” Heck computers are already being used to create floor plans for housing projects and any robot worth its metal could probably draw a banquette detail faster than a junior and get the back angle and foam density correct to boot.

This is not great news for those of us trying to put shitty 2016 behind us and doing our darndest to diffuse negativity. By the way, experts say the first thing you need to do to diffuse negativity is to stop worrying and obsessing about things that have happened because it launches a cycle that is very difficult to extract yourself from – a slippery slope. They suggest acknowledging and accepting – that’s what I’m practicing when I repeat to myself ‘the new head of the EPA is a climate change denier – fantastic.’

Another method for forgetting is to be in a worse situation. We are so fortunate to live in a time where there are crackpot companies that do this! Of course it cost more than what the typical architectural practice is prepared to pay per person for an offsite, $950 US, but if you want you can go to Survival Systems and have a worse situation simulated. They’ll stick you under water in a mock plane crash with your co-workers. Imagining drowning with colleagues, that’s one way to forget about the nasty things that keep us up at night.

 

Sources:

Aldermanjan, Leslie; “The Year of Conquering Negative Thinking”; The New York Times; January 3, 2017

Barrie, Joshua; “Computers Are Writing Novels: Read A Few Samples Here”; Business Insider Australia; November 28, 2014

Griffiths, Sarah; “Musicals Written by Computer is Heading for the West End… and Based on the Machine’s Calculations, it Should be a Guaranteed Hit” MailOnline; February 5, 2016

Grothaus, Michael; “Bet You Didn’t See This Coming: 10 Jobs That Will Be Replaced By Robots” Fast Company; January 19, 2017

Hyde, Rory; “Architecture in the Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence” Architecture AU

Kelleyjan, Tyler J; “Need Better Morale in the Workplace? Simulate a Plane Crash”; The New York Times; January 7, 2017

Morgenstern, Michael; “The Impact on Jobs – Automation and Anxiety”; The Economist; June 25, 2016

Shani, Or; “Is Artificial Intelligence Going To Take Your Job?” Forbes; August 29, 2016

 

 

 

 

Futures Rambling #95

By Laurie Aznavoorian

 

In late October I spoke at a workplace conference in Sydney (I’ve written three posts that you can read at (http://www.bvn.com.au/2016/11/10/digital-revolution-part-one-background-context/) if you’re interested in knowing more about The Digital Revolution which was my missive for the day. As is often the case with these types of industry gatherings, an unofficial theme emerges, it establishes itself quickly like a light switch flicking to the on position in the collective conscious.

The Work 2.0 conference was no different in this regard, the hot topic that was repeated like a mantra from presentation to presentation was gig economy, gig economy, gig economy. In the event you reside on Mars, this term describes a group of people who have loose arrangements with companies that resemble employment, but aren’t really.

The easiest way to think about the gig economy is to consider the Uber driver who chauffeured you home from the office Christmas party, that guy doesn’t work for Uber. Similarly, the Deliveroo bikie who miraculously made a pizza appear when you got home does not work for your local Italian joint. Both are freelancers and part of an emerging economy defined by loose employment relations coined the gig economy.

The Intuit 2020 report that predicts trends shaping the next decade estimates 40% of the U.S. workforce will be made up of freelancers (or giggers) by 2020. This report provocatively asks us to imagine a world where companies motivate and manage employees who never set a foot in the corporate office.

Wow, I can imagine it, but to my workplace designer pals this is their worst nightmare. But they need not worry – now that America is going to be great again employees will once again be chained to their desks paving the way for designers to remain gainful employed thinking up new ways to arrange desks.

I’d first heard about the gig economy in August while I was in Seattle, the big news around town was a local employer, a tiny outfit called Amazon, announced a new 30- hour a week program that employees could opt into. The program would have a few technical teams and would be made up entirely of part-time workers.

These 30-hour a week employees will be salaried and receive the same benefits as traditional 40-hour workers, but they’ll receive only 75 percent of the pay . To overcome one common pitfalls many experience with part time work, Amazon plans to create teams entirely of part-timers, including managers. Interestingly, my brother’s company has done the same, what is noteworthy about this is he’s not in tech, but a lawyer. Consequently, this must be hot, we all know how progressive lawyers are!

One reason many are choosing to work part time, contract or to gig is noneconomic; employees have gone blue in the face waiting for their employers to do something about work-life balance and have elected to take matters into their own hands. It is not a surprise that analysis by LinkedIn indicates younger professionals, in particularly millennial men, find gigging particularly attractive. It appears to be paying off too, evidence suggests they’re happier, healthier, more loyal and innovative.

And this is why gigging was the hot topic at the conference. One after another HR professional ascended the stage to wring their hands and deliver emotional, heart felt confessions relating to their companies’ ability to attract this new generation of freelance worker. Clearly they lie awake at night concerned their organisation doesn’t have the right stuff to attract those crazy, freewheeling giggers.

In a worried tones they described the tables turning, positioning freelance employees in the driver’s seat and this new order absolutely terrified them. Understandably so, in certain industries it does appear to be the case, technology in particular relies heavily on contract workers. Flexjobs recently ranked areas crucial to Amazon’s business and all of them fell within the top five industries for freelancers: computer and IT, Administrative, Accounting and Finance, Customer Service and Software Development.

Admittedly, hearing this beguiled me, for I’ve been a part of this gig economy for the past two years and have experienced the exact opposite. The word I’d use to describe the way I’ve been treated is worse than appalling. Clearly our industry hasn’t heard about the gig economy, or the importance of creating an environment that is attractive to freelancers, because in architecture and design we still believe it’s acceptable to treat people like they are expendable doormats.

This is manifested by refusing to return phone calls or emails, expecting unrealistic turnaround times and behaving as if the basics of civilized decorum such as saying please and thank you, I’m sorry or you’re welcome were ever a part of their lexicon. To top it off, there is an abhorrent absence of truth that is far more pernicious than the typical ‘emperor’s new clothes’ delusion so common in offices today. This is where hands go to hearts and platitudes on caring, support, fairness and safety come forth, when the opposite is true, but no one has the guts to call bullshit.

I welcome the prospect of tables turning in our industry to favour the gig worker and would love to see the many architectural and design contractors rise up and demand better of employers, not in the way of perks like beer and pool tables, but a very little, simple thing – honesty. I would love to see companies that treat people badly fail miserably. Alas, I acknowledge my dream is unlikely to be realised in this post-truth era where people in power decide what is true and what isn’t, and lying is not only acceptable but rewarded.

 

Sources:

Intuit, 2020 Report, October 2010

Turner, Karen; Amazon is Piloting Teams with a 30-hour Workweek; Forbes, August 26, 2016

Walker, Michael and Kaine Sarah; Deliveroo Strike Win Shows Gig Workers Can Subvert the Rules Too; The Conversation; August 19, 2016

Zimmerman, Kaytie; What Amazon’s New 30-Hour Work Week Means for Millennials; Forbes; September 11, 2016

Futures Rambling #94

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Last month I gave a presentation in Australia to a group of architects who invited me in to share my thoughts on the societal developments we should pay attention to that might impact our future. These are ideas to engage in, formulate opinions on and if we’re smart act on to best sustain ourselves and our industry moving forward. Identifying key drivers or influences that will impact the business of design is a daunting task, I began by exploring societal forces, popular movements, economics and technology that might translate to the practice of architecture.

Several rose to the surface that are highly relevant to our industry. Movements like the sharing economy – that spawned ABW and co-working environments, and the increased influence of digital on physical environments – whose impact must be explored further given its relative newness, have been well documented. Another that has been talked about less in the context of architecture and design, but should be due to the profound impact that it has, is the rampant rise of anti-intellectualism in society.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. The American ethnobotanist, mystic, psychonaut, lecturer and author – who many would know for smoking dope daily and being an advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic plants – Terence Mckenna, suggested ‘the great evil that haunts our enterprise is an inability to distinguish shit from Shinola.’ Granted, he was speaking in a different time and context, never the less, these words begin to touch on the challenge we face.

Mckenna was talking about relativism, which he defined as an absence of logic and mathematical understanding that results in all ideas being placed on equal footing, therefore making it impossible to distinguish a good idea from a bad one. In his mind the problem was growing worse all the time “Just pick up a copy of Magical Blend or Shaman’s Drum and you’ll discover an appeal to the level of intellect that makes what’s going on with television advertising look like a meeting of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Study.”

McKenna was attacking the rise of political correctness when he made his comment which is not anti-intellectualism per se; however, it’s not a big stretch to draw a parallel between this and the steady march we are currently on from dumb to dumber. In our society today being an intellect or academic is no longer valued, in fact in many ways it is pejorative. One need look no further than the political landscape to see evidence of this.

We live in a time when people’s main source of news and insights is Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, all are vehicles that dumb down messages and offer one sided approaches. The conundrum is that in creating a situation where one position is defined by opposition to another, rather than creatively articulating a point of connection, the results are generally not very good: racism, sexism, homophobia and religious hate all harken back to preferring one’s own perspective over another’s to the point of being unable to engage or cope with difference.

We have transported this type of divisiveness and an ‘us and them’ mindset into architectural practices which has caused both individuals and organisations to shy away from having debates about things that matter. Criticism is no longer valued, in fact these days when one engages in either criticism or debate they are likely to be labelled rogue, a cultural mismatch, or not a team player. The ‘crit’, the cornerstone to establishing good arguments that lead to better designs, has nearly been eliminated.

If inability to deal with differences is one side of the coin, the flip side and a position equally damaging for us, is having everything the same. In Australia we have something referred to as the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome, it is a deep sense of equality that Deakin University anthropologist Rohan Bastin suggests confuses equality with sameness. It proves damaging when we attempt to assimilate all by flattening out and making everything equal, identity is lost and value is hard to recognise.

Architects and designers have taken this route for an understandable reasons. Individuals and organisations that strive to be different struggle because it’s impossible to be successful in tender situations where evaluators use procurement matrices created to rank apples against apples. Clients too are risk adverse, with few willing to stick out their neck to choose the firm with a different approach. This of course assumes the design practice has the skill to articulate what is different about approach, despite all the rhetoric, jargon and chest pumping that proliferates, it all sounds pretty much the same.

Some say creativity and innovation are today’s hot currency. If this is indeed true the rise of anti-intellectualism is an even greater concern for architects and designers. It is impossible to be innovative and anti-intellectual at the same time. By shunning intellect, reason is also cast out, without reason and logic there is no problem solving, and that takes us back to shit and Shinola, because you get the former when you take the dumb route.

Mckenna said we shouldn’t be afraid to denounce pernicious forms of foolishness, he was referring to Chaos Theorist, followers of the revelations of this or that New Age guru or someone channelling information from the Pleiades. In our industry this could be translated as we can’t be afraid to bring back intellect and restore our position as experts. The form of safe, everything is the same, don’t rock the boat design so prevalent today is equally pernicious, as is organisations too afraid to challenge a status quo not working.

So as not end on a sour note, perhaps we take comfort from designers in other industries who believe the future will require us to be smarter and demand we make use of research and strategic skills. Harry West from the global design and strategy firm Frog believes design research will be a fundamental skill for all types of designers and John Rousseau from Artefact a technology product design company in Seattle says design strategist, people who have the ability to understand and model complex systems, will be indispensable. I really hope they’re right.

Sources:

Adonis, James; We Love Being Dumb and Dumber; Sydney Morning Herald; January 8, 2015

Elder, John; Is Anti-intellectualism Killing the National Conversation? The Age; August 16, 2015

Niose, David; Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America – Social Dysfunction Can be Traced to the Abandonment of Reason; Psychology Today; June 23, 2015

Terence Mckenna denounces Relativism; Uploaded by MckennaCounterCulture May 2, 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YK3BahMxH4M

 

 

Future’s Rambling #94

By Laurie Aznavoorian

 

Two debates are occupying the American conscious these days. The first is whether America will follow the UK down a path of nationalism and vote in a president who believes the best way forward is to batten down hatches and close borders. The second is the ongoing debate about firearms in the wake of yet another mass shooting.

By default, speaking in an American accent has made me an ambassador of the US. I frequently find myself in the uncomfortable position of being asked by friends in Australia and Europe to explain the inexplicable when it comes to American’s fascination with many things. Their questions flummox me. I can’t explain Donald Trump, guns, the Kardashians or even topics close to my heart that I know a bit about, such as why Americans are so darn traditional when it comes to their workplaces.

For a country who maintains they’re ahead of all others, the US are very slow in the adoption of new attitudes, ideas and ways of working. This places America behind others when it comes to contemporary workplace design, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand come to mind. Workplaces comprised of: private offices, offices of different sizes, formal boardrooms and reception areas and policies that dictate employees be present in the office from 9 to 5 seem like the Dark Ages to many, but they’re alive and kicking in America.

It’s generally my practice to adopt a snarky, highbrow ‘I’m so much more enlightened’ attitude when it comes to these things, but in a modicum of humility I am going to use myself as an example of how easy it is to dismiss the unfamiliar. My experience began at gate 7B in the Seattle Tacoma International Airport where I was waiting and reading the Fast Company Coexist Newsletter. Suddenly I got distracted by a loud snoring sound emanating from a man lying nearby who was stretched across four seats.

Naturally, I gave him the stink eye, which he didn’t see because he was asleep. Seriously, does the guy have to sleep in the airport, can’t he sleep at home? After all, the flight we were boarding did not have a particularly early departure, nor was it international. As an aside, American’s are cry-babies when it comes to flying. They bring snacks, movies and neck support pillows, and when queried about the length of travel they roll their eyes and say “Aggghhh 3 hours!” Good lord, I’d hate to see them on QF1: Melbourne to Dubai, connecting to QF9 to London – 31 hours 25 minutes.

The conundrum I was faced with that morning was as I was feeling annoyed by a man sleeping in a public place, the article I was reading was about naps. It featured Sharon Liverant’s design for an accruement that converts a desktop screen to a pillow. Liverant is a young architect who works with an Israel-based design company, he came up with the idea when he was a student and couldn’t find anywhere to sleep in the studio. Surprise! When he graduated he learned most offices also have no nap room, nor are they willing to allocate the space for one.

Westerners chuckle at the idea of a nap at work, but the topic arose many times in interviews with employees from a large engineering firm that I was creating standards for a few years ago. We learned that in order to adapt the Australian workplace to Asia, it was necessary to acknowledge their cultural preference to take a midday nap. Consequently, a room to store mats was required, as was a place to hang rain drenched ponchos worn while scootering to work.

Sharon Liverant not only identified a problem, he also did his research. While a nap does not make up for inadequate or poor night-time sleep, the National Sleep Foundation in the US suggests a 20 or 30 minute snooze can improve mood, alertness and performance. In fact, some very influential people were famous daytime nappers: Winston Churchill, JFK, Einstein, Thomas Edison and GW Bush.

That’s an oxymoron! Perhaps it is more appropriate to use W as a representation of the stigmas associated with napping that discourages individuals from taking them, and organisations from providing places to do so. These include such misplaced notions as: napping indicates laziness, a lack of ambition, low standards and is only for the very young or very old. The sad reality is research indicates the opposite.

Naps restore alertness, enhance performance and a they reduce mistakes and accidents, a NASA study on pilots found a 40 minute snooze improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100% . On the other hand, Dr. Charles A. Czeisler from the Harvard Medical School advises that 24 hours without sleep, or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night, produces impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%.

With these results in mind Dr. Czeisler suggests top executives have a critical responsibility to take sleeplessness seriously due to the impact it has on cognitive performance. If company leaders really care, then they must recognise the problems that contemporary work and travel schedules create which are only exacerbated by a social culture that glorifies sleeplessness. Who hasn’t been exposed to colleagues boasting about how busy they are, how many emails they have and how very little personal time their important job affords them? They’re so busy, they hardly have the time to tell you how busy they are.

Organisations worldwide have rules and policies designed to protect. In the office employees are not allowed to smoke or sexually harass one another, but few companies have rules related to working too hard, too long or with too little sleep. Perhaps we’ve reached a time when our awareness of health and wellbeing will combine with what research has shown. Is not taking a nap is the new smoking? Will those sleep pods suddenly take off? Will nap rooms be the norm?

Ha ha ha Yeah right! More likely businesses’ reactions will be similar to mine when I encountered the sleeping guy in the airport, a dismissive grunt – and I of all people should have known better given my past experience and fondness for naps! Rather than embrace naps organisation may more likely concoct narratives to leverage the research as evidence of the need to maintain private offices, or some other malarkey.

Sadly that would leave Sharon Liverant’s ingenious design with no hope for adoption. Despite the fact that it rotates and flips down to convert the desk into a place to rest, complete with a padded felt centre that blocks noise and a light weight net frame that acts as an ergonomic cushion, his invention might well go the way of so many other great ideas that were ahead of their time like virtual reality headsets, Google Glass and the Earing Magic Ken doll.

 

Sources:

The National Sleep Foundation

CoExist Newsletter, “This Device Transforms Your Desk into a Place to Take a Nap at Work”, Fast Company June 6, 2016

Fryer, Bronwyn, “Sleep Deficit the Performance Killer” HBR, October 2006 issue.