Futures Rambling #80
By Laurie Aznavoorian

Next week I will be giving a presentation at the Illumni Future of Lighting Summit in Sydney. I’m playing the role of ‘Workplace Contextualiser’ tasked with providing delegates a view of what’s happening in the world of workplace and relating that to a broader context. Then I am going to suggest roles lighting might play.

I’m aware that jumping from world events to light bulbs represents a significant leap, but as obtuse as it may be, there is a link and acknowledging and incorporating social, economic, cultural and business context is a critical first step in creating powerful workplaces. I’ve grown very weary of briefs that ignore this and read like the posters on the wall at my yoga studio. You know the ones, with rainbows and unicorns espousing aspirations and hopes with no mention of the big mean world. Those briefs will deliver a space, but will it be a space that makes a difference to a business?

One benefit of exploring context is the greater likelihood that the problems we are solving will be the right ones. In addition, our understanding of both problem and solution becomes the subtext to the narrative we’ll use to describe why we’ve done what we’ve done. This is critical for getting people on board. When we only provide a small part of the picture, it’s difficult to eliminate subjectivity, we run the risk of people following their natural tendency to fill in gaps and that could result in a very different story than what we intended.

Every night I watch the American news back to back with the Australian news, it’s a bit depressing, but provides a snapshot of rotten things happening on both sides of the globe that we must consider. There are a number of trending topics, three of which I plan to address. Coincidentally, these three topics often emerge when talking to organisations about their workplaces. Each demands unique actions and those actions can be supported, encouraged and enhanced through the physical environment and the environments can be enhanced through lighting.

Abstruse Problems
Watching the news it is impossible to ignore catastrophic natural disasters happening around the world: floods in the Balkans, mudslide to the Northwest of Seattle and fires in Valparaiso Chile to name a few. There’s an environmental story, but the focus here will be on the fact that these represent abstruse problems: enigmatic, difficult to understand and impossible for a single country to solve on their own.

Similarly, organisations face increasingly complex problems that force them to draw on expertise from a wider group of problem solvers including external partners. In both cases the action demanded is to be enterprising, like Bill Gates applying his knowledge (and considerable wealth) to the problems of vaccinations and malaria.

Workplace designs have response to the need to enterprise; this is most clearly evidenced in the rise of co-working spaces that allow people from multiple organisations to interact in a club type atmosphere. Within organisation’s workplaces we will continue to see investment in architectural elements like stairs and atriums, transparent workplaces and spaces dedicated to socialising and learning that encourage mixing, blending and inviting ‘outsiders in.

The challenge with these workplaces, and where lighting can help, is in the critical issue of way-finding. Unfortunately, this has been all but ignored in many of today’s contemporary workplaces that resemble furniture showrooms with little sense of direction or zoning. Employing lighting to define main circulation paths, passive and active work zones and signifying key destinations would improve our workplaces dramatically.

Polarisation
Polarisation is evident in the numerous schisms we see from the redshirt movement in Thailand, Boko Haram kidnapping school girls in Nigeria and in politics in just about any country. In organisations we see a similar disconnects, but fortunately not nearly as dangerous. Businesses generally referred to this as being ‘siloed’ and list ‘breaking down silos’ as a key objective when there is conflict in the organisation.

The action required to bridge the gaps is negotiation, which demands dialogue, knowledge transfer and an opportunity to share points of view and values. Negotiation is an easier pill to swallow when we aren’t forced to abandon our individuality and beliefs, and are given choice. Today’s workplaces have recognised this and many have responded by providing a far greater variety of places to go within the workplace.

By offering choice, we don’t need to close gaps, just bridge them through understanding and accepting that there is more than one way to skin a cat. However, it’s important to remember that once choice is offered, it will be exercised; therefore, workplaces must be compelling and have a sense of character and meaning that will attract and hold worker’s attention. Calling on our skills as architects we must make full use of colour, volume, texture and pattern and use lighting to create drama.

The environment also plays a role in knowledge transfer and here lighting can partner with the symbolism of a space to tell stories, overt or through subtler symbolic means. There is no greater communicator of brand and culture than the buildings we occupy and the workplaces within them, those messages must be carefully considered.

Economic Uncertainty
The final theme, economic uncertainty is familiar to us all. We concern ourselves with a possible downturn in the Chinese economy, the US sliding back into recession, not to mention worries about the new budget Tony and Joe have proposed. Organisations naturally worry about this uncertainty and volatility and many have responded in the same way as nations, with austerity measures and an aversion to risk.

Organisations carefully review their environments today, and are right sizing them by aligning their space to contemporary work practices and eliminating waste. If a job function does not require a large space, it is no longer automatically provided. There is recognition and acceptance that one size does not fit all. Another popular tactic is the use of clever design to squeeze the most out of space by dual, triple or quadruple purposing.

The action being demand is innovation. We must encourage people to think differently about their environments, change their mindset and help them develop new approaches to using space. This is not unlike what Pope Francis has done to the Catholic Church, or ABW’s redefinition of the workstyle many practiced in university.

As we move into the future the most significant innovations in workplaces will come from emerging technologies that promise to change the way we use and experience space. While technology is not technically space, it is part of the ‘workplace ecology’ and cannot be separated from people and space. Together they create what we think of as workplace, and have a co-dependent relationship on each other making it impossible to isolate one.

Lighting is the aggregate of the workplace ecology. It is the glue that binds the parts together and through its careful consideration, makes spaces function efficiently. But lighting does much more than that, it makes space come alive and provides the drama and punctuation we crave. Without light we wouldn’t be hard pressed to see the rainbows and unicorns we all dream about.

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