They’re Back

FUTURES RAMBLING #107 By Laurie Aznavoorian

There is a lot of talk these days about robots changing our lives and taking over jobs, but what really happens when a robot comes to your workplace, how does it impact work?

The Universal Robotics 10 industrial robotic arm in the BVN studio

They first appeared in the office at the end of 2017 a month or two before Christmas, young and nimble, they worked like troopers too, late into the night, making the rest of us appear particularly slothful. They have minds like steel traps, I’ve never once seen them cross the studio to get something only to get there and forget what it was they were after.

Naturally the company loves them, suckers for shiny new things. It doesn’t hurt that they’re not incessant bellyachers like the rest of us whining about: how cold it is, how hot it is, the guys in health care using speaker phones in the office, the broken zip tap – wah wah. Nor do they have a vehement belief that it’s sacrilege for lollies to be distributed at 4:02 rather than 4:00 on Thursdays. 

No one complained when they silently slithered away in the same stealth fashion they arrived. Sure, we reminisced, but the studio returned to the way it was. They’re back now, younger and prettier than ever, twisting and turning, not bothering to appropriately cover their long limbs. When they move, nothing in their body continues to move once they stop. (think about that next time you exercise).

Just like before they’re super clever, artistic and amazingly efficient. Morale in the studio is plummeting, the rest of us feel like old turds floating in a punch bowl.

What, you think I’m talking about the new graduates? Ha ha, Well yes, but no.

I’m talking about the KUKA KR 10 and Universal Robotics 10. They’re the robots we’ve had in our office at various stages over the past year. Truth be told, when they first arrived plenty of naysayers queried what they were doing, snarky comments surfaced about their contribution to the practice. The catalyst of the discontent was of course fear: that the interlopers would drink our coffee, eat our lollies and take our jobs.

But one person wasn’t afraid, Chris Bickerton. He knew exactly what they were doing because he is BVN’s primary liaison and keeper of robots. Once a typical computational designer obsessed with parking garage entries and curtain walls, he heeded the advice of the country song and took his job and shoved it jumping from a traditional role within an architectural practice to chart a new course involving robotics. Chris is never coming back. He’s hooked like a hillbilly on OxyContin.

There is a lot of talk these days about robots changing our lives and taking over jobs, but what really happens when a robot comes to your workplace, how does it impact work? I can think of no better person to ask than Chris. But before we delve too far, you should know Chris is a real person with a real job, but for the purpose of this article he’s a personification of a broader group of talented people at BVN who have championed the introduction of robotics and other new technology.

You might ask why we chose to get into bed with robots, particularly when we didn’t know what they would do or how they might contribute? The answer is simple, robots are a technology that will significantly disrupt the building industry.

Welcoming them into our studio forces us to think about that disruption and puts us on the front foot. In the past 12 months we’ve learned plenty, their presence has changed our collective thinking and the way we design.

One example is our own studio. We assumed the overhead booms that distribute power to our mobile desks would have to be made by a steel fabricator, which is what we did for the majority of them. But we also took a punt and got the KUKA KR 10 to make five unique booms. Day and night KUKA wove carbon fibre around a 3D printed circular frame. The result was beautifully hand-crafted (albeit robotic hand) circular trusses that parallel their steel sister’s functionality.  

The kicker is the beautiful booms cost the same, they’re fun to talk about and unlike the steel versions, they arrived on time. What did we learn? Working alongside a robot opens the door for bespoke, handmade elements in space – the things architects and designers abandoned long ago due to cost. Full disclosure – the robots cost money and ours were on loan from Sydney University and the University of Technology in Sydney, if we had to pay for them it would be a different story.

Woven carbon fibre on a 3D printed frame

Additional disclosure, several technicians from the university observed KUKA KR 10 with clipboards and controllers issuing instructions. Chris stood on a ladder wearing a lab coat and goggles for weeks wrapping carbon fibre around plastic hooks because the robot didn’t have the dexterity for such nuanced tasks. Over time the robot learned enough to do a ‘nudie run’ and wove solo, but Chris still had to tell it what to do.

Robots build cars, drive them and write articles. They can deliver individually tailored learning, but they’re not going to show you how to load filament around a 3D printing spool because to be honest, they’re not very good at it. Consequently, we have found ourselves typical of organisations that embrace new technology, internal learning is an imperative. Now part of Chris’ job is teaching old dogs new tricks.

The story highlights how interaction with robots causes each of us to play to our strengths. Jobs won’t disappear but continue a trajectory that started decades ago when work evolved from being about hands (manual labour) to heads (cognitive tasks) and in the future to hearts. Heart tasks call on human skills that are interpersonal, creative, thought based and cognitive. You can’t mechanise that.

Observing Chris in the office he appears to be doing a lot of what he did before KUKA KR 10 arrived: most days he’s here – although sometimes he works from home. The lab coat has been abandoned for a return to the architect’s uniform: black tee shirt and jeans. He still sits in front of a computer, but looks can be deceiving, his days are quite different and anything but routine.

This tracks with what’s happening whether robots are in the picture or not. According to Deloitte non-routine jobs that require cognitive abilities have been the single largest source of employment in Australia. By 2030, one quarter of Australia’s workforce will be professionals, driven by a continued shift towards non-routine, cognitive-based jobs. And who’s going to do the routine stuff you ask? KUKA KR 10 and UR 10.

But who tells the machines what to do? That would be people like Chris Bickerton. The robots aren’t dumb, in fact over the course of the time KUKA was in our office it learned enough to be trusted on a ‘nudie run’, the equivalent of crossing the road alone. KUKA wove carbon fibre like a big boy, but someone looked both ways first and told it what to do and where to do it. 

Chris along with others are facilitators of circumstances that allow individuals within the practice to interact with new technologies that include: robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud and quantum computing, drones, virtual and augmented reality and 3D/4D printing, we don’t have all of these yet, but someday we might.

Each has the potential to challenge our standards, risk profiles and the limits of our intellectual property; consequently, another aspect of this reinvented role is policing their application.

As professionals we naturally question what it all means. What are the consequences of a robot creating a plausible sketch, which is what UR 10 did in our office. Who owns the sketch, who’s responsible if it’s wrong, what happens when someone 3D prints something that falls apart and hurts someone?

Chris and others are acutely aware of our lack of knowledge in areas of contract law, intellectual property and how to assemble equitable working partnerships. None of these are standard in an architecture curriculum.  We will need to know how to deal with added complexity, layering and blurring of boundaries in the future of work.

Finally, there’s the moral dilemma. Today we have the ability to create digital humans that look real, mimicking human movements and voice. If you’re sceptical check out Lil Miquela, she looks so real that Bella Hadid made out with her in the new Calvin Klein Speak My Truth in #MyCalvins ad. Given she’s not real, but a sentient robot and virtual influencer with 1.6 million followers on Instagram that’s pretty impressive. She’s getting more action than your garden variety incel! It’s where the term deep fake comes from and why it is eclipsing fake news in our vernacular.

Robots are incapable of exercising emotional judgment, they don’t know how to behave in a professionally ethical manner. They don’t know what it means to be fair or accountable, but Chris does.

He thinks about every aspect of this as he leads us into the future, all while maintaining excitement about possibilities, helping us to overcome fears. 

Ceramic 3D print of a facade study

There’s one thing I am certain of, neither of the industrial robotic arms we had in our office can do that. So regardless of the changes that have taken place with Chris and the redefinition of what it means to work in an architectural practice, he need not worry about his job. We’re choosing him hands down over the robots. 


Deloitte Insights – Building the Lucky Country #7


Buzzing in the Hive its all about sonic branding

My work is a drop in the bucket, a speck in the cosmos. I’m just a pea in a pod, another cog in the wheel, maybe a more appropriate descriptor of insignificance for me is a tool in the shed – a very blunt one. Idioms aside, being a bee in the hive need not be a harbinger of doom. Particularly when you’re a bee in the hive at the B:Hive in Auckland New Zealand.

After spending time at this new workplace collective, I felt anything but paltry. Buzzing with the swarm left feeling like I belonged, despite not knowing a soul in a place. The B:Hive is home to several disparate tenants, each has their own secured office space, but they share amenity. Unlike the stereotypical co-working cohort, many patrons of B:Hive come from established companies that fall outside the sexy start-up epithet. But hey, who’s to say selling non-corrosive coatings isn’t sexy.

Tenants at B:Hive are naturally attracted to the networking opportunities that sharing space offers, but they also like a delivery model that enables them to expand or contract twice a year. More importantly, officing in the hive grants entry to a community of organisations that share the same values: rejection of waste and opulence, refusing to accept that being small dictates a work life of suffering in shitty, soul crushing, suburban office parks.

Instead they’ve opted for daylight, fresh air and amazing amenity: break areas, technology enabled meeting rooms, places to focus, hold assemblies and play ping pong. A plethora of interesting furniture groupings supporting different workstyles and demands is on offer. BUT WAIT THERES MORE. The steak knives of the deal come in the form of a bright orange corkscrew stair that any sane ambulant person would choose over the lifts. It’s gloriously fun to use and the exercise keeps your behind right sized.

One enters the B:Hive by traversing The Good Side, a conglomeration of food and beverage purveyors who have sipped the same ‘communal ethos Kool-Aid’. Shared outdoor seating encourages customers, or non – customers, to seamlessly flow between the dozen or so retailers. Permeable boundaries suck in occupants from surrounding buildings and neighbouring residential areas.

The resulting cornucopia of users is what makes the experience unique. Stumbling on an assembly of retirees enjoying a coffee next to a corporate faction in the throws of a serious business discussion is par for the course. Children frolic as their mothers eat lunch; climbing up, around and underneath concrete tables. In this cross-pollinisation of humanity anything goes, there’s no fear of damaging property or retribution from traditional workplace stick in the muds.

What makes this possible is a very deliberate non-precious aesthetic and a welcoming vibe. Apologies for the pun, but it’s what gives B:Hive its buzz.
There is a real buzz too, an omnipresent background noise in both workplace and at The Good Side that serves as an aggregate binding the incongruent parts together. The soundtrack to B:Hive has been carefully curated, it is the brainchild of the CEO, who amongst other things, was once a DJ. For a person with the concentration qualities of a dog near a squirrel, I found the sound honed my focus and I felt less pathetically alone.

Human beings for the most part experience sound subconsciously, we tend to focus on what’s seen and pay little attention to the noises that impact our experiences. Like most things, these can be positive or negative such as shopping at Coles and listening to ‘down, down the prices are down’ ad nauseum. It makes you want to go to Woolies just to hear the ‘fresh food people’ song.

Songs trigger emotional responses, jingles have historically been an integral part of branding, but beyond catchy tunes sound is an effective and very underutilised tool in design. This concept became clear at a conference I attended in San Francisco where we in the audience were asked to listen to tones Apple uses in the iPhone. Then we voted on what sounds would be appropriate for a fictitious Apple Airline: music at the gate, check in, the tone your phone makes when you receive an upgrade.

It became obvious that some sounds are on brand and others are way off. The strategic use of sound to convey rich, emotional stories is referred to as ‘Sonic Branding’ it’s the focus of agencies like Man Made Music in New York who worked with companies like AT& T to identify their brand’s sound. They’re responsible for the six – note chime used in ringtones, commercials and in-store music for AT&T.

Scientists have experimented with integrating senses to improve experiences. One interesting study conducted at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford in 2010 drew connections between different tones and pitches and the way we experience basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. By pairing music tracks with tastes, they found sound altered a person’s perception of food.

This is due to a rare neurological phenomenon that causes one sensory pathway to be experienced through another called synesthesia. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal are on to this, he loves to tinker with the relationship between auditory and olfactory senses and taste. So too does sound designer Felipe Carvalho; he used synaesthesia to compile a soundtrack for eating. No kidding, you can purchase “Sound of Chocolate” online.

In the UK venues like Spiritland are jumping on the sonic band wagon by touting their restaurant / bar as a place to have an acoustic eating experience. Conceived as a ‘dining room of sonic architecture’, Spiritland has velvet curtains, rounded leather booths, custom ceilings and walls that deliver superb sound quality and acoustics.

At least six more venues in London follow this new trend of providing high level listening, eating and drinking experiences where sound quality is as important as the taste of the food. With top-notch sound systems and a return to vynal, they’re an audiophile’s dream. Some say heralding a return of quality over convenience, inviting us to engage with music in a more purposeful way.

I suspect the intent of music at B:Hive was not a deliberate overture in sonic branding; never the less, the impact it has there and at The Good Side leads me to believe sonic branding may be more than a buzz word earning a square on the workplace bullshit bingo board.

But before you go full hog designing noise into your next project, heed the advice of sonic branding experts. They warn a little sound goes a long way and recommend leaving plenty of white noise e.g. silence, to balance out the sound the world throws at us. They say everyone could do with a little less noise these days. I’m inclined to agree.

Smith, Jessica and Walker, Josh; “Listening Clubs”; https://www.LS:N Global Music: Streaming: Retail; January 30, 2017
Sedacca, Matthew; “Sonic Seasoning is the Growing Scientific Field That Uses Sound to Make Food Taste Better”; Quartz; December 24, 2016
Zemni, Hakim; “A Sonic Branding Revolution is Going on and You Are Not Ready For it”; Insights Consulting; November 29, 2018
Molloy, Shannon; “Victoria Police Hunting for Bourke St Hero dubbed ‘Tolley Man’ Over Alleged Burglaries”;; November 16, 2018
“What Does Your Brain Sound Like?”; Fast Company Co-Design; October 22, 2014

Corporate Responsibiltiy

Futures Rambling # 105

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Most people don’t know who Sisto Malaspina is and they draw a similar blank when they hear the name Michael Rogers, but when prompted with the words shopping trolley and Pellegrini’s those in Australia will recognise Malaspina as the cafe owner killed by an armed terrorist in Melbourne last November and Michael Rogers as the homeless man who attempted to stop the attack by ramming Rogers with his shopping trolley of worldly possessions.

A gutsy move and a great example of individuals making a difference, in some instances doing the jobs of others such as: law enforcement, authorities, elected government officials and business leaders. Becoming a vigilante or shouting one’s dissatisfaction with the state of the world is by no means a new phenomenon, but the shouts are getting louder. In fact, today PR firms like Weber Shandwick’s have built entire practices advising corporate leaders on how they should talk about divisive issues like: guns, race, sexual orientation, gender, immigration and the environment.

In the big tech mega centres and bastions of globalization, technology and market liberalization: San Francisco, Seattle and the nooks and crannies of the Silicon Valley; people are screaming their heads off. Perhaps because this is there where the contrasts between the haves and have nots is gut wrenchingly profound. Everyday in those cities people commute to work past people sleeping in the streets in cardboard boxes or tent encampments. Not all, but some of those people displaced by their very success.

Walking that gauntlet as I did exiting the Bainbridge Island ferry in Seattle, or now riding my bike up Kent Street in Sydney, causes one to pause and question what responsibility we have to those negatively impacted by our success? Do the companies we work for have any accountability? Is it reasonable to expect business leaders to protect us from disruptive changes in our industries?

These questions are rife in the tech sector, the industry is in a collective crisis over this predicament and perhaps they should be, they have plenty to answer for. Of the 143 tech billionaires in the world, half live in the Silicon Valley. The rest of the schmos who drank the tech Kool-Aid never got what was promised, had their data compromised and if unlucky enough to live anywhere near them, got priced out of the housing market by those that made it big in tech.

The worry is not confined to the domain of tech. We thought a lot about the impact of disruptive technology in the design of our studio. The physical manifestation of our pondering is a large experimental zone that cuts through the workplace dedicated to robotics, VR, 3D printing and anything else that tickles our fancy. It’s perhaps a token measure, but one we hope will broaden our perspective of what architects and designers do. Truth be told, we’re kind of scared of the day when computers are smarter, less snarky and more accurate than we are.

It’s a challenge for those who dabble in academia too. Students aren’t told they’re learning skills that might be radically different, or obsolete, by the time they graduate. Nor does anyone let on that employers select candidates based on adaptability, cultural fit and personal curiosity. Who tells the kids that the impact of AI and other disruptive technology will mean knowing soft skills that machines can’t perform will be their true worth.

Corporations have long played a role in social issues and the political process that surround them. Today this has been exacerbated to the extent that this has been coined the era of the ‘activist CEO’. Business leaders (in particular the billionaires) assume the role of stewards of company’s values; accountable parties who stand up for employees, customers, partners and communities. They do this, because the public demands it and have told them they must serve a higher purpose beyond maximizing shareholder values.

Some listen. Marc Benioff the CEO of Salesforce contributed $7 million to a Proposition C, which is San Francisco’s ‘homelessness tax’, and he challenged his contemporaries to do the same suggesting it was a moral responsibility of tech companies who have received tax breaks to give back. And in May Seattle’s City Council voted unanimously to pass a similar payroll tax to support the homeless in that city.

That didn’t go so well. Amazon threw a dummy spit and threatening to stop construction of their new office building in Seattle; understandable, Jeff Bezos’ needs to finance a divorce and even Donald Trump, who knows plenty about divorces and pay outs, says that divorce is going to be ‘huge’. In San Francisco Apple and Lift opposed the measure as did Twitter a company who benefits from a massive tax break just to operate there.

Benioff may have been swayed by employees shouting outside his San Francisco headquarters “Caging children is a crime. Salesforce, fuck your bottom line”. That of course had nothing to do with Prop C but was a response to a contract they signed to provide human resources services to US Customs and Border Protection. The point is, employees aren’t quiet anymore; 20,000 Google employees who staged a walkout to protest the company’s payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment certainly aren’t keeping their mouths shut.

It’s a tough predicament the world is in. One that will require a handful of courageous companies to change the rules, otherwise no one wins. Star Trek fans will recognize a Kobayashi Maru situation.

For my part I’ll continue challenging corporates who claim they’re socially responsible with suggestions they let the homeless sleep in their empty offices. Maybe someone, someday will say yes and not look at me like I have three heads. Who knows, it may be the start of new breed of social workplace. As for the university kids, maybe they should skip Revit training and go to the pub to work on their people skills.




Captain, Sean; “Meet the Silicon Valley Socialist Who are Pushing a Tech Worker Uprising”;; July 17, 2018

Chamorro-Premuzic Thomas and Frankiewicz Becky; “Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs?”; Harvard Business Review; January 14, 2019

Chatterji, Aaron and Toffel Michael; “The New CEO Activists”; The Harvard Business Review; January – February 2018

Molloy, Shannon; “Victoria Police Hunting for Bourke St Hero dubbed ‘Tolley Man’ Over Alleged Burglaries”;; November 16, 2018

Rogers, Adam and Tiku, Nitasha; “San Francisco Billionaires Go To War Over Homelessness”; Wired; October 29, 2018






Social Contagion at Work

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Futures Rambling # 104

Last week I exercised my rights of free agency and personal empowerment by unplugging my desk from the octopus it was tethered to and rolled it across the studio to the spot previously occupied by Peter Titmuss. It took about three minutes to link to a shiny new octopus and voila, I became a member of a new team.

Since the name is less than self-explanatory, an octopus is part of BVN’s boom & octopus combination that allows each of us to re- configure our studio environment at will. All desks are on wheels and both power and data drop from fibre optic cables nestled in overhead circular booms that connect to a host, or octopus, which supports up to eight desks.

Why move desks rather than people you ask, isn’t that somewhat hypocritical coming from people known for flogging alternative working? The answer is poor performance of programs like Revit, V Ray, Rhino or Grasshopper over Wi-Fi. For those who know me and are spitting their coffee on their keyboard, no I’ve not upskilled. But there are others here who are far more talented and unburdened by technical challenges than I who’d be crippled.

For organisations like BVN, extreme flexibility opens many doors, some like enabling teams to reorganise are fantastic, others are a work in progress. For example, we’re currently drafting guidelines that clarify when and how one can roll, otherwise to quote our office manager “it would be a real shit show.” And even though you would think it unnecessary to remind architects not to park in fire exits or blocking loo doors, the guidelines will dictate exactly where you can stop rolling.

In parallel, we’ve embarking on a research project intended to track desk movement. This is critical since a successful rolling studio will inherently rely in part on human nature. We all know that just because an individual has the right to roll, doesn’t mean they will. Humans abandon privileges all the time, just look at American voting records. The psychological aspects of rolling we might explore are plentiful: what inspires one to roll while others are happy to stay still, do some people have roll phobia, is the fear of recrimination due to location real?

We also wonder whether people will learn anything from rolling. Perhaps some will become roving studio journeyman, or roll to locations where they’ll amass skills or positive behaviours via osmosis? The hypothesis could be tested on me, we can take note if I’ve become more hip sitting next to Sebastian and a wiz at photoshop, or if being in the mere vicinity of Selina encourages me to learn Revit.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, particularly if you know anything about social contagion. I recently learned about this theory listening to an interview with Dr. Gary Slutkin, a physician and infectious disease control specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago. He knows plenty about spreading things.

He also happens to live in a city where the murder rate surpassed 1400 in July; therefore, is well placed to pursue his vocation of studying infectious disease along with his other passion, the spread of crime. Cure Violence is the program he founded that’s being rolled out across cities in the US. It marries both spheres of Slutkin’s expertise and led him to suggest the spread of violence through a community happens in the same manner as a contagious disease.

Take something nasty like Ebola, your chances of contracting the disease increases with exposure and the disease spreads quickly or slowly depending on specific factors: age, overall health and living conditions. With violence the factors are exposure to gang wars, riots or childhood abuse. The evidence that Slutkin has amassed contradicts the common belief that violent acts are random. Instead, he suggests it follows the patterns of contagion and both disease and violence cluster in time and space.

Social science has reached similar conclusions about behaviours. Attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours move through populations like infection, they spread rapidly and are often accepted uncritically. Given the human condition is a combination of both a biological and social process, and each rely on replicated instructions, you can start to see the connection. In biology a gene is reproduced, in social processes it’s a meme, or culture.

It’s called social contagion and applies to both good and bad behaviours and the concept is by no means new. In 1774 Goethe’s publication “The Sorrows of Young Werther” inspired so many people to commit suicide that both book and Werther clothing style were banned. The Werther – effect is now a synonym for media induced imitation.

Social learning theory posits we learn social memes and behaviours by directly experiencing, observing and imitating and make cognitive inferences based on our observations. Back to our studio, based on the theory of social learning and contagion it is entirely plausible that I might develop new skills because of where I sit, or at least adopt an attitude or aptitude to learn.

Of course, we must be mindful not to spread bad behaviours, the research says this can be minimised by limiting exposure or inoculating people against the effects. Currently the only really bad thing that I can think of that could infect the studio would happen at the Christmas party when the New York crowd comes over. As far as I know there is no inoculation against stupid and our colleagues do live in the same city as the Trumps and may be infected. We should be thankful to have no office in Canberra.



Bushman, Brad J. PH.D, “How Violence Spreads Like a Contagious Disease” Psychology Today, May 31, 2017

Niederkrotenthaler T, Herbert A, Sonneck G.; The “Werther-effect”: Legend or Reality?” Neuropsychiatry 2007; 21(4)

Jack, B; “Goethe’s Werther and its effects – The Lancet Psychiatry”, The Lancet, April 30, 2014

Marsden, Dr. Paul, “ Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” The Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1998 Vol 2.

Slutkin, Gary MD, “Violence is a Contagious Disease”, National Academies Press (US); 2013 Feb 6. II.9, Available from:

“How Treating Violence As A Disease Could Help Prevent It”, Here and Now, PRI WBUR, March 22, 2017




The Attention Economy


Futures Rambling #103

I recently read that if your life is dominated by negative incentives, my source put it as living in a world of sticks and no carrots; that you’ll quickly lose interest and motivation. That’s about the best excuse I can find for not having written if I want to avoid unhelpful labels like shiftless bum. Therefore, the diagnosis of loss of motivation due to negative incentives suits me just fine. What negative incentives you ask? Have you watched the news lately? It’s a motivational black hole.

Even if you had zero interest in the asinine things Trump did in the past 24 hours, you would be hard pressed to avoid it with your phone pinging at each absurd debacle you allowed it to push and social media scrolling down your display screen like a waterfall. It’s like driving by an automobile accident, we want to look away but don’t. We can partly blame BJ Fogg for that. He taught “The Facebook Class’ at Stanford, that was a curriculum that explored how technology persuades people.

Fogg’s students went on to use the basics of behavioural psychology and other psychological principles to map out how to attract attention. They created an ‘addiction code’ that uses the electromagnetic reward system in the brain to manipulate the habit-forming tendencies we’re all prone to. Some call it brain hacking. It’s very effective, few can resist a sweet hit of dopamine, that’s the neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you happy when you smoke crack or look at Facebook.

Every day we enter into a bargain where we exchange our time, attention and personal data for news, entertainment and services. The conundrum is that it’s hard to tell what’s worthwhile from what’s rubbish. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that whole industries have emerged that take data and knowledge about you and sell it to the highest bidder. This is not new, in the 1990s three scholars: Jonathan Beller, Michael Goldhaber and Georg Frank coined this the ‘attention economy’.

In the attention economy most of us live in a perpetual state of deficit, not knowing where to look next and easily distracted reading stories about Stormy Daniels rather than paying attention to family, friends and work. To put this in perspective, authors Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck noted that the Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written material available to a reader in the 15th century.

Anything that is scarce can form an economy. Today what we have in abundance is information and knowledge, but human attention unfortunately occurs in limited supply. Davenport and Beck say human attention has been commodified to the point that it often fails to meet the demands of our businesses or society and that can have serious psychological and organisational consequences.

Running at attention deficit for too long can cause businesses to miss the boat because they fail to see the trends and new developments that are occurring with their competitors. It’s a form of organisational ADD where the businesses attention is hijacked leading organisations to focus in areas that don’t serve them. Consequently, managing a valuable currency like attention is critical for companies today, it’s a determinant of business success.

Navigating the muck to sort what’s worthwhile is something few of us excel at, particularly when psychological tricks are being played. But before we throw stones in glass houses, consider this, we do the same in our desperate attempt to attract the best talent, keep employees attracted, create points of difference to get attention, develop services, offers and wonderful experiences to attract clients. Everyone is waving and screaming and vying for time and attention. Some losers even write blogs no one reads – all for attention.

Some people are very worried about this, one is Tristan Harris. He graduated from Fogg’s class and then went to work for Google where he created a presentation “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” That was a precursor to what he is doing now, running an advocacy group called Time Well Spent – they are lobbyist that go after the tech industry encouraging them to align with societal well-being.

Good for him. It made me think, who is doing this in our industry and what contribution are we making? In particular, do the open plan offices we design contribute to negative incentives that rob attention? There are many reasons we recommend open plan environments, most are sound including: flexibility, creating community, mentoring, social support, not to mention clear environmental drivers. Less space built equals lower carbon footprint.

We also tout open plan leads to greater collaboration and faster decision making, but new research done by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban from the Harvard Business School found just the opposite. The study measured interaction in two multinational companies during completion of new office designs. They observed employees for eight weeks before and after the fit-out were complete using sociometric badges and Bluetooth sensors.

What they found was a 70% decrease in interaction and a 20 to 50% increase in emails. WOW, when you consider this with findings from past Harvard studies that concluded poorly planned open plan environments increase our cognitive load, it becomes downright frightening. Cognitive processes are the ones knowledge workers engage in daily: gathering information, analysing and making decisions. If interrupted it compromises the workers ability to focus and concentrate and that leads to stress and errors.

Personally, I’ve been unable to concentrate for the past thirty years, but am I guiding your plane in for a landing or operating on your brain? As if that wasn’t enough, there’s more from Harvard. It appears that when we can’t concentrate we get snarky and that leads us to cease interacting with the very co-workers we’re meant to be collaborating with. We don earphones and distribute disapproving glances to those with the audacity to laugh or talk in the office.

Wait there’s more, open plan causes us to assume defensive behaviour that strain workplace relationships. An example of this can be observed just near my desk where the IDT help desk team have tried to use potted plants to keep me from asking them tech questions. It’s futile, shrubbery won’t stop me, I’ve got them on speed dial.

Alas, the study is not all gloom and doom, it suggests that rather than a one-size-fits- all approach that organisations create environments where workers have options to work that vary between places that support privacy and focus, interaction and collaboration. They also suggest cognitive resources can be replenished by allowing people to look out the window. This works even in the presence of distraction, how novel. Who would have thunk it! That my friends, is why people from Harvard earn the big bucks.



Beck, John C and Davenport, Thomas H; “The Attention Economy – Understanding the New Currency of Business”

DiSalvo, David; “The Reasons Why We Can’t Put Down Our Smartphone” Forbes; April 9, 2017

Sander, Libby; “Here’s the Final Nail in the Coffin of Open Plan Offices” The Conversation; April 11, 2018

Schwab, Katharine; “Everyone Should be Reading “The Attention Merchants” This Summer”; Fast Company CoDesign; July 16, 2018

Stilzoff, Simone; “The Formula for Phone Addiction Might Double as a Cure” Wired; February 1, 2018



The following synopsis of Worktech appeared in The Worktech Academy Newsletter


For a conference with intentions of knitting together the best of work, technology and workplace; Worktech Sydney 2018 began and ended quite appropriately on the topic of people. After all, it is human beings, who play the critical role of aggregate binding these elements together.

Beginning with strategies to inspire individuals by enhancing the hopes we all have of being fully engaged in our work and performing jobs that provide a sense of purpose and meaning, we moved to the opposite end of the spectrum. Touching on another innate human desire, our hunger to be part of a larger collective: contributing, sharing and striving to meet common goals.

As we have come to expect from Worktech, we were offered glimpses of exciting new technologies that augment the workplace experience for both individuals, and those who work together. New technologies employ expanded sensory touch points: biometrics use vision, haptic interfaces apply touch and through the introduction of food in the workplace our sense of smell is called upon. All illustrate a multi-sensory approach to enhanced engagement.

In a similar vein, new research considering the impact of hearing drew corollaries between noise in the workplace and knowledge transfer. This work offers a welcomed contrast to recent focus on quiet and distractions that have dominated workplace discussions and only reflect on the negative aspects of noise. Interestingly, the same research explored the representation of females in office interactions and found women underrepresented in areas of ideas generation. Clearly, we have a ways to go if we hope to engage everyone and achieve real diversity.

Changing scale, examples of cities like ShenZhen China illustrate the significant power of individuals working together in communities, joined by common vision and goals. In this case, people unite against a collective enemy that is speed to market. Similarly, the notion of the ‘civic supermind’ gave us a prevue of the strength of shared vision to leverage the power of people working together, using data and technology, to create stronger, safer and better cities.


The concept of community was equally prominent. Communities address both individual’s emotional needs and an economic imperative to join forces to solve complex problems. The notion of community here is defined not in terms of what we build, but how we create a sustainable fabric that binds a collection of people together.

Unsurprisingly, technology and data play a key role in supporting community, both in physical space and through digitally connected networks. Workplace communities now connect using fog computing, an enterprise approach to storage, communication and control. Partnerships like Beco + Alexa and Cisco + Spark are finally offering the type of seamless workplace experiences we were promised when the term Internet of Things first graced the workplace lexicon.

With ubiquitous connection theoretically solved, attention now turns to supporting groups in broader community contexts that exist beyond the walls of our office buildings. Global community networks, such as Top Coder, join together through technology and tap into the exquisite skills of accomplished developers around the world. They offer each other on line help and employ an open innovation approach to solving complex problems.

Clear benefits of ‘community beyond the walls’ are speed and transparency. Since the groups operate under a different dynamic to traditional organisations, they are able to build a collective intelligence and learn faster than traditional ‘in the walls’ organisations.

Another advantage of ‘communities beyond the walls’ is their ability to engage a highly skilled workforce who have the freedom to work together without the crippling obstacles of implicit bias against sexual preferences, ethnic background and gender that plague many organisations. It is not surprising, but never the less a disappointment, that it takes the blinding aspect of technology to open the doors to all people and achieve greater workplace inclusion.


We were warned of a tsunami of change on the horizon that could decimate the working class. Led by super technology, it brings a new generation of volatility and uncertainty that will demand a level of resilience, agility and inherent creativity in organisations. It will most definitely challenge the status quo.

Many organisations have already tapped into metrics and baseline data available, and know their office space is only used a portion of the time. The savviest are scrutinising their contracts and challenging landlords and developers for greater flexibility, paving the way for solutions that offer the ability to scale down or down and procure space differently.

One positive outcome of this tsunami is the impact it has on ‘normal workplaces’ of ‘normal organisations’. Many companies and individuals are oblivious to the benefits of contemporary workplace ideas adopted by upper crust organisations who have greater financial means and insights. Seeing these notions trickledown is a pleasing change.

For example, the workplace of the NSW government reflects the significant reform they have undertaken and illustrates a physical environment that mirrors the way the agencies now work together. A dialogue has opened related to the adoption of flexible working that challenges built offices. The strategy looks to the future anticipating how the shifting demographic of Sydney that redistributes the population across Central, Western and Eastern Sydney hubs, underpins the workplace strategy.

By overcoming fear the NSW government was able to consider the same unquestionable metrics many corporates use to demonstrate inefficient use of space, paving the way for change. Importantly, those changes are executed at a very different price point to many of the workplaces featured at the conference. It highlights the benefits of contemporary workplace have just as much, if not more, to do with mindset than the physical environment.


As is the case with all of the themes of the conference, Trust is explored at individual and community levels. We are familiar with the critical role trust plays in developing relationships between employers and co-workers. New technologies serve to remind us of the tenuous position we are in, straddling the blurry, thin line that separates privacy infringements and productivity enhancement.

Taking the notion of trust to a macro level, communities and networks must also augment trust to encourage the reciprocity required to leverage the benefits of a working collective.

Sadly it comes at a time where institutions and social trust have eroded, consider Brexit and Donald Trump. The s@#t show we are currently living in has created a state of individual and societal disillusionment. It’s imperative we rebuild social trust and legitimacy. The remedy offered was a call for greater openness; in theory, this will lead to the optimism required to get more people to participate.

We end where we began, with people. Whether it is in a workplace, a community or global network, our future lies in an ability to tap into brilliant individuals possessing the conviction necessary to combat today’s societal maladies: mental illness, loneliness, complexity overload, bullying. Our success lies not in work, workplaces or technology, but the people who occupy them.

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

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.