December 05, 2013  |  permalink

CNN: Will the world be wowed by Dubai’s futuristic souk built for Expo 2020?


CNN quotes me on Dubai and its winning bid for Expo 2020:

For Greg Lindsay, co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next”, the Expo proximity to the new Al-Maktoum International Airport and Dubai World Central development is especially significant.

“(Dubai World Central) is the best organic example of an ‘aerotropolis,’” says Lindsay, whose book puts the case that modern globalized cities such as Dubai are built around, and feed off, airports in much the same way as cities in the 19th century were built around the railways.

“In 1990, there was nothing really there ... it was the strategy of Emirates and the civil aviation authority to make Dubai the crossroads of the world.

“I do think winning the Expo will be a huge catalyst for its development,” he said.

Read the whole thing here.

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November 29, 2013  |  permalink

Gizmodo: Rise of the Aerial Commuter


Over at Gizmodo, Alissa Walker investigates the “rise of the aerial commuter.” Alissa was kind enough to ask for evidence, and I was more than happy to provide it. Read the whole thing at Gizmodo, but you can start here:

Last month, a blog post by Sam Cookney captured the imagination of anyone who pays a little too much money for the convenience of living near work. He reasoned that, for the same price he paid for his one-bedroom London flat, he could live in a three-bedroom flat near the beach in Barcelona and fly to work in London four days a week. And he’d still have 387 Euros left over at the end of the month.

If you put it that way, extreme jet-setting scenarios like this sound like a pretty amazing idea. Even if it’s really just a fancy way of commuting to work, the thought that we could be sitting at our desk in London and then, just hours later, be sipping rioja on our balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, is still impossibly awesome. Who wouldn’t want to make enough money in one city and be go home to a place where you can actually enjoy it, even—or especially—if it’s a few hundred miles away?

Of course, there are two factors here that make Cookney’s math specifically feasible. First, London is a catastrophically expensive city—just check out this depressing London rent calculator by the Financial Times that shows the percentage of your salary you’d have to spend on rent—so living practically anywhere else would save you money, comparatively. And, second, Ryanair, the airline Cookney used in his calculations, is a ridiculously cheap carrier notorious for being heavily subsidized by European airports.

But Cookney’s proposal is not altogether unrealistic. The book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next traces how these low-cost airlines changed the commuting patterns for Europeans. A study by Future Forum predicted that, by 2016, there would be 1.5 million people who work in the U.K. but commute by plane from their homes overseas in cities like Tallinn, Marrakech, and, yes, Barcelona. Cookney’s fantasy is a reality for a growing breed of supercommuters—dubbed aerial commuters—who take planes to work.

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November 14, 2013  |  permalink

Interview: Greg Lindsay on engineering serendipity and harnessing chaos

(Originally published at on November 5, 2013.)

Greg Lindsay is a journalist and urbanist. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company and co-author of the international bestseller Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next as well as a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, and a research affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute. He is also one of the main speakers at this year’s Worktech conference in London on 19 and 20 November. In this frank and enlightening interview he offers his thoughts on how firms can engineer serendipity into their workplaces and cultures and how the way we design offices is already taking clues from the way we plan urban environments.

Insight: You claim to be something of a neophyte when it comes to the workplace but every aspect of your work touches on it in one way or another. Are you being disingenuous or just modest?

Greg Lindsay:  Neither. My work touches on the workplace in many ways, but it is generally not the aspects of the workplace you cover so well on Insight. I work as part of a think tank that looks at the future of work and I’m aware of how work integrates with everything around us. We know for example that cities are the places where ideas are spawned and we understand the processes involved thanks to the work of people like my fellow Worktech speaker Frank Duffy.

Insight: So what do you think are the most important things we could be doing better to make work more productive, creative and enjoyable?

GL: We often start from a flawed or narrow perspective. So if you take something like an org chart, which is how many organisations visualise themselves, you begin from a false point. It’s a terrible approximation of how work gets done and how people interact with colleagues and the organisation.

Insight: So what is the alternative perspective and how does this manifest itself in terms of office design?

GL: Unquestionably the best new office designs are those which create unforeseen encounters in much the same way as we see in an urban setting. There are a number of ways of doing this. Facebook for example is looking to create this type of workplace by essentially putting everybody in one big room at its new HQ. That is essentially the vision of Mark Zuckerberg. Even though he hired Frank Gehry to execute it, Zuckerberg already knew what he wanted from the workplace. And you can see the thinking behind what they’ve done up to a point. But it relies on an assumption that, when it comes to bringing the right people together in the right ways, that you know who the right people are to begin with, even if you have designed flexibility into the layout of the offices so they are able to change quickly as a way of creating new interactions. So I’d say there are better ways of maximising the chances of the right interactions happening in practice.

» Continue reading...

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November 10, 2013  |  permalink

Fast Co.Exist: Yahoo Says That Killing Working From Home Is Turning Out Perfectly


(Originally published at Fast Company’s Co.Exist on October 30, 2013.)

When Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer banned her 12,000 employees from working from home in February, her all-hands-on-deck ultimatum ignited a national debate on the merits of cloudworking that still rages. Silicon Valley’s fair-haired wunderkind was alternately mocked and condemned by the likes of Maureen Dowd and Richard Branson, while pundits declared she’d made “a terrible mistake.” Some even wondered whether Mayer was trying to make them quit.

Mayer was finally hounded into addressing the issue in April, acknowledging her critics’ contention that “people are more productive when they’re alone,” and then stressing “but they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.” Eight months later, Yahoo insists Mayer was right. (And earlier this month, HP’s Meg Whitman followed suit.)

The workplace has become a catalyst for energy and buzz.
Despite predictions of “epic policy failure,” in the words of Julie Ford-Tempesta, Yahoo’s senior director of real estate and workplace, “employee engagement is up, product launches have increased significantly, and agile teams are thriving,” adding, “The workplace has become a catalyst for energy and buzz.” Ford-Tempesta’s comments were included in a paper called The Power of Presence: Being Present In a Virtual World, published last week at the CoreNet Global Summit in Las Vegas, where several thousand real estate execs gathered to debate the future of the office. (Full disclosure: I was an unpaid speaker at the event.)

The author of the report, Steve Hargis has spent the last six months advising Yahoo on an overhaul of its Sunnyvale headquarters in his role as an executive vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, which handles the company’s outsourced real estate. “Most of the campus is still the old-style cubicles,” he says, but several floors have been remade in the image of the 300 to 400 agile programming teams charged with overhauling Yahoo’s aging Web services and dragging them into the mobile era. These are the spaces packed with stand-up desks and scrum boards—not to mention employees. “The difference between the two is so visible it’s become a marketing tool,” says Hargis. “People are saying, ‘Wait a minute, I want to be over there.”

But does this anecdotal evidence constitute success? In the report, Yahoo’s Ford-Tempesta points to the near-doubling of the stock price since the beginning of the year, an assertion which is dubious at best considering how much of that value is tied up in the company’s 24% stake in the soon-to-IPO Alibaba, while its third quarter revenues and profits are both down compared to a year ago.

There is definitely merit to the idea, however, that bringing its agile programming teams together in the same place at the same time can have a small but crucial impact on performance. In his book People Analytics, MIT visiting scientist Ben Waber discusses the role of dependencies for programmers, that teams must coordinate closely to ensure their code meshes well. Citing others’ research as well as his own, Waber argues remote programmers are 8% less likely than co-located groups to communicate about dependencies, which translates to 32% longer code completion times—or death when you’re already as lumbering as Yahoo. “For Yahoo, then, this means their workforce becomes about 3% more effective with the stroke of a pen,” Waber wrote, the value of which he pegs at $150 million.

That may not be quite as much as the $17 billion in market cap that the report lays at the feet of killing working from home, but Mayer certainly doesn’t have to say she’s sorry, either.

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November 02, 2013  |  permalink

The JFK Aerotropolis?


On Oct. 28 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy making landfall — ten teams of architects, engineers, environmentalists and assorted experts unveiled 41 proposals at the behest of HUD for how to rebuild and buttress the Northeast coast ahead of the next superstorm (which is likely to be a biannual event from now on, at least). One of “Rebuild by Design’s” teams is led by OMA, Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture. Their proposal includes a “Jamaica Bay Aerotropolis” as a means of stablizing and reinforcing the delicate wetlands around Jamaica Bay. From their description:

JFK International Airport is a vital node in the regions infrastructure. As part of Jamaica Bay, it is also highly vulnerable to flood risk. Although the airport is capable of ‘taking care if its own problems’, there is an opportunity to leverage this asset to promote the common flood defense of the Jamaica Bay area. That means integrating the airport into a larger tiered defense system, and using the airport as a catalyst for growth; growth that will help fuel, and fund, the transformation of the area, and position Jamaica Bay as a future economic for New York City.

In other words: we must build a new city in order to save it.

OMA’s championing of an aerotropolis isn’t entirely unexpected. The firm is currently designing an “Airport City” in Doha in conjunction with that city’s new airport, while the word “aerotropolis” first appeared in print in English (as far as I can tell) in the Koolhaas-led Harvard GSD volume “Great Leap Forward.” In 1998, Koolhaas proposed replacing Amsterdam’s Schiphol with an offshore aerotropolis, and before that, his firm had crafted (later discarded) master plans for both New Seoul Airport City and what would become New Songdo. Koolhaas arguably has a better claim to parentage of the aerotropolis than its chief evangelist, Jack Kasarda.

Meanwhile, The Economist has finally gotten around to reading Chapter 2 of my book:

Memphis calls itself America’s “aerotropolis,” referring to the title of a 2011 book by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. The book argues that cities of the future, and their economies, will increasingly be built around airports.

Memphis has a downtown, of course, but just its air-cargo operations produced a total economic output in its past financial year of roughly $22.1 billion and supported over 132,000 jobs. Louisville, Kentucky—home to the hub of FedEx’s chief rival, UPS—has a similar story. In 2011 its two airports were responsible, directly or indirectly, for roughly 9% of all jobs in the Louisville area. Cotton built Memphis, and rail and river cargo made Louisville, but those trades dwindled and both cities languished until FedEx and UPS found them.

The carriers have in turn attracted companies that profit from being near a direct-mail hub. Some are retailers: Zappos, an online shoes and clothes store, has a huge distribution centre just outside Louisville. CaféPress, another online seller which lets customers design their own T-shirts, mugs and other products, moved its headquarters from San Mateo, California, to Louisville, netting it millions from cost savings and later cut-off times for orders. Louisville’s airport authority claims that since 1993 more than 150 firms have moved to Louisville to be near the UPS hub.

Others are health-care outfits, such as the National Eye Bank Centre, based near Memphis, which stores corneas for ocular surgery. Last year Oxford Immunotec, a medical-diagnostics firm which tests patients for tuberculosis, moved its laboratory to Memphis from Boston. Now it can guarantee that blood samples from almost anywhere in America can get from patient to lab within 32 hours.

Could the idea of a successful aerotropolis be replicated elsewhere? Only in part. Both cities have immense advantages. They are temperate and central. Both have river ports, freight-rail lines and interstate highways to connect the airports to surface transport. Both also have relatively low labour costs, and fairly cheap land.

UPS and FedEx are bright spots in an otherwise dim market. Since 2010 worldwide air-cargo volumes have grown by just over 2%, from 50.7m tonnes to a forecast 51.8m this year. And revenue is shrinking, from $66 billion in 2010 to an expected $59 billion this year. But robust e-commerce, the growth of demand for cheap package delivery and such specialist freight as refrigerated medicines have helped the two firms buck the trend. UPS said on October 25th that it expects its daily volume of packets in the pre-Christmas peak season to be up 8% on last year.

As for Messrs Kasarda and Lindsay’s aerotropolis, like many futurist reimaginings, its appeal is more romantic than predictive. But there is plenty of evidence for a simpler version of this thesis: that airports encourage growth and development, even if that won’t sell books.

If they’d published this two-and-a-half years ago, when the book was published, it might have helped.

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November 02, 2013  |  permalink

Wired (UK): How to Build a Serendipity Engine


(This article was taken from the November 2013 issue of Wired [UK] magazine.)

Silicon Valley’s latest management fad is to not manage. “Some of the best decisions and insights come from cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings,” said Yahoo! when it revoked working from home. Marissa Mayer, ex-Google, knew that hits such as Gmail and Street View were the product of engineers meeting serendipitously over lunch.

Google’s new campus is designed to encourage “casual collisions” at its rooftop cafés, and Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to build “the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together,” Mark Zuckerberg explained.

Study after study has demonstrated the power of proximity when it comes to birthing ideas, and network theorists have shown how bridging “structural holes” between teams and disciplines consistently leads to better and more innovations. What’s ironic is how the world’s largest search companies and social network appear to have no better ideas of how to plug these holes than to toss everyone into a room with an espresso machine.

Google is obsessed with “engineering serendipity”, combining users’ search history, location and context to answer questions before they’re asked. What would it take to build a social serendipity engine—one that could identify who’s nearby, mine your hidden contexts and relationships and make the necessary introductions? After all, not everyone drinks coffee.

The first step is finding people, which location-based dating services such as OKCupid and Grindr manage well. They’ve been joined by “social discovery” apps such as Sonar and Circle, which link users’ networks to their smartphone’s GPS.

“Ten years from now, you will look at your phone or through Google Glass, and know everyone in the room,” says SocialRadar founder Michael Chasen. “I haven’t met anyone who disagrees with that.”

Google’s new campus is designed to encourage “casual collisions” at its rooftop cafés
The next piece is harder. It’s not enough to know who’s in the room—you also need to care. Facebook “likes” aren’t accurate predictors of a match. What’s missing is context—why I want to meet this person now. Grindr works because its consideration is binary. Any serendipity engine with higher aspirations must grasp deeper motivations than social media supplies.

One solution is to build rich profiles manually. That’s the tack taken by Relationship Science, which maps potential connections between 2.3 million members of the 1 percent. Customers can trace the shortest path to their quarry via colleagues, corporate boards and alma maters, each link graded into strong, medium and weak ties—captions Glass might someday flash over their faces.

Another approach is to collect data using sensors. An MIT Media Lab spin-off, Sociometric Solutions, equips office workers with “sociometric badges” to measure movement, speech and conversational partners, using the results to plot maps of organisations. Its findings suggest Yahoo! should invest in large cafeteria tables: workers who eat at tables for 12 are more productive than those at tables for four.

The last step is the trickiest: given enough context about the strangers headed towards you, can an algorithm crunch enough data in time to spot connections? Another startup, Ayasdi, does that by rendering every big data set as a network map, revealing hidden connections that CEO Gurjeet Singh labels “digital serendipity”.

If yoked together, these approaches could help fill in the blank spaces on the org chart where work actually happens and new ideas are spawned. Although luring them into the same room with an espresso machine would probably speed things up a bit.

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October 14, 2013  |  permalink

My INYT Op-ed: A People App for City Crowds


The International Herald Tribune is dead; long live the International New York Times. As part of a special section to commemorate today’s first edition, I was asked to contribute an op-ed on the future of cities. I’ve posted it in its (brief) entirety below:

A People App for City Crowds


Co-director of the World Policy Institute’s Emergent Cities Project

I caught a glimpse of the city of the future last fall while crossing the street in San Francisco. I recognized someone I’d never seen striding toward me — because my iPhone warned me he was coming. Paul Davison runs Highlight, an app that maps users’ Facebook profiles to their phones’ GPS, producing a social network tethered to the sidewalks rather than splayed across cyberspace. If this century truly belongs to the city — and by its midpoint, four in five of us will live in one — then how should we best bring another few dozen cycles of Moore’s Law to bear on it? More than highways or skyscrapers, cities are the product of our personal encounters. Rather than wire our cities with sensors and run them from hidden control rooms, give me an app that can pick a new face out of a crowd — call it “serendipity-as-a-service.”

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September 08, 2013  |  permalink

The Week: 5 Connections Between Transportation and Urban Growth


(Originally published at on September 4, 2013.)

How closely connected are the futures of transportation and economic growth? As our urban centers grow, how do we rethink what urban mobility means? What does the next age look like?

Greg Lindsay is the author of the international bestseller “Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next,” and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute. Much of his work looks at the intersection of transportation and economic growth.

Here, Chris and Greg discuss five connections between transportation and urban growth affecting each of us and how we move, including:

Aerotropolis in globalization trends
Social Interaction Potential in urbanization
Technology innovations streamlining transit
Robot cars and their potential impact on transportation
The role of the smartphone in easing our commutes

Chris Riback: You’ve written about the ways airports today serve as hubs for globalization. What do you mean?

Greg Lindsay: Historically, transportation has defined the size and shape of cities. Venice and Amsterdam were defined by their docks; Chicago and midtown Manhattan by their railroad terminals, and every city since Los Angeles has been defined by the car.

Today, the only form of transport capable of moving people and goods at global speed and scale is air travel, which despite the misery of the TSA and the triple-digit price of oil is still breaking passenger records every month globally. Sooner or later, the tremendous flows of passengers and cargo through the largest hubs could cause them to start spawning their own cities, the strange urban form known as the “aerotropolis.”

Examples include Dubai — which used its airport and hometown airline, Emirates, to transform from a backwater into the leading entrepôt of the Middle East and even North Africa; Louisville and Memphis — a pair of fading rustbelt cities first saved, and later held captive to the overnight hubs of UPS and FedEX, respectively; and cities in central and western China like Zhengzhou and Chongqing, which are desperately building infrastructure to connect themselves to the global economy.

Study after study demonstrates how job growth, capital flows, and investment correlates with good air access — otherwise, you’re out of sight, out of mind.

CR: Another project of yours explores emerging cities and both the formal and informal economies that drive them. How does transportation matter as you look at potential economic winners and losers?

GL: First of all, what is a city, really? It’s not the sum of its infrastructure, but of its people — and especially the connections between people. Cities are really agglomerations of social networks.

A team of researchers at MIT led by Wei Pan argues that the reason cities become more productive — and thus wealthier — as they grow more populous is because you’re compressing more of these networks into the same space, creating greater potential for serendipity and collaboration, which in turn leads to innovation and ultimately to economic growth.

A major criticism of this argument is how bigger isn’t always better when it comes to cities. Tokyo and New York may profit from their size, but what about Karachi, Sao Paulo and Lagos? The MIT team hypothesized that the answer may have to do with transportation — Tokyo and New York have the transit systems to easily compress large numbers of people each workday in their cores, while Sao Paulo and Lagos have hellishly long commutes.

A professor at Utah named Steven Farber has come up with a new metric called “Social Interaction Potential” to measure the possibilities of meeting someone in a given city, taking your commute into account. He found that auto-driven sprawl has a huge drag on our ability to meet other people, and may be perpetuating economic inequality in American cities. So clearly, transportation has a huge role to play in the health and wealth of cities.

CR: As you visit urban centers globally, what transit innovations seem most remarkable?

GL: When I was in the Philippines this spring, my American hosts railed against the “Jeepneys” — WWII-era U.S. military jeeps retrofitted into private minibuses. They’re cramped, polluting, and often dangerous, stopping and starting on highways to pick up passengers without warning. And yet it’s informal forms of transit like these which represent the transportation future of megacities such as Manila, Mumbai, and Bangkok.

How can we use simple communication tools such as smartphone apps or even SMS text messaging to connect drivers with a central dispatching service, transforming a cut-throat, dangerous business into an adaptive one that’s both easier and safer for riders and delivers higher wages to drivers? Who cares about Uber? — show me a taxi startup for the Global South that changes the lives of its drivers.

CR: What’s next? If transit and transportation excellence are so closely tied to a location’s prosperity, what trends do you see as urban centers look for the next stage of growth?

GL: My biggest fear is the impact of robot cars on cities. While I think they could be advantageous for terrifically dense ones like Manhattan — in you never have to park or drive, and every taxi smoothly glides along to the next stop — they could breathe new life into exurban sprawl. Will long commutes matter if you can watch a movie, or sleep, or (most likely) work the entire way there? The impact on land-use patterns could be terrifying.

That said, I think the most important transportation technology of the moment is the smartphone, which is best appreciated on foot. The ability to locate and discover things nearby (via Foursquare, etc.) and people (via mobile dating and other ambient location networks) has enriched how we perceive and use the city.

The future of urban transportation, I hope, is locally dense (and slow), and globally connected (and approaching the speed of sound).

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September 05, 2013  |  permalink

Innovant: Part Two of me on the future of the workplace


(The furniture designer Innovant kindly asked me to rant for a while on the future of the workplace and why the boundary between the office and the city-at-large are blurring together. This is part two; the first half is farther down the page.)

DH: You’ve written about Google and mentioned them at the IIDA event. Innovant has seen three global RFPs from them in the last four years, which is an extreme example of a company undergoing rapid growth at rapid speed. If you can speak to this, how do such companies deal with the chaos of space planning, workplace strategy, and establishing standards under these conditions?

GL: As a journalist, I’ve never been on the inside of such hyper-growth, so I can’t really speak to that. However, I am fascinated that the biggest cloud company in the universe is massively investing in physical space. The second Googleplex (i.e. the Bayview Campus) and London headquarters are evidence that Google values proximity.

DH: Do you think your amazement that Google is investing so much money in physical space relates to the idea of “engineering serendipity” that you’ve promoted? Are they really able to think in those terms when they’re moving so quickly?

GL: Yes, I think so. One example is Google’s “people analytics” group. The company was prescient enough to create a dedicated data analysis group to study how people in the company actually work. Eventually, most companies will follow suit in molding functions of HR and facilities management to actually manage people and space together as a single unit — or at least they should.

Another responsibility of Google’s people analytics group is to manage social interactions among Googlers. There’s a reason the Googleplex has a bee-keeping club, and it’s not to keep employees at the ‘Plex 20 hours a day, which is how such programs are typically seen from the outside. Instead, they’re trying to figure out how to mix employees in unforeseen combinations that go beyond corporate roles and politics.

I’ve seen the chronic coffee machine and water cooler metaphors come up frequently in this context. When companies try to figure out how to increase workforce cohesion or introduce people, the solution is invariably adding or moving the coffee machine around. After all this time, we seem to have no better idea for bringing people together than to leave food lying around the office kitchen, as if you were trying to attract a pack of wild animals. I’d be curious to track the people analytics group’s results, which may suggest new social modes for bringing people together.

The third example is Campus London, where Google has stacked an incubator, an accelerator, and two floors of co-working beneath a satellite office on the top floor. Google’s presence is the draw for the entrepreneurs who work there, while the appeal for Google is this hive of activity beneath them they can keep tabs on, learn from, and hire from. I think this is an interesting lesson for companies — especially considering we talk all the time about the benefits of industry clusters. Though the work clusters may not be competitive, they’re close enough to drive innovation.

DH: You also mentioned Facebook at the IIDA event, describing how Zuckerberg was very vocal in the design process with Gehry. How does Facebook measure up in the world of companies growing so quickly when they’re the ones driving the design of their workplace?

GL: I don’t think this makes Facebook much of an outlier since I imagine Google gave NBBJ a lot of input. Facebook is evolving, hiring, and adding new functions so quickly that the company believes it must be able to spawn out a whole new product group at a moment’s notice. The result is that it’s very reluctant to conform to planted physical space. Instead, they’ll just mount work surfaces on castors so they can rearrange the space as necessary. I think this is: A. Really interesting, B. It’s similar to the urban dynamic I write about, which describes why cities work so well, and C. If I were an architect it would scare the hell out of me because they’re basically saying, “You can’t figure us out. You can’t design spaces for us that morph as quickly as we need them to, so just give us a big box.”

DH: We’ve seen sit-to-stand workstations established as a standard in Scandinavian countries and other parts of Europe at a rapid pace. In the US, however, that’s been lagging. Recently, Innovant has seen a surge in requests for adjustable height desks. Do you think this notion of adapting our workplaces for health and safety reasons is a real and sustainable shift, or is it just a trend?

GL: I don’t have informed opinion on this, though I would say yes. I think it’s a real trend, which is part of the larger notion of choice and the awareness that people no longer have to sit in an uncomfortable chair at an uncomfortable desk. Instead, they’re demanding a range of motions and a range of environments for work.

As Nilofer Merchant put it, “Sitting is the smoking of our generation.” I’ll be curious to see whether this achieves the status of a crusade, though it will be hard to trace its origins since there seems to be a greater acceptance of design and choice in the US. I certainly think the desire for public space and a range of motions at one’s desk are a part of a larger trend.

DH: Based on what you know about how work is changing, how do you envision the workplace of the future?

GL: The key is that it’s not just a workplace. The workplace of the future is merged intimately with the other environments around it. You’ll have environments that exist either to put your head down and work alone, or you’ll be involved in socializing; either you’re plugged into the cloud or you’re really involved in physical space with people while executing multiple work modes at once.

The workplace of the future won’t start by walking into an elevator lobby or parking your car outside a suburban office complex and going inside to sit at a desk, where there’s nothing but desks and there’s nothing but work. I imagine the street intersecting with the building, so that the moment blurs when you walk into the office out of what today would be a coffee shop, restaurant or retail complex.

The people you’re working with are not necessarily your professional colleagues. You chose that space because it’s designed for the kind of work you want to do and it houses the kind of people you need to work with (or not work with). I imagine you won’t necessarily be choosing where and how you work based on who is paying you. Instead, you’ll base your decision on a space’s relevant functions, which will blend with the city somehow.

The word I keep coming back to is permeability. We need to break open the walls of the office to allow other elements in. This will allow the office to leak out into the city and the city to leak into the office. I think the next step is to determine exactly how that looks. We’ve begun talking about multiple environments in a workplace, but when we take that further, the discussion will be about the environments of the city and vice versa.

DH: What I find most exciting about your vision is the notion of choice –

GL: Exactly! Choice, something we don’t normally associate with going to work.

DH: Right, it’s empowering to think that someday we’ll have the choice to flow throughout the office (or even out of it) in an attempt to find the right workspace.

GL: I don’t think this change will come because employers are more enlightened, which is what we’re seeing with technology companies now. Anybody who’s involved in knowledge work knows what it takes to come up with good ideas. What makes a good working environment on paper is a diversity of opinions and backgrounds, a certain environment, and a certain mental mindset to even be able to think warm thoughts and come up with good ideas. Employers are going to give you the flexibility of choice so they can better harness your work, not because they’re warm and fuzzy. They simply want the best work from you.

DH: What will it take to convince employers that giving employees the flexibility of choice will produce the best work?

GL: Everything I’ve said so far is a mix of anecdotes and hypotheses. The real question is whether we can test any of this — what new styles of work, collaboration, and organization are emerging in cities? What kind of environments will be disrupted by these shifts?  What solo- vs. group work patterns exist, how are they evolving, and how can they be mapped, understood and enhanced? How can new ways of organizing work in cities make people more creative, productive and happy? And what are the benefits of doing so— better retention rates? Higher productivity? Greater innovation? And how do we measure any of this?

I’m putting together a team of architects, data scientists and researchers to explore some of these questions. I’ll let you know when we have some answers.

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August 28, 2013  |  permalink

Innovant: Me on the Future of the Workplace


(The furniture designer Innovant kindly asked me to rant for a while on the future of the workplace and why the boundary between the office and the city-at-large are blurring together. Below is the first half of the interview; the second runs next week.)

Earlier this summer, the marketing team attended an IIDANY Facilities Forum focused on the topic, “The Evolving Workplace: Change or Adapt?” Moderated by David Craig, Associate Principal at Cannon Design, the discussion featured insights on the evolving workplace and what this means for our industry from two workplace innovators, Greg Lindsay, Contributing Writer for Fast Company, and Bart Higgins, Director at ?What If! . 

We were particularly excited to hear from Greg as we had posted his New York Times article, “Engineering Serendipity,” on our blog. This post summarized Greg’s commentary on workplace policies by the likes of Yahoo! and Google, describing how a company can boost employee creativity and productivity by engineering social interactions.

Greg agreed to elaborate on some of his ideas for our blog, including explorations into what he calls “the blurring of the office and the city.” Read on for his insights into 21st century ways of work and places for work.

Deborah Herr: Gensler’s recent survey effectively pointed the finger at open plan environments for declining workplace effectiveness. Are you noticing a looming shift away from open plan or seeing any real trends that address these complaints?

Greg Lindsay: The open plan office is never going to go away, just like the cubicle is never going to go away. But what I find most interesting is the recognition that one size does not fit all. In the ongoing quest to squeeze every good idea and every last bit of productivity out of people, we’ve realized that working at one, generic environment for 8 or 10 hours a day is ineffective. Instead, we need to physically mode switch on a moment to moment basis to glean every last bit of efficiency out of people.

DH: Speaking of these modes, have there been any suggestions about what the “right” ratio would be for these modes? Is there a certain balance of “we” and “me” spaces that we should aim for in a single workplace?

GL: That‘s the $64 billion question. You’ve highlighted the absurdity of someone, somehow publishing research with the “right” ratio based on the number of hours we collaborate. Though it probably won’t be right, we will convince ourselves that it’s right enough.

I imagine the companies that try to do this are going to end up going in two directions. Either they’re going to oversimplify it and get an office with one really intense environment and one really collaborative one. Or, they’ll have eight different work modes in a single office. In this case, the office becomes a fantasy land of different working types, which I would imagine is good for sales, but difficult for most companies to implement. This is why I’m personally more interested in work and city relationships. This would involve encouraging people to leave the office to find different work modes and in the course of that discover something new – whether it be a new idea or new people.

Ultimately, I think the larger notion of “the office” is reaching its functional limits. The struggle to come up with new ideas, push faster and move farther has exposed us to these limitations. The innovation we strive for requires face-to-face, high bandwidth communication, but we still try to do it in an environment where you see the same people day after day. These two trends are in inevitable conflict.

DH: The idea of the office reaching its limitations would alarm a lot of people in my industry. We will have to wait and see, but I can hardly imagine the day when someone may say, “You don’t need to be sitting at your desk for me to realize that you’re being productive.”

GL: Well, it’s a question of, “What is your desk?” I don’t think the desk will ever go away. Desks will be around as long as we’re typing on a device. Instead, it becomes a question of, “What is your desk that is not your desk at your employer?” I think this question will lead us to all sorts of fascinating answers – it will be a desk at someone else’s office, or a temporary desk in a co-working space. Rather than choosing between two or seven environments in one office, you might have two or three environments in your employer’s office with multiple workspaces located across the city. It will be interesting to see how this network of workspaces evolves, which is separate from the ongoing design evolution of desks and chairs.

To me, the more interesting question of what should alarm Innovant is the notion that people find the office to be so ineffective that they’re willing to take their laptops and work in sub-optimal conditions just because they can. If people are willing to shed the productivity-enhancing elements of the office in favor of choice, we are failing them somehow. Perhaps we need to balance this by designing better environments for work outside of the designated office.

DH: You’ve mentioned technology as having a significant role in the evolving workplace. This was obvious at NeoCon 2013 where a lot of big industry players focused on technology as a way to mitigate some of the problems of open plan environments. What sorts of tools or technology do you see contributing to workplace effectiveness?

GL: One longstanding problem that people are interested in solving is the need for systems that track employees down when they’ve been encouraged to wander. I’m dubious that furniture or office equipment makers will be able to design software that can iterate fast enough or function as well as the offerings from software companies.

This is why I’m interested in the potential use of social networking or GPS tracking systems to figure out who’s nearby. At some point, I imagine that as a function of employment we’ll all have an employee badge app on our phones or we’ll wear badges that contain these functions. A recent New York Times story described retailers using smartphones to track people’s movements through their stores. Eventually, we’ll do the same for the office – or we should. Once you do that, you can perform all sorts of interesting big data analysis of who’s actually working and where. I imagine that this would be the grail for a lot of companies since the org chart is the barest approximation of who’s actually working together. Once you understand what’s really going on, you can start rearranging the office in real time. It will be interesting to see how an office manager of the future might intervene on the fabric of an office to either support employees or shake things up a bit.


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About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, and speaker. He is a contributing writer for Fast Company, author of the forthcoming book Engineering Serendipity, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. He is also a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute — where he is director of the Emergent Cities Project — a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and a research affiliate of the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI).

» More about Greg Lindsay

Articles by Greg Lindsay

Inc.  |  April 2014

The Network Effect

Atlantic Cities  |  March 2014

How Las Vegas (Of All Places) May Be About to Reinvent Car Ownership

Wired (UK)  |  October 2013

How to Build a Serendipity Engine

Next American City  |  August 2013

IBM’s Department of Education

The New York Times  |  April 2013

Engineering Serendipity

Fast Company  |  March 2013

Swedish Modern Comes To Town

Fast Company  |  March 2013

Working Beyond the Cube

Fast Company  |  December 2012/January 2013

Imagine Air Travel Without Hassle: Surf Air Can

WSJ  |  November 2012

Jeanne Gang

Fast Company  |  June 2012

That’s So Fly

Next American City  |  May 2012

Chartered Territory

The New York Times  |  Feburary 2012

Designing a Fix for Housing

Departures  |  October 2011

Instant Cities

Travel + Leisure  |  October 2011

The Future of Travel

The New York Times  |  September 2011

Not-So-Smart Cities

World Policy Journal  |  Fall 2011

Thus Spake Nano

Advertising Age  |  September 2011

Ad Age Insights: The Evolution of Facebook Brand Fans

Open Skies  |  July 2011

Paradise Lost: The Death and Strange Afterlife of Brasilia

WSJ  |  May 2011

Marc Newson on How Design Is Easy and Why You Can’t Make a Cappuccino on a Plane

WSJ  |  February 2011

Cities of the Sky

» See all articles


July 21, 2014

Amsterdam Institute of Advanced Metropolitan Solutions

July 16, 2014

Architizer on the Serendipity Engine

July 16, 2014

Next City: Airlines and Airports Brace for a Massive Surge in Passengers

July 10, 2014

Ready for Hillary

» More blog posts