Worktech

San Francisco on a mission to blend technology with human-centred design

The 2017 edition of WORKTECH West Coast tempered the pace of tech-driven disruption with a return to design values in creating great places and spaces for people

‘In a customer-centric world, things that make no sense get disrupted.’ Chris Kelly, co-founder of Convene, could not have set the tone for WORKTECH West Coast 2017, held in San Francisco’s Mission Bay Conference Centre on 24 October, more persuasively.

This is the city where Uber set out its stall to undermine Yellow Cabs. Kelly also referenced other titantic struggles – Amazon versus Sears, Netflix besting Blockbuster and Apple downloads undoing Tower Records – as examples of new, customer-focused technologies disrupting established players. In each case, he asserted, poor customer service was more responsible for the disruption than digital innovation.

If customers were not left out in the rain (Yellow Cabs) or given punitive fees for late returns (Blockbuster) or unable to buy a single track rather than a whole album (Tower Records) then the disruption might not have occurred.

Selling experience

This was the context for Kelly’s dismissal of the workspace industry as ‘the only business on the planet that doesn’t use economies of scale, although that will change’. He envisages a shift by landlords ‘from selling square feet to selling experience’ – from a bland invitation to all comers to a distinctive place-making offer based on really knowing who your customers are.

Chris Kelly is one of the global evangelists for flexible workspace, which will account for 30 per cent of building footprints by 2030 according to a JLL report. His mantra: ‘What talent wants, is what tenants need, is what landlords must build’. In this respect, WORKTECH West Coast was continuing a theme from WORKTECH New York, held at a Convene venue in May, about the ‘consumerisation of the workplace’.

But in other aspects, WORKTECH West Coast, with its typically Californian search for alternatives, deviated from that narrative.

Great workplace design

There was, for instance, a spectacular reassertion of great workplace design by single occupier companies in richly detailed case studies by Los Angeles-based architect Clive Wilkinson for a range of clients, by Rachael Casanova of R/GA in New York, by Thea von Gelder of Allied Works Architecture for Uniqlo in Tokyo, and by Airbnb Environments Creative Director Aaron Taylor Harvey, describing his company’s new San Francisco headquarters.

These schemes shared a distinctive sense of place based on creating subtly branded creative communities in which the employee experience tops all other considerations. The tougher the situation – Uniqlo moving from midtown, well connected Roppongi to a less salubrious, out-of-town district, for example, or Airbnb refurbishing an unprepossessing former microprocessor showroom – the more the workplace designers rose to the challenge.

Designers leading tech

There was also a masterly discourse by leading industrial designer Yves Behar of Fuseproject on the need for technology itself to be carefully designed. In the hands of designers, technology can bring utopian outcomes; left to its own devices, technology can have dystopian effects.

Behar, whose prolific studio is based on San Francisco, set out ten design principles for the world of AI, robotics and smart environments. Showing a Hollywood robot monster wreaking havoc, Behar explained that ‘when technology fails, it breaks a social or relational code – design needs to lead technology, not the other way around.’

This was a welcome human intervention in an era of technological determinism in the workplace industry. And it was echoed in other conference presentations, most notably Aramark’s deep dive into the role of food and drink in ‘feeding culture and fuelling potential’ and Cushman and Wakefield’s panel on ‘the battle for wellbeing’.

Jay Patel of Stanford University shared idea on how digital crowdsourcing can amplify human effort in a talk entitled ‘Flash teams and the future of work’; Matthew Claudel of Beco explained how ‘active architecture’ can connect people and space through technology; and Jeremy Myerson, director of WORKTECH Academy, introduced the concept of the smart precinct, moving beyond boundaries of the smart office building to embrace entire ‘digital districts’ in which people relax, shop, learn and live as well as work.

Limits of consumerisation

What these perspectives shared was a glimpse at the gigantic future potential of bringing people, place and technology together in the right balance. The simple consumerisation of work through a widening technological platform has its limitations, according to WORKTECH West Coast. Done crudely, it risks reinforcing inequality and division; disruption through brute market forces has unintended consequences. But introduced with subtlety, ambition, creativity and the designer’s attention to both aesthetics and ethics, it opens up new vistas for a human-centred, tech-enabled workplace – the best of both worlds.

San Francisco has always had a utopian streak and its latest WORTECH edition lived up to it.

Exclusive interviews with speakers

Yves Behar, founder of Fuse project

Aaron Taylor Harvey, executive creative director of environments at Airbnb

To view the full interviews visit the Innovation Zone

Click here for the WORKTECH 17 West Coast review site.