What lies ahead: Academy predictions for 2017

As you plough through the post-festive backlog, do you have the feeling that big change is in the air? Here’s a taste of work and workplace things to come from the Academy’s global network of expert contributors

If you felt the earth moved under your feet in 2016, don’t expect the seismic shocks to the system to stop for workplace professionals over the next 12 months. Here are six pointers to change in 2017:

March of Japan’s robots

You heard a lot in 2016 about how robots, machine learning and artificial intelligence will take our office jobs. Expect to hear a whole lot more this year. Right on cue at the beginning of January comes news from Tokyo where insurance firm, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, has announced that it is laying off 34 workers and replacing them with an AI system (based on IBM’s Watson Explorer) that can calculate pay-outs to policyholders. Return on investment of around UK £1m (140m Yen) is expected in less than two years.

Watch out for more AI action from Japan which has long embraced robot technology, at least in part because it has the world’s most rapidly ageing society – a quarter of its total population is now aged 65 or older. In a society that is historically homogenous, the preference is for Japanese elders to be cared for by machines than migrant workers. But it’s not all plain sailing for Japan’s AI future: an attempt to develop a robot intelligent enough to pass the entrance exam for Tokyo University has just been abandoned. Still life in the human dogs yet?

Attack on ‘cake culture’

The past couple of years have seen food and nutrition rise rapidly up the corporate agenda as part of a drive towards healthier working. In 2017 this will intensify with an attack on sugar as a special focus.  As rates of diabetes shoot through the roof – obesity is now seen as the lifestyle epidemic of the 21st century in the way smoking was the lifestyle epidemic of the 20th century – we can anticipate more dire workplace warnings along the lines of the New Year message from the UK’s Royal College of Surgeons.

This most senior of Britain’s medical institutions drew attention to the damage that a workplace ‘cake culture’ is doing to our teeth and waistlines. Using sugary treats to reward and celebrate with fellow employees should be curbed; low sugar alternatives need to be explored.

Indeed the entire menu of working life is due for a diet, with a focus on superfoods, vegetables, grains and beans, according to Thomas Miers, food writer and founder of the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants. ‘When was the last time you heard anyone raving about a 20-course tasting menu?’ asks Miers. ‘It feels as though that is from the last decade. Now it’s all short menus and home cooking and milk from cows that might actually have eaten some grass…’

Bringing back the ‘broletto’

Workplace designers have long rifled through the history books to recycle ideas from the Renaissance (bridge communities, hilltop settlements) to the industrial era (the turbine hall, stripped-back brick). But could the medieval world also be making a comeback? Architects BVN have been exploring the benefits of the ‘broletto’ – those ‘walled gardens’ that formed democratic assemblies in the Italian communes of the Middle Ages. At WORKTECH Berlin, BVN’s James Grose commended its form as a community-builder for banks.

2017 could be a big year for models based on medieval ideas of spatial connection and shared purpose. Co-working spaces are already emerging as the modern-day equivalent of medieval craft guilds. More specifically, it could also be a big year for Italy as a source of workspace inspiration – from the Roman architect Vitruvius, who is currently making a comeback, to the work of the 18th century architect Gambiasta Nolli, whose 1748 Nolli Map of Rome is today seen as an exemplar of connected urban planning. As companies contemplate making better use of their outdoor spaces and the POPOS (privately owned public open space) continues its rise, these references could count over the next year.

Making digital less divisive

The global workplace industry is gearing up for the smart building, the smart district and indeed the smart city in 2017. Big data analytics and the ‘digital exhaust’ that all organisations produce should help to create environments and working patterns that become more efficient, sustainable and tailored to individual need due to robust feedback mechanisms.  But being digital is not about being fair to everyone. Indeed there is now a growing backlash against the inequalities that a digital economy generates in cities – whether expressed through protests about Uber or Airbnb or political earthquakes like Brexit or Trump.

In response to a growing realisation that digital cities can be divisive, expect a more socially responsible harnessing of digital data in 2017. At WORKTECH Berlin, Sarah Campbell of Senselab sketched out what some of these ambitious ideas might be – free wifi spots in city centres that only work when air pollution levels are low enough, for example.

This idea for personal reward based on collective impact goes against the individualistic ethos of the digital era, but don’t be surprised if more thinking of this ilk switches from the margins to the mainstream in the coming year as city authorities weigh up their wider priorities.

Co-design gets hacked

Co-design has been relatively slow to catch on in the workplace sector compared to such areas as community housing or consumer electronics. Most briefs given to office designers and subsequent project reviews have tended to be dominated by managerial and business considerations – with a wider employee perspective often conspicuous by its absence. That is beginning to change as development teams find new ways to challenge the norm and build the ‘user voice’ into the process.

What will accelerate the trend towards co-design in 2017 is the parallel rise of hacking culture with 3D digital printing, fablabs and rapid customisation. Already tech companies in Silicon Valley and their office supply chains have experimented with an employee-focused hacking of the workplace. Expect hacking culture and participatory design techniques to come together more visibly and effectively over the next year as technologies mature and barriers to entry come down.

Measuring experience

Finally, 2016 saw the rise of human experience at work as the one big thing to get right. In 2017, the task will be how to measure it. Expect a whole host of new metrics and frameworks to emerge to try to rope in this particular beast. The game has moved on from measuring efficiency – that hasn’t solved a worsening office productivity gap in many developed nations; people are not machines. The challenge now is to get into the heads of employees, with an index for such things as happiness, psychological wellbeing or a sense of control.

Ironically, machine learning could find some of the answers through analysis of big data. Inevitably, there will be calls for more companies to appoint a Chief Technology Officer – paradoxically to reinforce the wellbeing agenda. Nobody can pretend the task will be easy – but that’s a mantra for pretty much everything we are seeing down the telescope. Good luck to all our Academy members in 2017. You’re going to need it.

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