Worktech

Passage to India: Bengaluru debates global tech versus local design

Is workplace technology going too far for Indian office design? The inaugural WORKTECH Bengaluru (Bangalore) conference debated the paradox of human-centric work in a machine-led environment

WORKTECH Bengaluru 2019, held at the Taj West End on 8 February, not only marked WORKTECH’s advance into India, but it also captured the most prevailing – and globally valid – irony in workplace design today. Human labour is at growing risk of being automated through technology, but office buildings are rapidly being configured, also by technology, to be increasingly ‘human-responsive.’

Human-centred dynamism

Speakers at the day-long conference shared a number of ways that workplaces are transforming. For Ulrich Blum of Zaha Hadid Architects, algorithms are the key to negotiating ‘super, mega and giga’ floorplans, those that resemble mini-cities. Workplace challenges include maintaining a sense of ‘collaboration, connected visibility and openness, flexibility and adaptation, variety and diversity, being smart and aware,’ he said.

Algorithms enable designers to solve these problems by providing evidence-based options to maximize ‘spatial connectivity and communication potential.’ Technology is thus ‘a learning system to construct buildings that can “feel” their use, and react to their users, improving their well-being,’ he professed.

‘Buildings should continuously learn and see patterns in the data…’

The need for human-centred spatial dynamism was echoed by Geetha Adinarayan of IBM Watson, who stressed the notion that buildings should continuously learn and see patterns in the data so that buildings ‘can listen to you and take action.’ Adinarayan added that we should conceive of ‘the building as a process, based on understanding people’s behaviour’.

Geetha Adinarayan of IBM Watson on cognitive buildings

Melissa Marsh of Plastarc and Savills reinforced this idea, highlighting that people, not financial or spatial metrics, were the new metrics of the building experience, and that ‘access to new data sources, both qualitative and quantitative, drive new capabilities as we move from [a mindset of] space management to one of people enablement.’

In one sentence: ‘performance trumps ownership’, in a world where workplaces are being ‘consumerised,’ she said. The bucket list includes higher expectations for performance, such as customised, on-demand and tech integrated services.

Tech takeover

Moving from data to devices, Mapiq’s Sander Schutte presented his version of making buildings human-responsive: an app that helps users to make the most of their working environments, in several ways. These include tools to simplify choices, to prevent users from getting lost in their own offices, to encourage face to face connections by locating co-workers, and to promote autonomy in alternative ways of working.

‘A workplace app can suggest lunch companions…’

Philip Ross, head of Cordless Group and Unwork, took the smart building theme further, sharing examples of innovations from within and outside the built environment. Voice will be the new interface, with Amazon’s ‘Alexa for work’ as a pioneer. Look for digital biophilic solutions. Cosmetics retailer Sephora has launched a workplace app that can offer suggestions for lunch companions. Meeting rooms will have automatic transcripts and translations, Ross said. In other words, ‘think of the building as the operating system. CIOs will become the future clients of smart buildings,’ he concluded.

Are we going too far?

The trouble is, not everyone was convinced about all of this. Some audience members were sceptical of the appropriateness of technology, questioning whether it was going too far. Can co-workers not find their way around a building or locate a colleague without an app or an interactive navigating display that is tracking their every move?

The queries reflect the Indian corporate office paradigm: it is led by global multinationals, yet rooted in local context. Technology has transformed the Indian workplace, ever since India began opening itself as an economy, in the early 1990s, when multinationals set up shop and IT business parks sprouted across the country. Multinationals continue to set the pace on technology.

Equally, design must be contextual, as Ravi Sarangan of Edifice Consultants argued, speaking on the panel on alternative workplace strategies.

Whilst there is little dispute on the need to design and construct buildings that are responsive to their occupants’ needs, and many ideas were extremely promising, some of the tech solutions presented at the conference seemed an overdose. Unlike other developing nations, Indian cities have yet to witness this scale of construction, which perhaps explains why audience members are sceptical. Whatever the future holds, the debate confirmed that the intersection of people, place and technology remains a potent space for innovation.

Chief Executive Millennials

Elsewhere, office workers were in the spotlight in a more direct way. Panels on disruptive technologies and coworking, and a presentation by me on business and design, focused on two distinct workplace constituencies: millennials and chief executives.  With one of the youngest workforces globally, panelists acknowledged that Indian millennials are now driving strategic workplace decisions. ‘They want to work downtown, they don’t want to be a large suburban campus,’ said Anurag Mathur of Savills. Other panelists reiterated that coworking companies, targeted at millennials, constitute a tiny but vocal minority, with a game-changing impact on corporate real estate.

‘A journey through the world’s finest architectural monuments…’

My own interactive presentation – workplace design as a strategic choice – explored the connections between Indian chief executives’ work environments and their workstyles.  Starting with a pop quiz on well-known Indian business leaders, the presentation outlined patterns in workplace design, in the form of a set of workplace archetypes, and shared lessons for everyday work life.

Finally, Arunjot Singh Bhalla of RSP Design Consultants (India) shifted register completely, by taking us on a journey through some of the world’s finest architectural monuments. From the Taj Majal in Agra, to the Church on the Water in Hokkaido, Bhalla described each structure’s path-breaking features. Creative intuition is essentially about taking risks, he underlined. In doing so, he reminded us what architecture is all about, in the first place. Kudos to that.

Just one of the reasons it was standing room only, all day.

Aparna Piramal Raje serves as a columnist and author at MINT, one of India’s leading business publications. She also writes for the UK Financial Times and is the author of Working Out of the Box. She is a thought leader in business and design, two areas which she weaves together through her stories and research.