What we learnt from New York: dominant ideas will be disrupted

NYC’s notoriously transactional real estate industry is braced for experiential change as disruption arrives from every angle, according to the tenth anniversary edition of WORKTECH New York

Never a shrinking violet, WORKTECH’s annual New York conference celebrated its tenth anniversary in the Big Apple with a bumper, three-stream programme featuring more than 35 speakers and covering the full spectrum of future-of-work subjects that are currently challenging the city’s finest real estate minds.

Hosted downtown on 9 May 2019 in Convene’s swish venue at One Liberty Plaza, the event signalled how New York has changed over the past ten years. An expert panel, entitled ‘Then and Now: A Decade of NYC’ and convened by Melissa Marsh of Plastarc, identified the sharing economy (catalysed by digital platforms), a more holistic approach to health, tactical urbanism (inexpensive material interventions to create public meeting space) and residential movements (for example, to Brooklyn) as the big shifts affecting where and how people will work in the city that never sleeps.

Here are four other things we learnt from WORKTECH New York 2019:

The sentient workplace swings into view

The sentient workplace is up and running, with sentience defined as the capacity to feel, perceive and experience subjectively. Opening speakers Nigel Dancy and Alessandro Ranaldi of Foster+ Partners, the global design practice synonymous with the New York scene and newly commissioned for JP Morgan Chase’s midtown tower, were fast out of the traps with a pitch centred around ‘designing for people’. Ranaldi explained: ‘We need workplaces to appeal to the senses, making best use of new technology tools.’

Foster’s use of the traditional media of light, shadow and volume coupled with the latest digital design techniques presented a textbook modernist approach that caters for both sensation seekers and sensation avoiders. Futurist Philip Ross of Unwork followed up with a presentation on ‘The Sentient Workplace’ that took us on a world tour of amenity-driven rather than architecturally driven sensory experiences – from sleep rooms in Berlin to bee-keeping in Sydney. This veritable parade of edible gardens, maker spaces, bird boxes and dogs at work reimagined what an office should feel like.

Behind the experience curve, but not for long

New York’s notoriously transactional real estate sector has been slower than elsewhere to embrace the more touchy-feely aspects of workplace experience. But the evidence from New York was that playing catch-up won’t take long. A panel convened by WORKTECH Academy, featuring Jena Hwang of Morgan Stanley and Amanda Kross of JLL, discussed the rising phenomenon of the workplace super-experience and showcased the results of an Academy innovation workshop on the subject held in New York two days earlier.

Clearly, the appetite for better experiences in the North American workplace is there. Kathleen O’Reilly of Accenture (in conversation with JLL’s Peter Miscovich) raised the bar with her description of her company’s new project at Hudson Yards as ‘creating epic futures for the world together’. Experience designer Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun meanwhile smashed through the glass ceiling showing spectacular collaborations with NASA and the United Nations that really push the experience envelope.

The flex space bubble won’t burst any time soon

As elsewhere, North American companies are busy switching from corp space to flex space. An expert panel featuring Gethin Davies of The Instant Group, Martin Senn of Davinci Virtual Office Solutions and Michael Berrata of IWG Americas discussed the reasons behind the latest flexible workspace data, which shows the growth curve running off the chart. Can it possibly get any bigger and brighter? Apparently so, as more corporates abandon traditional office rental models in search of greater operational flexibility and employee satisfaction.  ‘The sky’s the limit’ was the message.

The sky’s the limit too for mixed-use innovation districts springing up everywhere in the wake of New York’s ground-breaking Hudson Yards. Many corporates are relocating to these ‘digital districts’ as part of that great push for flexibility and connectivity. In a paper entitled ‘New City Making’, Professor Michael Joroff of MIT explored who is paying for these new developments and revealed a diverse array of funders as well as a more complex set of factors behind the shift away from traditional central business districts.

Dominant designs are destined to get disrupted

If the tenth WORKTECH New York conference spent most of its time fixed on the future, some speakers couldn’t resist a glance back in time to set a context for current disruptions. Joyce Bromberg, Chief Design Officer for host Convene, presented a brilliant sweep of workplace design history from the Renaissance to Singularity (that tipping point in 2029 when AI becomes smarter than humans) via Frederick Taylor and Peter Drucker.

Bromberg’s message was that dominant design theories and models never last over time –  they are always disrupted. This was a point reinforced by closing keynote speaker Christian Madsberg, an anthropologist (‘I observe for a living’) who observed that such powerful and dominant trends as cubicles, open plan, creative play spaces or coworking are too simplistic and mono-dimensional to cater for the complex interactions of doing innovation work. Madsberg calmly and quietly challenged such innovation orthodoxies as sprints and agile scrums (‘let’s move fast and break things’), advocating a more considered and multi-faceted approach.

In its tenth anniversary edition, WORKTECH New York challenged much else besides.

WORKTECH New York conference website here
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