Toronto takes stock of the unintended consequences of change

Canadians have been cautious about responding to the big global workplace shifts. But on the evidence of WORKTECH Toronto 2018, scrutiny and debate reflect an open mind on implementing new directions      

Canada generally has a reputation for biding its time and calmly weighing up the options while its bigger, brasher US neighbour jumps right in with both feet – and so it is with the Canadian workplace where new ways of working are only now being introduced after much consideration and debate.

The WORKTECH Toronto 2018 conference, held on 6 November at Deloitte’s smart new downtown headquarters, caught the mood of being careful what you wish for with a panoramic closing keynote by urban planner Ken Greenberg, veteran former head of architecture and design for the City of Toronto.

Greenberg’s thesis was that all new technologies have unintended consequences. He cited the example of the post-war embrace of the automobile in North America, led by an ‘interwoven network of financial institutions, developers, lawyers, builders, brokers, real estate agents and road contractors’, which was intended to provide personal freedom and mobility.

‘All new technologies have unintended consequences…’

The flipside of this relentless promotion of the car was to first choke and then remodel cities, wiping out vibrant, walkable urban districts with highways, flyovers and suburbs, and causing huge damage to human health and the environment. It has taken decades for a greener, more balanced approach to city planning to emerge.

Now, explained Greenberg, we are adopting a new set of technologies, such as AI and automation, and we don’t know what the consequences will be. His message to the conference was that digital technologies could destroy opportunities for human interaction in the same way that the automobile has done. ‘We perversely keep trying to improve efficiency by reducing interaction,’ said Greenberg, ‘It’s our Achilles heel.’

Whirlwind tour of new tech

Greenberg’s powerful call for a more human-centred urbanism in the face of tech’s unpredictable consequences was preceded by other presentations at WORKTECH Toronto which chronicled in some detail what is set to come down the pipe.

Deloitte senior partner Sheila Botting conducted a whirlwind tour of new technologies now disrupting real estate while her colleague Matthew Lewis-Staunch described the emergence of an ‘augmented workforce’ grappling with automation. Lewis-Staunch, however, introduced the idea of ‘regulated tech’ – meaning that big tech companies can’t just roll into cities like Toronto and have it all their own way – a way of thinking that should please Ken Greenberg.

Digital and indeterminate

Canada is all for balance, it seems, especially when framing workplace in a wider urban context. Max Oglesbee of Intersection, a company that has sprung from Google’s urban design offshoot Sidewalk Labs, described how the development of smart precincts now require a digital masterplan to organise digital assets alongside a construction masterplan to organise physical ones. Intersection created a digital masterplan for Hudson Yards in New York, the poster child for smart precincts, and is now based there.

Workplace strategist Arnold Craig Levin of Smith Group explored the idea of an ‘indeterminate workplace’ balanced between permanence and impermanence. Referencing the term ‘indeterminate architecture’ originally coined by Richard Rogers for the Lloyds Building, Craig Levin sought an adaptable middle ground in projects for Caterpillar and Google that explored a more transient and flexible form of workplace architecture.

‘Leadership is a property of a system, not a leader…’

A cracking case study from Cathy French, head of global workplace strategy and design at RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), explained how the bank used design thinking methods to create a new workplace solution for its agile software development team that balanced efficiency with effectiveness. And further valuable perspectives were added by Gail Moutry of Steelcase, who looked at balancing individual and team work, and Jeff Eggers of the McCrystal Group Leadership Institute, who explained that the best leaders combine confidence and humility.

Eggers, author of a new book Leaders: Myth and Reality, argued that leadership is a property of a system, not a leader. Context clearly matters – a refrain that echoed right through the conference’s big-picture thinking.

WORKTECH Toronto was preceded the day before by a masterclass series held at lawyers McCarthy Tetrault which covered such topics as leadership, wellness, design thinking and behavioural research. It all added up to a sense that practical Canada is thinking hard about the changes ahead and is willing to give them a go.

More on WORKTECH Toronto 2018 here.
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