2020 vision is a useless metaphor for far-sightedness in a number of ways

Looking in telescope wrong wayThe year 2020 is a mere seven years away. Yet the designers of the future workplace and those who invite them to talk about it are still referring to it as if it marks the next frontier of human endeavour and as if we weren’t already up to our collective armpits in the 21st century. The idea of 20/20 vision is considered, in ophthalmological circles at least, to represent “normal” visual acuity and is dependent on the sharpness of the retinal focus within the eye and the sensitivity of the interpretative faculty of the brain. In practical terms, this means it’s about seeing and interpreting what is directly in front of us at a distance of around 6 metres. So as a metaphor for farsightedness regarding the future of work or workplaces it’s always been a poor one. And as we get closer to the eponymous year, it becomes worse day by day.

This was recently reinforced by the results of a competition, sponsored by Staples, the office supply chain stores, and Metropolis, the magazine on architecture, culture and design, entitled “How Will We Work In 2020?” that was reported in Insight very recently. Despite the deployment of much hyperbole, the answer seems to be – exactly as we do today. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given the short hop into the future they’ve chosen to undertake. Creative use of new and recycled materials notwithstanding, the lack of ambition fair takes the breath away. But, let’s examine the winning submissions in the designers’ own words and shed a little light on what they’re getting at.

Vertical Flux talks of “restructuring the typical horizontal floor plate as a vertical module with penetrations that allow heat to naturally flow upwards”, holes to the layperson. Occupants are “free to seek out an appropriate atmosphere” might be more familiar as getting up and moving around or sitting nearer a window.

CoLab rehashes flexible work settings with the addition of racy glass partitions which are “curved both to allow for organic flow in the space and for optimal sight lines for users”. Anyone who has looked at the world through the bottom of a wine glass will know how optimally you view things through an obliquely curved lens. Maybe after all that wine, curved partitions might make your inability to walk in a straight line less obvious. Especially now that your manager has a more optimal sight line of what you’re up to.

Live Work Platforms replaces a “sea of desks” with a “vision of the office as a social club where people are visible, accessible and engaged in a variety of behaviours”. Just look up from your computer screen a moment. Can you see people? Can you go over and talk to them? Are they all doing different things? Thought so. Congratulations. If the designers are right, you’ve just engaged in time travel.
PopUp is a modular office system that distinguishes itself by being able to be “packaged in boxes that can be transported by truck to any site”. This, as opposed to our current modular systems which can only be moved around through telekenesis.

NEXUS tackles the thorny problem of working on your commute or on cross-country journeys by imagining a train carriage that “improves conditions spatially and sustainably” reflecting the “independent and individual workers of the future”. It is not clear to what degree the designers addressed the infrastructure and demand implications of this solution but it seems to imply such a reduction in passenger numbers that any investment in NEXUS would require an astronomical hike in ticket prices. Perhaps then, the intention is to make train travel so prohibitively expensive as to ensure universal homeworking.

Working Rediscovered is as retrospective as its name suggests with “the “kitchen” – namely The Table” serving as “the primary organizing feature”, a horizontal surface on which to rest things being something we currently lack, draining us of creativity and innovation.

The ANYPLACE admirably concerns itself with “a happier, healthier, more productive employee”. Their answer to these perennial issues? To increase urban densification by filling all those unused spaces with “multipurpose hubs” Connect 4 similarly looks to hoover up any remaining space by building interconnecting bridges between buildings bringing together “a variety of personnel for chance meetings, increasing connectivity between unrelated professionals”. One wonders what deep study of human behaviour reveals our propensity to engage with strangers in shared public spaces. When it becomes apparent that both of these designs emerge from the same firm, their shared sensibility is less surprising.

The City..Our Workplace seeks to “integrate the workplace in the existing infrastructure”. Those of us who work in buildings with no running water, electricity or with other absent utilities will marvel at the utopian vision this suggests.
And so on, and so on, ad infinitum.

If I understand it correctly, our immediate working future seems sadly unchanged. Perhaps the question posed, “How Will We Work In 2020?” is itself an unambitious one. A better question might be “How might we reshape work so that it is equitably distributed, rewarded and recognised, morally, ethically and social useful and sustainable, now and for all our futures?”

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Simon HeathSimon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog https://workmusing.wordpress.com.

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