The future belongs to those who leave themselves choices of how to deal with it

unknown-futureEverybody likes to talk and read about the future. It’s one of the reasons we see so many reports about what the ‘office of the future’ will look like. Often these attempts at workplace prognosis are overwhelmingly  rooted in the present which might betray either a degree of timidity or lack of awareness of just how far along their standard list of trends we really are. Even when such reports appear to be bang on the money, they tend to disregard one of the most important factors we need to consider when trying to get a handle on the future, which is the need to leave ourselves choices. This is important because not only will the future be stranger than we think, but stranger than we can imagine, to paraphrase J B S Haldane.

We won’t have to wait long to find ourselves living in this place where they do things differently. The near future is likely to be very odd indeed from a contemporary perspective. Driverless cars are already a reality to such an extent that we can start talking about their implications, as did this article in the New Yorker. Usable ultra-fast quantum computers, which use atomic particles as processors and memory, have moved a step closer with the announcement that they are now stable at room temperature for longer than ever before. We are witnessing great leaps in robotics and artificial intelligence which will have profound implications for the workplace, the automation of jobs, our relationship with work and the economy. And 3D printing is now a commercial alternative to certain types of manufacturing, attracting comment from President Obama and leading to the creation of large 3D manufacturing plants such as this.

Google glass - getting cool people to model it doesn't make it cool

Google glass – getting cool people to model it doesn’t make it cool

At the same time, some of the most talked-about tech which promises so much, actually looks like it is heading down a cul de sac. Most notable is wearable technology such as Google Glass, the mooted Apple  iWatch and – I’m not making this up – the Sony smart wig, which have all been talked about a lot but may never get much beyond novelty status. In fact the backlash from people not keen on others parading around in public recording them has already begun, as we can judge from this report in today’s news.

But it is precisely this uncertainty that makes it so important for us to leave ourselves choices. We might have a pretty good idea about the role and status of a particular, yet still be unable to predict what its implications are. Not only does all tech fall prey to the Law of Unintended Consequences once people get hold of it, any new technology is introduced into the complex, chaotic and changing environment we refer to as the real world. We might know what something will do if all other things are equal, but they never are.

This is the source of the great and underlying facilities management conundrum: how do you manage the complexities of business, people and technology within the rigid framework of concrete, steel, glass, bricks and mortar? This is the question that elevates FM to board level.

The answer is of course to leave yourself options, with one of them being to go work in a more appropriate building as soon as you can. This is the route many businesses take in negotiating shorter leases which, as we reported two weeks ago, are shorter than they have been for some time. It is also the reason for the greater uptake of new working practices including co-working and the move away from rigid models of space planning. You introduce new variables to the equation.

This is also the challenge faced by those planning infrastructure and, if you take the example of the HS2 high speed rail link, one that the UK Government is missing as it paves the way to create a rail system that will be complete in about 20 years time. They are building it as a fixed piece of infrastructure which connects a handful of points based on an apparent assumption that the world in which it arrives will be the same as the one it departed. To make the case for HS2, you have to assume that all other things will remain equal, and they won’t.

A journey into an unknown future

A journey into an unknown future

As the rail expert Christian Wolmar has repeatedly pointed out, the idea of HS2 is predicated on an untested assumption that what the UK needs is a high speed rail link between London and a few other cities. Not only does it make no sense to jump to this conclusion, it ignores the fact that in order to arrive at it at all you have to look at the UK’s infrastructure, including broadband and other technology, and assess its role in a markedly different UK.

HS2 might achieve all it claims but then again it might not, and for £50 billion (or whatever) you might want to leave yourself some choices if it all goes askew. There is no Plan B. If it doesn’t do what it sets out to, there is no second chance except to bodge around it. As Rory Sutherland pointed out in the Spectator recently, HS2 lacks optionality. Because it is designed to travel in straight lines and at high speed between a handful of cities, ignoring everywhere in between and those to the side and beyond its reach, it may be too rigid a system to cope with a future stranger than we can imagine.

By the time it is complete we are likely to be transporting far fewer finished products around, but printing them locally. Even the raw materials used will be conveyed by driverless transporters or drones. We will certainly be meeting more in digital space and less in physical space. We will still need to move things around and we will still need to meet each other in person, but the structures and cultures will be different.

Every aspect of our lives will be subject to the same stresses that have defined facilities management since its inception. We need structures and infrastructures, but we also need ways to make them more malleable or at least understand how we can accommodate the variable factors that work within them, especially the people.