What the UK regional divide can teach us about the way we design offices

Mind the GapIn the BBC documentary Mind the Gap, Evan Davis asks why London has an economy that is larger than and different to those of other UK cities, but also getting bigger and more differentiated. One of the main reasons he finds for this is something called agglomeration; the more skilled people you can put within physical reach of each other in an environment, the more productive and economically successful that environment will become.The problem for the UK is that not only is London of a different magnitude to its other cities, it does not comply with something called Zipf’s Law which states that in a typical country the largest city will be around twice the size of the second largest, around three times the size of the next largest and four times the size of the fourth largest and so on. It shouldn’t be taken too literally but it does illustrate the important economic principle of agglomeration and explains why there is such a widening divide in the UK economy.

The World Bank claimed in a recent report that ‘the large and growing academic literature suggests that doubling city size increases productivity by 3 percent to 8 percent.’ In the UK, this would mean that by doubling the size of greater Manchester so that the UK adhered to Zipf’s Law we would expect to see a step change in productivity that would do much to level out the perceived imbalance in the UK economy.

Of course this is all simplistic and the question of what makes a city great is a bit harder to answer. For example, the urban environment is an increasingly important part of the ‘virtual’ workplace and offices themselves increasingly resemble the agglomeration of different types of space we have typically associated with our towns and cities.

In September of last year, McKinsey published a report called How to Make a City Great, claiming that by 2030 around 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities, 5 billion people compared to 3.6 billion at the moment. It contrasts the needs and experience of cities in the developing world to those in the developed nations although it says they all have similar challenges in terms of their response to growing urbanisation.

The effects of urbanisation are felt at a personal level.  As long ago as 1970, a researcher called William H White explored  the impact of urban spaces on people from an anthropological standpoint. The Street Life Project examined the relationship between people and their environment in parts of New York, specifically focussed on parks and other social spaces, trying to establish what worked about spaces and what didn’t.

What became apparent is that the best interactions take place in ritualised and predictable forms and that the best spaces can foster them. We have a tendency to engage with chance meetings in particular ways, to say goodbye as part of a three phase ritual and a propensity to mirror the gestures of the people with whom we come into contact. The study also established the characteristics of the best social spaces including the proportion of sitting space to circulation space, the way we like different levels of light and the appeal of stimulating environments.

Plans for Apple's new HQ

Plans for Apple’s new HQ

These are insights that reflect the way public spaces are in larger offices. There is already a history of both in the application of urban design principles to workplaces as well as the co-opting of its language. So in the 1990s, the design of the British Airways Waterside HQ had at its heart a ‘Street’ with cafes, shops, trees, plazas and signage. It’s also apparent in the new generation of Tech Palaces created by Google, Apple and Facebook.

Last year I interviewed the author Greg Lindsay and he described the thinking behind these campus Xanadus in this way:  “Unquestionably the best new office designs are those which create unforeseen encounters in much the same way as we see in an urban setting. There are a number of ways of doing this. Facebook for example is looking to create this type of workplace by essentially putting everybody in one big room at its new HQ.

That is the vision of Mark Zuckerberg. Even though he hired Frank Gehry to execute it, Zuckerberg already knew what he wanted from the workplace. And you can see the thinking behind what they’ve done up to a point. But it relies on an assumption that, when it comes to bringing the right people together in the right ways, that you know who the right people are to begin with, even if you have designed flexibility into the layout of the offices so they are able to change quickly as a way of creating new interactions.”

Even as the city makes its way into our offices, so the people emerge from them to colonise the urban environment.  We have become so accustomed to working wherever we think best that when Overbury recently asked employees to describe their ideal working environment, what they described sounded suspiciously like a Starbucks.

It’s common to hear people say that the boundaries between the traditional workplace and the outside world have become blurred but it might be closer to the truth to say that in a growing number of cases they have been eradicated and that the evolution of cities and offices is informed by a two way exchange of DNA.

This article also appears in the current issue of Mix Interiors 

Mind the Gap is still available to see on iPlayer