The ongoing evolution in the design of the places we work has much in common with evolution in the natural world. But whereas natural selection is dependent on the famous ‘Blind Watchmaker’ of evolutionary theory to shape creatures in response to the forces in their environment, workplace design is anything but blind – at least it is when done intelligently and with insight. To push this metaphor a bit further, it is no great surprise that similar although unrelated natural forms develop in different parts of the world. Animals often evolve very similar forms in response to similar challenges in their environment. So too we find similar workplace forms – both in terms of product and interior design – being developed independently around the world in response to the challenges we all share.
It is here that our analogy starts to unravel. Whereas animals evolve in at least some degree of isolation, workplace design is influenced not only by local forces but those that are shared by all regions around the globe. We live in the world described by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s as the Global Village.
There has been a tendency for some commentators to bemoan this, claiming that it leads to a homogenization of design and our surroundings, but I am not so certain things are as simple as that. For one thing cultures still vary in many ways and local markets are likely to be influenced by what has gone before. While we all face broadly the same challenges in managing technology, communications and economic conditions, the prevailing culture in different regions does not inevitably drive the same results in terms of design. That is why America still has its residual cubicles and cubicle-derivative products and large parts of mainland Europe still see the open plan as revolutionary.
Dig deeper and you find micro-cultures within the cultures, stacked like Russian dolls. The UK may boast the World’s most positive approach to flexible working overall, but that does not mean it is a standardised solution. The demands of a dealer room in the City of London are very different to those of a Council in Oxfordshire, even though both might have broadly the same progressive approach to the workplace. It’s an endlessly complex picture that demands a sophisticated response from designers, one based on co-creation of solutions between designer and customer.
There is also the issue of how ideas that spring up in one part of the world as a result of local conditions can swiftly influence thinking on a global scale. There are many examples of this sort of thing. Over recent years the UK has often been often been recognised as the most important driver of facilities management innovation. In our opinion this is justified in many regards even if the UK doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation.
Even so its deserved reputation has come about directly as a result of local conditions which make an intelligent and groundbreaking approach to property workplace and management essential. These conditions includes legislation and a culture which make it essential to focus on the productivity and well being of employees; an enlightened attitude to new working practices; the sustained growth of the knowledge economy; the shortage of employees in key sectors leading to a competitive job market and all that entails; and the availability and cost of commercial property, especially in London where rents still lead the world.
The upshot of this is that the UK is the perfect country in which innovative approaches to facilities management and workplace design can flourish precisely because it has not only a mixture of the right mentality but also – crucially – a number of challenges and potentially adverse conditions that make innovation essential.
The forces which have shaped the UK are not unique of course. The tensions we listed above are evident to one degree or another around the world. Which is why it is increasingly likely that design from one country can meet the demands of people in another, especially where local cultures and tastes are similar.
In addition, the varying pace of cultural changes we mentioned earlier may mean that established products from one region are able to meet new and emerging demands in another. This is particularly the case where new legislation plays a role in shaping the workplace. As an example, the UK’s progressive attitude to flexible working which has seen successive governments keen to promote it through the statute books has led to increasingly sophisticated product and interior designs needed to support this dynamic work style.
The final factor is that office furniture products can be applied in different ways to not only support local cultures and meet local legislation, but also meet the demands of specific organisations, the people who work for them and the technology they use. Intelligent interior design depends on creatively malleable products that are exceptional in their own right but also are able to reflect the individual needs of each organisation.
This demand for something that is unique to each workplace can feed innovation at a local level and, in the case of multi-nationals, drive change on a global scale. Our own business is constantly challenged by customers who think standard solutions are all well and good, but really want us to go the extra mile to meet their own objectives.
Although challenging, this is often the way that real change comes about. For all the work we can do as an organisation in terms of research and development, there’s nothing quite like working in a collaborative way with a customer to meet their needs specifically. This process of co-creation is also important as a way of gauging how the market is changing generally.
This new world order is based on a new approach to design and innovative thought. Those with a creative mindset are co-operating to make this a better world, one that offers us all a better life and a more secure future. One in which we are not only able to live a more sustainable existence but which also makes it easier for us to express our individuality. Mass conformity has only ever been a modern construct and it is one that we will turn away from more and more in the future as we always have in the past.
This new culture of innovation will not only allow individuals to thrive in new ways, but also institutions, businesses, the government and even the economy and society itself. Design will manifest itself as part of a new ecosystem of thought and deed, reflected in diversity of language and identity.