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BCO Conference Special: the future of offices in the age of the ‘clickizen’

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Rory Olcayto reports from the British Council for Offices annual conference, held in Geneva this month

Have you heard the one about the father who tells his son that, when he was young, there were no computers? The boy is perplexed. ‘But dad, how did you get on the internet?’ he asks.

Or the one about the little girl in love with the family iPad. One day her dad leaves a photograph lying around and the toddler tries to un-pinch it, to make it larger, as she does on the iPad. She tries a few times without success, then looks at her dad and says: ‘Broken’.

Then there’s the boy who tells his mum in the grocery store to ‘just click on it’ when she can’t find the price.

These anecdotes come courtesy of Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired, and his blog, kk.org, but Chris Luebkeman, guest speaker at this year’s British Council for Offices (BCO) Conference in Geneva, calls these kids ‘clickizens’, and in his lecture, ‘What will normal be?’ he pondered what might be the expectations of this new generation of info-hungry citizens, who are shortly set to enter the workforce.

What kind of workplaces will maximise their productivity using these new media?

What would normal be if you’d always had a mobile phone? If PC meant iPad rather than IBM? If you prefer Facebook to email, like Twitter more than Google? And what kind of workplaces will maximise their productivity using these new media?

There were no clear answers, but it was one of the more provocative sessions during the two-day event, a series of lectures, seminars, site visits and networking sessions based around the theme, ‘Rethinking the Future’. About 370 mainly London-based developers, contractors, engineers and architects attended this year. If the impact of climate change on office sector development was the overriding concern in Edinburgh 2009, and London’s status as a global player came under scrutiny when it hosted the conference last year, information technology, and social media in particular, was the talk of Geneva.

Luebkeman has the manner of an old-time inventor. He is very tall, wears a bow tie and speaks with a soft, American accent, full of positivity. As Arup’s director of global foresight and innovation, he spends half the time in the air. ‘If we all lived like me, we’d need 23 planets,’ he says, without sounding smug. ‘I try to videoconference with my kids everyday,’ he adds. ‘It’s normal for them, but it’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for me’.

Luebkeman draws you in with simple, essential observations, whether on an ageing population: ‘It’s very easy to respect your elders when there aren’t that many around’; environmental matters: ‘There’s no such place as “away”’; or urban infrastructure: ‘When you get out at Paddington, how many ways can you pay for a taxi? One? Two at most. In Seoul, it’s four.’

Genuine insights into how the commercial sector should adapt its product – offices – to suit the ‘new normal’ were few and far between over the two days. Rather, from Luebkeman – who at least asked you to think – to David Rowan, editor of Wired UK, and Ecademy chairman Thomas Power, who both spoke at the closing session on technological change in the workplace, delegates were presented with reams of information on data flow and mobile technology.

Smartphones and tablets now outsell desktop computers. There are a billion people in the world with mobile phones but no bank account. There’s an iPhone app that superimposes the Berlin Wall over real-time camera views of the present-day city. We now create the same amount of information in two days – 5 exabytes (5x1018 bytes) – than we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003… and so on. No one was prepared to suggest a workplace model designed for this emergent paradigm. But then, that is because few are smart enough to even take a risk guessing. Futurology is dead – long live the data analysts.

A site visit to Sanaa’s Rolex Learning Centre, a conference highlight, however, shows that the Japanese architectural practice and its client, the University of Lausanne, at least offer a prototype. The building acts as the shared learning space for the entire campus and has an undulating internal topography with a combination of informal break-out spaces, restaurants, transparent and solid ‘pods’, internal patios, an auditorium, study areas, reading rooms and offices.

Is this what ‘normal’ looks like for the Facebook generation? It may not be a standard office model but delegates came away buzzing, if a little conflicted.

There was one other treat. A trip to CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator used by physicists to study the smallest known particles – the fundamental building blocks of all things. ‘It will revolutionise our understanding, from the minuscule world deep within atoms to the vastness of the universe’, it says on the website.

Heartwarmingly, much like the speakers at this year’s conference, our guide, a leading scientist, was short on answers to life, the universe and well, everything else.

‘The only thing we do know for certain,’ he explained, introducing the work under way at CERN in basic layman terms, ‘is that we know ab-so-lute-ly nothing.’

Conference talking points

On the UK recovery
Former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, in the opening session – Politics and Economics in an Age of Change – highlighted the faltering Eurozone economies as a key source of risk to the UK economy, pointing to weakness in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain as a threat to the UK. The large US budget deficit, Iran’s growing power and the impact of Japan’s earthquake were, he said, also potentially destabilising factors.

On Broadgate
At the BCO Developers’ Breakfast, British Land leasing director Paul Burgess says the City of London’s Broadgate needs to keep being developed, despite calls by conservation groups for it be listed. He said: ‘In the 1980s Broadgate was the perfect reaction to the market. It was the purest example of a development responding to occupiers’ needs. But now it needs to continue to do so. Broadgate cannot remain static.’

On London
Sunday Times economics editor David Smith, in the same session, claimed that: ‘Hedge fund managers don’t go to the theatre’, thereby nixing London planning officer Peter Rees’ long-held view that London’s cultural offer draws bankers to the City, which in turn fuels property development.

On Make
Almacantar chief executive Mike Hussey, also at the BCO Developers’ Breakfast, said of Make’s UBS building: ‘Once in a while it’s good to have a different building. This is progress. The development community was bad at providing for occupiers in the 1980s – the institutions dictated design. Development should now be led by occupiers and this is a classic case.’

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