Factories for creativity

Every day millions of people around the world go to one place: the office. Why? Technology has freed knowledge workers from the commute and the cubicle, and no one has their best ideas at their desk – and we’ll all be replaced by robots soon anyway. But the office continues to occupy a hallowed place in the corporate mindset and, if anything, a company’s premises are becoming even more essential to its identity and culture. In this article for issue 03 of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for WSP, I explored the future of the workplace in an AI era.

Who are you calling a NIMBY?

Let’s do a thought experiment. Close your eyes and picture a NIMBY: a local resident adamant that an offshore wind farm should not be built in their backyard – a wind farm that could generate many thousands of megawatts of clean, green energy, and stop an equivalent amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere. Now imagine that the same person is protesting against a new nuclear power station or fracking underneath their home. How does that change your feelings about them, and the validity of their arguments?

Weighing local interests against national ones is a fundamental dilemma for decision-makers, and it’s one of the themes of a research project by University College London’s Bartlett faculty, which I wrote about for the Bartlett Review 2017. The research team explored how the concerns of the public are handled in the fast-track, centralised process for approving Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs). NSIPs include transport routes, power stations, offshore wind farms and, more recently, associated housing, and there have even been proposals to extend the definition to major commercial developments. But the research team chose to focus on renewable energy – an area where national policy sets a strong presumption in favour and where local people often find themselves cast as refuseniks in the face of an overwhelming public good.

“They looked at me, flabbergasted. They said ‘we never do anything for an entire afternoon’”

Education is a booming sector, thanks to a growing global population with a thirst for knowledge. But how can today’s schools and universities prepare for a world that doesn’t yet exist? In the latest issue of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine my company Wordmule produces for WSP, I compiled this 14-page infographic feature on the many challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution presents to educators around the world. What should next-generation learning spaces look like, how can we pay for a transformation on this scale, and how do you teach a digital native anything when they can just Google it?

A different shade of green

In February, I travelled to Sweden to interview Johan Edstav, a Green party councillor in Uppsala who is leading a nationwide programme to build sustainable new towns. Sweden is one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, but it’s seriously constrained by a lack of affordable housing: in 2017, 255 out of 290 municipalities reported a shortage and the National Board of Housing, Building and Planning says that it needs to build approximately 710,000 homes by 2025. Like many other countries, it is struggling to balance city prosperity with affordability, help an ageing population to downsize, and decarbonize its economy. What sets Sweden apart is that this small country of barely 10 million has welcomed more refugees per capita than any other in Europe. In 2015, at the peak of the European migrant crisis, more than 160,000 people arrived seeking asylum. Sweden’s immigration policy is justifiably a source of national pride, but it has also raised questions about how so many newcomers can be integrated – or even housed.

So the challenge for the government, and Edstav as its representative, is not only to increase a paltry rate of housebuilding, but to plan new developments to bring people together in more integrated, better functioning communities. The Nordic countries already lead the world in environmental sustainability; now Sweden is seeking to isolate the DNA of the more complex and much less explored social dimension. I asked him how in this piece for The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company Wordmule produces for WSP.

The Possible 02: the second issue of our thought leadership magazine for WSP

We’ve just published the second issue of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine that my company, Wordmule, produces for global engineering firm WSP.

The Possible is about the future of buildings and cities and the ideas and innovations that can help them function better. In this issue we explore the limits on city density, the future of education, next-generation construction materials and whether we’ll ever be able to design a totally recyclable building. Chicago architect Gordon Gill, designer of the 1km-tall Kingdom Tower, talks about his responsibilities and regrets, and psychologist Naomi Shragai investigates what’s really happening when project teams collaborate. In our Connected Thinking section, contributors contemplate how drones will shape development in Africa, the seismic threat to Asia’s megacities, hospital design in a post-antibiotic world, how architects can ensure the wellbeing of site workers thousands of miles away, and why engineers should read more philosophy. It was designed by Supermassive and the cover illustration is by Noma BarThe Possible 02 cover

Secret servers

They may be as vast as an Amazon distribution centre, as energy-hungry as a steelworks, and as critical as a power station or major hospital. Yet many of us will never have seen a data centre – or never noticed one. And that’s exactly how their owners want it. That’s because data centres are the internet. They are “the cloud”. They are the huge, humming sheds through which every email, Google search, online transaction, Netflix movie and Donald Trump tweet must pass as it circles the earth. Just a few minutes of downtime could be disastrous for the companies, governments and financial markets that rely on them, so data centres are designed to be constantly operational, and protected from every conceivable threat, natural or manmade. Anonymity is the first step in a rigorous high-security philosophy that leaves nothing to chance. In this feature for Modus, the magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, I spoke to the property professionals working in this specialised, sensitive market.

What this fortress approach can’t ensure is the cyber-security of the data within – arguably a much greater risk, as illustrated by the unprecedented cyber-attack last October that disrupted services across Europe and the US. After all, if you had the choice of mounting a Mission Impossible-style break-in, or hacking from the comfort of your armchair, which would you choose?

Modus_April 2017 cover

“Do academics do gnomes?”

“I’ll be honest: the gnomes keep me up at night worrying,” admits Professor Andrew Hudson-Smith, director of the Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, or CASA, at University College London. “Is it academic? Do academics do gnomes?” On the desk in front of him sits a 3D-printed gnome of the garden variety, unpainted and not yet fitted with the Bluetooth transmitter that will replace its feet. “Probably not,” he concludes. “It’s probably frowned upon.”

CASA, however, does do gnomes. When it’s finished, this one and 29 clones will sit in solar-powered mushroom homes amongst the shrubbery of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London. They will be the most visible elements of a vast technology infrastructure underpinning the cutting-edge “Smart Park” project, which will have ubiquitous wifi, superfast broadband and a dense mesh of sensors monitoring everything from temperature and humidity, to the movement of crowds and even their emotions. Over the next decade, CASA will collect and analyse this data in order to understand and transform how people use the space and, looking further ahead, plan the smart urban districts of the future. I wrote this article about it for the Bartlett Review 2016.