The post-pandemic office: a thought leadership series for WSP

At the beginning of April 2020, with many of the world’s offices deserted, I began a weekly thought leadership series for WSP about how Covid-19 would transform the knowledge workplace. It ran to eight long-form features – almost 17,000 words – on everything from the cultural impact of physical distancing to virus-proofing the office environment, to whether companies will still bother having their own premises and what would make people want to go there when they are all set up to work from home. I also ghost-wrote six shorter pieces with WSP’s technical specialists.

As a long-term freelancer, one of the most striking transformations so far is the overnight switch from phone to video calls. Over the course of the series, I interviewed 50+ experts, glimpsing a dizzying variety of living rooms, spare rooms, home offices and gardens across Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The articles were published on WSP’s website as part of its Better Normal campaign, and they were widely shared on social media and republished elsewhere. We also compiled the whole thing into a 60-page PDF, Thoughts on the post-pandemic office.

Graphics by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive Creative; production editing by Nick Jones at Wordmule.

The Possible issue 06

We’ve just published issue 06 of The Possible, a magazine about the future of cities that my company Wordmule produces on behalf of global engineering firm WSP. And although much of the content was finalised before Covid-19 struck, the topics it covers remain just as relevant: the spread of the disease and its impact on different communities has been directly influenced by the way our cities are governed, the quality of the spaces we inhabit and the air we breathe.

This issue explores the future of healthcare in an age when pandemics are just one of the growing threats to humanity, and looks at the ways in which urban designers can deploy “nudge theory” to encourage healthier behaviours – just how far should we go? Our future health will be increasingly about data too. The mind-bogglingly enormous quantities generated by smart city technologies will be invaluable for creating healthier, more resilient places – but only if it is accessible to us, rather than hoarded and monetised by tech companies. So we have an in-depth feature about the vital but under-explored topic of data governance.

There are some inspiring solutions too: planned properly, micromobility could replace cars and plug gaps in public transit systems to bring about permanently clearer skies and more equal streets. And I love Nick Rose’s vision of how urban agriculture could deliver a secure, sustainable source of food, while making cities greener, more pleasant places to live.

Of course, climate change will continue to exert a major pressure on population health over the years, decades, centuries to come. The embodied carbon in buildings can account for one-third or more of their total greenhouse gas emissions, so we urgently need to get to grips with that too. We have a 12-page article about what we know, what we don’t and what designers can do to make a meaningful contribution to the fight against climate change.

All with a beautiful, slightly refreshed design by Sam Jenkins at Supermassive Creative and a hand-drawn cover by Aistė Stancikaitė.

“If we can’t feed ourselves, then everything else becomes moot”

Food sovereignty and sustainable food systems expert Nick Rose is pioneering urban agriculture in Melbourne. I interviewed him for The Possible issue 06 about why the future of city life depends on it, and created a separate – rather sobering – infographic about food security.

Tomorrow’s slums

Back in 2013, I interviewed RICS’ property experts about the coalition government’s then-temporary relaxation of planning rules on office-to-resi conversions, for Modus magazine. I summarised it like this: “Despite dystopian warnings from local authorities, it’s not only unlikely to transform the hearts of Britain’s towns and cities – conversions will only take place at all in a very specific set of financial, technical and political circumstances.” My hometown Croydon was set to be a hotspot, with loads of the right sort of office building and loads of demand for flats not too far from London.

The policy was made permanent in autumn 2015, declared a success by the new Conservative government. But successful for who?

Under permitted development rights, conversions take place without planning permission – and therefore with no scrutiny of design, quality or space standards, and without developers making any contributions to local infrastructure or affordable housing. The impact has been far worse than predicted. In May 2018, a report by the Bartlett School of Planning revealed the true face of England’s offices-to-resi boom: studio flats measuring just 12m², “homes” in the middle of industrial estates, children growing up in noisy, overcrowded blocks with no play space. By then, approximately 60,000 new housing units had been created in this way.

I interviewed the authors for the Bartlett Review 2019. They began their research in 2017, when the impact of four years of deregulation was increasingly discussed but little had been published beyond desk-based studies. Over the course of a year, they made 568 site visits across five English cities plus two comparators, surveying projects and their surroundings, counting door buzzers and speaking to residents. Lead researcher (and fellow Croydonian) Dr Ben Clifford told me they were “shocked” by what they found: “What stood out for us was the quality of residential development. It was much poorer than we anticipated and affected people much more severely in terms of their quality of life.” Some shabby commercial premises had barely been converted at all – one of the many grim photos in the report, taken in Croydon, shows a tiny unit fronting onto a busy main road with personal possessions piled against the windows. Only 30% of conversions met national space standards, and few had access to amenity space. Overall, 77% of the homes were studio or one-bed apartments and many were aimed at the investment market – hardly reflecting or meeting housing need. The five local authorities – Camden, Croydon, Reading, Leeds and Leicester – had lost a potential £10.8m in Section 106 contributions and 1,667 affordable homes, as well as £4.1m in planning fees.

For the least scrupulous elements of the property sector, permitted development rights has been a get-rich-quick free-for-all. The rest of us will be feeling the repercussions for decades to come.

Bartlett Review 2019_pages 8-9

The typical car is parked for 96% of the time. So what would a world with no private vehicles look like?

What would it take for you to give up your car? Better public transport? A really good bike or car-sharing scheme? Being able to summon a driverless car to pick you up from your door and take you wherever you want? Or how about all these things and more, accessed via a single smartphone app that would allow you to plan any number of journeys in your area, using any combination of methods, all for a flat monthly fee?

This is mobility-as-a-service or MaaS, coming soon to a city, town or even village near you. MaaS is the logical, some say inevitable, conclusion as the millennial-led “sharing economy” converges with innovations in the automotive sector, cloud data processing and mobile communications. It’s often overshadowed by autonomous vehicles (AVs), but it’s a far more radical concept that could consign vehicle ownership to the past, thus massively reducing the number of vehicles on the road. There are therefore profound implications for a built environment that has been overwhelmingly designed around the car, and the need for parking spaces, on-street or otherwise.

I wrote about the space implications of MaaS for the February 2019 issue of Modus, the membership magazine of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The future of airports

The latest in my series of infographic opuses on the future of the built environment. This time, it’s about airports: how they’re expanding, how they’re being automated, how they’re becoming cities in their own right – and how urban aviation could very soon make cities themselves more like airports.

This was published in issue 04 of The Possible, the thought leadership magazine I edit for WSP, and as a standalone A4 booklet too.

See also: shopping districts, education and the office.

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.

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.

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