Overview: Working in the Future City


The second Urban Research Unit event took place on Tuesday 19th March at Grimshaw’s London office. Following on from the success of the first New York event, panellists and audience members gathered in Grimshaw’s atrium to reflect on the theme of the evening, ‘Working in the Future City’.  What followed was a lively discussion on what it means to work in a contemporary workspace and how different models of the office vary across London in particular.

The discussion was chaired by the very engaging Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA. He was joined by Indy Johar, architect and founder of Hub Makelab and 00:/, Neil Lee Head of the Socio Economic Centre at The Work Foundation, Yolande Barnes - a Director at property giant Savills and a last minute step-in from Chris Law –  the Public Realm and Development Director for Vauxhall One. The billed panellist David Twohig was unfortunately unable to make the event due to last minute work commitments. Many thanks to Chris for attending at the last moment and for providing real insight into one of the biggest initiatives currently underway in South London.

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Matthew provided a real binding force for the evening, successfully managing a debate format previously untested at Grimshaw.  Panellists were given a question the Urban Research Unit had recently reflected upon and were then asked to respond with a six minute presentation. The questions were then opened up to the panel and audience. At this point, Matthew’s own guerrilla tactics came into play and he asked the audience to applaud for which panellist they thought made the most successful case. Indy Johar was later crowned ‘winner’ of the evening.

The discussion itself mirrored the multi-faceted working model our cities currently employ. It proved that their are no definitive models or solutions to the ‘ideal’ way of working in the city. It became apparent very early on that it was difficult to speak of the workplace as a singular entity which was independent of its context. To speak of working in the city is to also take into account not just an industry but the people driving that industry forward - from where they choose to live, to how they negotiate the public realm on their way to work.

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It was agreed that the person (i.e the worker) and not the building should guide future models of the workplace. This argument against structural determinism was initiated by Neil Lee and later seconded by Yolande Barnes. Neil began the series of bite-size presentations with a range of statistics which highlighted the way in which London has become enormously skilled and focused. He argued that skills are moving to skilled cities, suggesting that our workplaces have become over-represented. He noted that the rise in self employment is creating different kinds of communities who all operate on different time scales.

Chris Law used his experience as a property and land developer to suggest how the rise of new districts in London will create different kinds of workplaces. Focusing on the ‘Southbank bubble’, otherwise known as the Nine Elms development, he spoke of how Vauxhall could become the missing link to encouraging different working patterns in this area of South London. He suggested that it could become a more desirable place to live with the arrival of various workplaces in the Nine Elms area. From the American Embassy, to the arrival of various art galleries, to the development of New Covent Garden Market, the redevelopment of the area will create 25,000 more jobs.  He also stressed the importance of a district retaining its identity amidst changes in the work economy. Working in a future city with a new influx of industries, he argued, didn’t necessarily mean gentrification but the chance to work in varied and evolving community, where long-term and new residents and workers co-exist.

Indy Johar used his six minutes to discuss where he saw the design and planning of the workspace heading in the next few years. He used the model of his ever-evolving Hub initiative to illustrate how this kind of workplace is paving the way for a very different kind of future workplace. Hub was founded to ‘create spaces that combine the best of a trusted community, an innovation lab, business incubator and the comforts of home.’ He suggested that the design of our workplaces should be thought of as ‘eco-systems’ which equip their uses with a toolkit with which to develop. Innovation, he argued, comes from creating clusters of spaces where meaningful interaction can happen.

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It became apparent that it was easier to speak of a future workplace model in a global city such as London and New York. Yolande Barnes noted in her presentation that for a workplace to prosper it has to be co-located with where the global money wants to go. Following on from Indy’s prediction of ideas-based economies, she was faced with the daunting question of answering how the property sector can plan for a world of self-employment, short-term contracts, home workers, and technology driven mobility. In asking where business these days really takes place one of her presentation slides fell on a window of Starbucks and then moved to images of Silicon Valley.

The contemporary workplace, she argued, is driven by creativity and community and has enough space for originality to flourish. We were shown pictures of roof-top meetings, workers at The Burning Man Festival, Old Street’s very own burgeoning digital sector at Silicon Roundabout. It became clear that real estate wasn’t just about renting office space. We were warned against the tendency to romanticise the public realm as a canvas for impromptu meetings but it was noted that as a whole our streets needed improvement to create effective networks between different workplaces. Surprisingly, Yolande then cited London’s model of the Georgian house as being an incredibly flexible building, noting its sustainability as a workplace model. 

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The final question of the evening came from an audience member who had recently had her first child. She raised the point that at no moment in the evening had the issue of ‘the family’ in the workplace been discussed. Following on from Matthew Taylor’s own comment regarding society’s  ‘crisis of care’, it presented a fitting note to end on. The present and future experience and way of working isn’t so much about one individual’s commute to an office each day followed by 9 hours of sitting at a desk or meeting room, it’s a sum of everyone’s needs and experiences. It’s collective, well-supported and flexible. In what felt like an incredibly quick hour and a half, the event highlighted that what the worker wants should become the locus and impetus of the future city.

Many thanks to all who attended the evening. Video highlights of the event will be appearing on the URU blog shortly.