The New Code of Cities
Goodbye commuting, hello event-based working! That’s one of the ways Carlo Ratti expects our lives to change following the coronavirus pandemic.
The acclaimed architect and Director of MIT’s Seseable City Lab sees no reason why the office would entirely go away, even with remote work on the rise. “In the office, magic happens”, he says. “It doesn’t happen just online.” At the same time, Ratti pointed out, people will probably want to keep some of the flexibility that working from home offers, even when the immediate effects of the pandemic-induced lockdown have passed.
“There was a social norm of having to be at the office. I think that has changed, and it’s probably a good thing for us all and for the planet”, Ratti recently told the audience of a DLD Sync that brought him together with James Ludwig, Vice President of Global Design and Product Engineering at Steelcase. “Maybe we find a better reason than just going to the office.”
The interactive session covered a lot of ground, from future of work and urban planning to the role of art in urban spaces, data analytics and smart cities – a term Ratti dislikes because “it sounds too much like a city run by technology”. Key insights follow below, along with a video recording of the full session.
James Ludwig is Vice President of Global Design and Product Engineering for Steelcase Inc., the global leader in the office furniture industry. Ludwig was named to this role in March 2008 with global responsibility for the product design direction of Steelcase, overseeing studios in Europe, Asia and the United States.
What Are We Missing?
Using location data from mobile phones and laptops, Carlo Ratti and his team at MIT analyze how physical spaces are linked to ideas. Their work, a kind of digital fingerprinting, can show the number of patents per building on the university campus, for example, or the number of research papers published per building. “By measuring all these things we can get a very interesting view on how we work as an organization and how digital and physical space interact”, Ratti explained.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the digital fingerprint of MIT buildings quickly changed: People started to work from home and saw each other more online, in video conferences, than in real life.
The consequences are potentially dramatic. For one, scheduled meetings replace accidental encounters that often results in new ideas. “Physical space is amazing because of serendipity”, Ratti says. “We don’t expect something, we bump into somebody who we barely know, or whom we don’t know, and we start a conversation.”
This also creates so-called “weak ties” which are important because they expand our network of social connections beyond the circle of friends, family and colleagues we most closely interact with. Reducing the number of chance encounters results in fewer weak ties and increases the risk of living in an echo chamber, Ratti explained.
“Sometimes this spins out of control on social media”, he said. “Physical space is probably the strongest antidote” because it forces us to interact with others who do not necessarily share our world view. In that way, physical space “forces us to mediate and negotiate also with people that we cannot just remove like we do online.”
Given the importance of meeting in physical spaces, Carlo Ratti is confident that “we will still work in offices” once the pandemic allows workers to leave home again. But he also sees a need to adjust buildings, offices and workspaces to adjust to different circumstances. “There’s a lot of design to be done for the transition phase”, Ratti says.
This concerns health and safety as well as more flexible work schedules. Many people may want to continue working remotely, perhaps coming into the office just two or three days a week – but when they do, they need to have a clean desk and a reason to be physically present, rather than zoom in by smartphone.
One likely result are offices with more shared space that will, at the same time, need to ensure workers that there’s no risk of infection wherever they happen to sit down. “If you share a desk more you also want to be sure it’s clean”, Ratti said. “We actually just filed a patent about a system that allows you to self-clean your desk.”
The other challenge, he explained, will be building trust in the community and increasing serendipity even when employees spend less time at the office together. “How can we design places where the very nature of work is a bit different?”, he asked. One answer could be special events that bring teams together. “I would call that something like event-based working. You go to the office but you go there with activities.”
Coming together in physical spaces is also crucial to corporate culture, James Ludwig added. “Culture is what gets things done in organizations, and it’s also the body language of a company when people aren’t looking. That’s really formed and shaped by what you talked about, by coming together and connecting, collaborating and shaping common values. There’s no substitute for physical space.”
No doubt: The coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2 will not spell the end of cities. But it will almost certainly change the way we live in them.
“The only reason to have cities is really to bring us together”, Carlo Ratti observed. “Over the past 10,000 years, cities have been hit by many, many, many epidemics and pandemics. Some of them have been much worse than this one.” And yet, urban areas have grown and grown. By 2030, a United Nations report projects, there will be more than 40 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants each.
Enjoying the power of togetherness “has always survived, and I think it will survive this time as well”, Ratti said. Still, this was a moment to question traditional habits and form new ones, he argued. Why commute every day? Why fly around the world for a two-hour meeting? “It’s nuts for the environment. But there was no escape”, Ratti said. “Now, I think, something profound has changed.”
The pandemic has allowed video-conferencing to go mainstream, proving that many meetings can also be held virtually, Ratti believes. “Yes, maybe next time you’re in Hong Kong in three months you’ll stop by, but you don’t need to be in the same place at the same time for this”, he said. “And the same applies to the office.”
Cities should see such changes coming and prepare for them now, James Ludwig demanded. “Why aren’t we seeing more cities use this as an opportunity for transformation? To create a more humane city that’s not built for efficiency, traffic and commerce – but actually for the people within that city, to create an even richer environment.”
The role of city planners, architects and designers is to realize this vision, Carlo Ratti added. “Design is our way to transform the present into possible futures”, he observed. “As designers the question we have, which is an amazing question to be thinking about, is: How can we transform and rethink the physical space to adjust to this new reality? But ultimately it’s always about bringing us together – in the office, in the city, and in general.”