A chicken on the roof of 50 Martin Place, Sydney

According to the vibe at Worktech 2016 in Sydney, the future might be a stranger knocking loudly on the door, but we need to quickly get its measure or it might just sweep us out of the way and waltz right in.

One side of this stranger’s face is eerily familiar. Could it be humane? Is that the word – something we’ve become distanced from in this era of ever greater productivity and pressure to work faster harder longer?

Yes, humane and organic, if we look at the chooks on the roof of 50 Martin Place, MacBank’s new headquarters in Sydney and get a glimpse of the peaceful gardens, bees and vegies.

Chooks in the city?

50 Martin Place’s roof

But there’s more: inside this highly sustainable building is a music room and a yoga room.

Remember MacBank are the hot-shots that gave the world the white-hot hot-desks at Shelley Street in Sydney that started a trend that is still ricocheting around the industry, even reaching legal firms.

In the post-traumatic-stress environment that has followed the GFC it seems we’re all discovering (bosses and designers alike) that we pump blood as well as adrenaline.

Hassell’s Dr Agustin Chevez, who’s also adjunct research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology and was a speaker at Worktech (on another topic), played an interesting game recently.

He used Google autocomplete (which is based on popularity of searches) to find that when people typed in things such as “my workplace is…” or “my job is…” or “going to work is…” the results were far from pleasant.

Answers included, “my workplace is making me sick”, “my job is so boring” and “going to work is depressing”.

Like all good academics Chavez repeated the experiment many times to prove it was no accident.

The results serve to confirm findings that a scary majority of people in the modern workplace feel disengaged or worse.

So a bit more humanity is no doubt on cue and a logical response to squeezing every more productivity from the same human frames. This might explain the rapid take up of interest in the WELL Building Standard in Australia, which is part of the reason that there are chooks on the roof in our CBD now.

Philip Ross on stage, Will Walker (seated)

The other side of the stranger’s face at our door is for many people scary: it’s a reality mesh of technology, a digitally recreated view of our real world that gets ever more eerily precise.

Through sensors and big data and analytics it’s tracking everything we do and seems even capable of predicting our thoughts. (British scientist Stephen Hawking is said to have warned humanity away from artificial intelligence when a new voice software fitted to allow him to speak started predicting what he wanted to say.)

We wanted to visit this conference because we wanted to understand this stranger, and it seems it’s in the workplace that this is where all the important strands defining our future are colliding, driven by the biggest driver of all, the search to create economic value.

Right now it seems “human resources” or “work and culture” or whatever you call the crew that in the past listened to you complain about the boss or negotiated your redundancy is now the place deciding our future workplaces.

It’s the place where the “software” of our work practices crash head first into the hard materiality of our built environment.

This is logical if we believe the rhetoric that design drives our human responses. Data analytics is about proving how.

A big turnout for WorkTech2016

According to Philip Ross who runs the WorkTech roadshows through his Unwork group, there’s no doubt about it: technology is becoming ever more invasive.

Ross, who we’ve mentioned before, spends his time travelling the globe looking at buildings, talking to people who design the next crop of our built environment, so he knows what’s on the horizon.

In January he told a discussion held by the UK’s Property Week that what Uber and Airbnb had done to certain markets would happen to property.

“The internet of things will be the biggest disruptor to real estate in the next five to ten years as buildings become no longer dumb containers, but real-time assets,” he said.

Right now the systems and sensors and analytics are preparing how to map everything about us. Where we are, who we’re talking to, who’s nearby and what we’re doing on social media, he told the conference this week.

Scary? A privacy issue?

Not unless you are outraged by the already phenomenal power of your smart phone to indicate precise quantities of this information already, he said. Your computer is in the same leaky boat.

In London, he says, if you walk around the streets your face will be photographed an identified in milliseconds and with frightening accuracy roughly 5000 times in a single day because of close circuit television.

Jessica Rose Cooper

But already facial recognition technology is looking old hat. Coming our way soon is gait recognition. That’s right, the very way you walk will be able to get you through the door and have a machine address you by name and say, “How lovely to have you back Ms Alexander-Smith Jones. Your favourite room is now being prepared.” Or, “We’ve got a small selection of gifts ready for your inspection on Level 4, exactly what little Johnny has been searching for in Google for his birthday next week. Oh, you’d forgotten? Not we.”

Ross says technology will also be able to tell you that the man standing next to you might be useful for your next business deal even if you’ve never met him before.

Cisco’s digital ceiling is an indicator, Ross told the audience.

According to Cisco this is a “digital convergence of lighting, heating, cooling, sensors and other actuators, in order to make a building not only smart, but seamlessly and securely connected”.

It will be able to personalise a user’s preferred light intensity and colour, room temperature, and phone and video profiles.

It’s really worth taking a look at the website on this.

These systems will probably run on LiFi.

That’s “a bi-directional, high speed and fully networked wireless communication technology… a form of visible light communication and a subset of optical wireless communications [that] could be a complement to RF communication (Wi-Fi or Cellular network), or even a replacement in contexts of data broadcasting. It is so far measured to be about 100 times faster than some Wi-Fi implementations, reaching speeds of 224 gigabits per second.”

You might need to read up on this one too.

So amazing amounts of data, all about us (no surprise we’re breeding a species of narcissists) and all capable of being delivered at remarkable speed.

Ross calls the current state of the available data a “massive digital exhaust”.

“Big data is waiting there for us to use it.” But still looking to make sense and fit some useful objective. This is the current big challenge.

According to Will Walker, MacBank’s global head of workplace, we need to put this awesome technology in context and think about outcomes first.

At Worktech2016: Celia Cavanagh-Downs of Melbourne based interior design company PTID (left) and Kirsten brown of HermanMiller

At the new MacBank HQ at 50 Martin Place, or just “50”, as he said, it’s about providing individual human choices and a place for the “culture club” (the feeling, not the band) to develop.

It’s about “people getting together to be part of the brand”, Walker said.

Technology is for connecting, but not just in cyberspace; it’s about bringing about the “bump” factor of real life interaction.

How did WELL’s uber healthy building standard fit this agenda?

“Wellness is important,” he said, “It’s about mental stability as well.” (Nice to hear someone mention the M word at last.)

“It’s about getting people to have a choice.”

Walker said the chickens on the roof are an “element around individual choice”.

“If you want to go and pat a chicken or not, that’s entirely up to you.”

It’s about giving space “back to people”. That’s why there is a yoga room and music room.

“It’s not about wellness it’s about individual choice,” he said.

“Technology allows us to bring that in very easily.”

Andrew Pettifer, Arup attending the conference to inform his work on Arup’s new Sydney headquarters

David Rolls, head of cities and urban renewal at Mirvac said all this was very well but it’s pretty challenging for the developer who needs to know what this industry will need five years from now.

“This rate of change is a problem for the industry,” he said

Rolls wondered how much you want or need to know about your staff.

“We need to set some protocols about what you want to collect and use. How do you safeguard that?”

Telstra’s Nicole Birbas, general manager, future ways of working, said technology can be useful to inform human behaviour. For instance there is now evidence that people really do collaborate more if they’ re working at a round table.

Another thing we know, she said, is that people have a wide range of reactions. We are so individual. Not everyone likes being driven to bumping into a lot of people or being forced to talk with strangers at lunchtime.

WELL’s Jessica Rose Cooper, executive vice president, Delos solutions director of sustainability, said in her presentation that WELL has only just got started. It’s about to launch into different sectors including communities.

(Some chatter among guests in the room during the break said that in the US employers pay for their staff’s health insurance so there is a financial metric that can be applied to using WELL that may not exist in Australia. We suggested the list of developers and tenants lining up for WELL suggested a huge take-up and Ross told The Fifth Estate that Australia had taken to the rating like no other place he was aware proportionally speaking.)

Cooper was full of praise for the Samba module devised by University of Sydney’s Indoor Environmental Quality Lab that would be used in conjunction with the standard to measure a broad range of elements.

“It’s the only device in the world that meets all the WELL standard environmental performance and we will implement latest version when it becomes available,” Cooper told the audience.

WELL’s ambition, she said was not to force a healthier lifestyle but to enable it.

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