We are experiencing profound changes in our society, and these changes also affect our work environments. Corporate structures, work processes and offices are constantly evolving. Thomas Fundneider, CEO of theLivingCore, took an inspiring trip to the USA to find out where this development could be taking us.
Organized by the furniture manufacturer Steelcase and selected architects, Thomas kicked off his trip in Chicago, USA, in early May. The goal was to exchange know-how and gain insights into different work and office environments. Asked about his impressions and most important insights from across the pond, Thomas captures his most important take-aways and details on the concept of Enabling Spaces.
How was theLivingCore – your approach and work – received in the USA?
Great! Right at the start of our stay we had a particularly interesting conversation with Dave Lathorp, Head of Research at Steelcase, about “Strategic Workplace Consulting.” Workplace Consulting is about thinking beyond pure architecture and integrating organizational factors of a company into its workplace design. However, recent approaches have gone one step further, toward a “Social Systems Strategy.” This is exactly what we’ve been doing for quite some time now with our Enabling Spaces concept, which is based on a holistic (“systems science”) and forward-looking (“strategy”) approach to equip organizations with skills to handle future challenges. Dave seemed quite impressed with our work: “The world is ready for your business.” This shows that theLivingCore is headed in the right direction.
What are Enabling Spaces?
Enabling Spaces is a concept I developed together with Markus Peschl, Professor for Cognitive Science at the University of Vienna. Recent research shows that processes that govern our thinking, perception and actions are not happening exclusively in our brain but are in fact heavily influenced by our environment: We “think with our environment.” This entails that space not only has a strong influence on our thought and knowledge patterns but can actually enable or inhibit knowledge creation (and hence innovation). We therefore aim at creating spaces that enable, inspire and encourage innovation. Rather than confining space to the architectural dimension, we integrate the social, emotional, cultural and technological dimensions of an organization into a sustainable work environment.
You also visited the Steelcase HQ in Chicago. Did you gain any interesting insights?
I’d already been there three years ago, when Steelcase started its change process; so yes, it was very interesting to see what they’d done in the meantime; this includes Steelcase’s interpretation and understanding of “new work” as well as their changes in terms of management and staff culture. CEO James P. Keane is always keen to proactively try out new strategies ranging from experiments on open-plan vs. enclosed offices to working with sensors to innovative, noise-absorbing materials. Design, in particular, has changed: it used to be rather functional and is now all high-end and atmospheric, with lots of attention to detail. We were shown a beautifully balanced new chair design, for example, which illustrates the strong influence of American design thinking and product developer IDEO, now a subsidiary of Steelcase. During our visit we had some lively debates with IDEO founder Tim Brown about innovation and new work environments.
Another item on the agenda was a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May House later that day. What was your impression?
What impressed me most is its downright prescriptive design, which struck me as problematic. People were literally prescribed how to live, since the design is basically unalterable. In his book “Change by Design” Tim Brown explains how every detail serves a greater purpose, namely that of privacy protection. I remember all the tiny details and fascinating innovations from the 1920s: the central, preinstalled vacuum system, for example, has only just reemerged in modern interior design.
The main thing I remember from Stanford is its spacious, welcoming campus. Industry 4.0 businesses (combining industrial production, modern information, and communication technologies) like Autodesk are incredibly open. They deal with issues that don’t even really exist yet; they learn by trying things out. This culture of potential failure impressed me a lot. Autodesk, for example, had their Toronto office planned by their generative software. Then they picked one version and implemented it as an experiment. Apparently the new office works pretty well, much to the dismay of architects. IDEO has some interesting gadgets and a very positive office atmosphere (including an inspiring view of the bay).
Which insights did you gain for the work of theLivingCore in Vienna?
Above all, the trip showed me that we are on the right path with our work, know-how and approaches. We developed our Enabling Spaces concept ten years ago and keep adapting and improving it. Another insight is that the “big players” put their pants on one leg at a time, just like us. We are on a par with them, except perhaps in their readiness to try out new ideas. I will now promote a more radical approach to trial and failure as an essential part of the learning process.