Anna Dekker is sociologist and co-founder of Studio LONK – a design studio specialized in spatial storytelling. B. Amsterdam hosts their most recent project, aptly called ‘Queen B’. The question behind the Queen B project concerns the workplace of the future. Are we heading towards the ultimate ‘smart’ AI-driven office? Or will we stop technology before it gets too close to us? In order to find out, Studio LONK designed a personalized work environment at B.’s coworking space, that observes and steers you throughout the day.
The project found the support of three tech companies – IBM, BluBrick|Nexton, and Locatify. Each company works with cutting edge design technology and invest heavily in a personalized and data-driven work environment.
Could you tell us what a sociologist does at a design studio?
Most design studios are more interested in the aesthetics of spatial design – what colors to use, what furniture creates the right atmosphere et cetera. We at Studio LONK approach design more as researchers. Each of our projects are concerned with how people interact with their environment. We start with the people and only then ask what impact a certain space should have on them. Queen B is thus actually a research project with quantitative and qualitative aspects of measuring user experience. As a sociologist, I am primarily active within this first, research-driven step of our design. If you ask me, it’s a rather logical and very important first step to get to know the people. After all, they have to live in- and with your design.
What is so special about the project Queen B?
Queen B is actually the second part of a triptych that we initiated with Mattijs Kaak from Ditt. Officemakers.. The first part took place in February and the last part will take place during the Dutch Design Week. Each of the three spatial installations explore the workplace of the future. What future developments will have the most impact on the way we work? We selected three meta-trends. The first one has a demographic nature – our societies are getting older, our pensions are under pressure and the younger generation does not expect to stop working at 67 or even to receive a state pension. Our first project thus asked the question, whether we will really continue to work till our last breath. Perhaps that is a bit too extreme, but it is plausible that future generations will continue to work till they turn seventy or even eighty. That means that future workplaces need to provide extra care for the elderly, something they’re totally not prepared for today. B. itself is a wonderful exception in this respect. It is not just an office. It’s a living room, gym and entertainment spot with a restaurant, a bar and even a cinema.
The senior space we designed was a wonderful combination between an office, a health resort, and a care facility. You’ll find a pharmacy, access ramps for the disabled and extra locations within the building where you can take your rest. The aesthetics reminded you of a true spa with a fountain of youth, round bars, and a vaulted ceiling. Without text, the space told a story of work, aging and health.
That sounds exciting. What will the third project be about?
The third project has the theme ‘leisure for life’ and concerns itself with the challenges, fears, and promises of technology. Will robots truly take over work leaving us with nothing satisfactory to do – or will they merely help us, making our daily lives more leisurely? This scenario is set up in a time during which there is a basic income for everyone. What do people look for in their workplace? It’s the most philosophical chapter of our trilogy as in the background lingers the question of why we work at all. Sure we want money, but that’s been dealt with thanks to a basic income. Other aspects of work will come to the fore, such as personal satisfaction and volunteering work.
What technologies does Studio LONK employ in these projects?
We make use of a confluence of different technologies. With the help of IBM we make use of Watson. Watson can do a lot of stuff, like recognizing your face and your voice and determine in what kind of mood you are and even what kind of character you have. In addition, we make use of location-based technology from Locatify, which determines on a very detailed level at what location you are. They make use of this technique in museums so that you only hear certain amounts of information when you’re near this or that specific painting. Our third partner, Blubrick|Nexton, measures the occupancy rate or the level at which employees use certain office spaces. It isn’t technology on a personal level, but tells us much about the way a building is actually used.
To continue with the second technology, what kind of information does Queen B wish to communicate with the people inside an office?
Depending on the kind of work you do, you’re better off in a quiet corner, a meeting space or an open office. Queen B communicates this information to the people in the form of personal tips to stimulate activity-based working. She can be stern as well, but only when needed.
Do you expect that your office designs, informed by technologies such as AI, will break through in the future?
As a studio, we try not to take sides or stick to one framework for the future. To some we may present an ideal, to others it’s a doom scenario. This is the debate we wish to stimulate. One term is important here: societal readiness. In the nineties, only twenty years ago, people weren’t ready yet to have a mobile phone all the time. They didn’t want to be called when they’re on a bicycle nor did the chance to be reachable all the time appeal to that generation. The same counts for the future of our workplace. The readiness for change is building up, but we’re certainly not there yet. Compare the AI-technology we use with a personal coach. I am sure that right now, almost everyone would prefer a human coach above one driven by algorithms and artificial neural networks. But how will the world look like in 20 years from now…?
What was the greatest challenge for Studio LONK with this project?
That was probably the software, as we at Studio LONK did not have experience with programming. We were dependent on finding partners who could assist us. We needed the most up-to-date and cross-border technologies in order to make the smart environment we needed. The story behind the software, however, was fully written by me and my four colleagues at Studio LONK. It’s a wonderful example of how social research needs technological support in order to create something new. I am only thankful to B. for offering the space to speculate about the future. We’re inviting the entire B. community to join us and share their thoughts at the closing event this Friday, June 21!
Labor Lab was initiated by Studio LONK and Ditt. Officemakers. Project partners of Labor Lab#2: Queen B are IBM, Locatify, BluBrick|Nexton, B. amsterdam, and Alvero. Labor Lab is supported by the Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie, Big Brands, Timeless Investments and Annexum.