Review: Myths of the (networked) office, 2009

NLA: London’s Future Workplace series: Philip Ross: Into the Clouds: the Impact of Web 2.0 on Work and the Workplace
Friday, 21 August 2009 at 08:30
The Building Centre

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Interesting NLA talk by Philip Ross on the Impact of Web 2.0 on Work and the Workplace (London)

Event overview

As part of NLA’s Workplace series, Philip Ross, CEO of The Cordless Group will look at the ‘empty building’, a near-future vision where all applications and data is stored ‘in the cloud’ – new data centres – and the office building becomes empty, devoid of almost all technology except thin clients and connectivity. This changes the need for cooling, power and voids, but also opens up a more fundamental debate about what our future buildings are for. The assumption is a place to bring people, but even here with new research that will be presented, some of our assumptions will need to be challenged. The ‘Facebook’ workplace will look very different.


The future of the workplace is an oft addressed subject, but in the broader discussion around the Internet, the complexities of office life are often overlooked, considered too esoteric. (Logistics, manufacturing and other economic essential are further neglected.)

The mercurial Philip Ross of the Cordless Group recently addressed a packed event at New London Architecture, former Blueprint publisher Peter Murray’s centre for the built environment at the Building Centre in Store Street, on the theme ‘Into the Clouds: the Impact of Web 2.0 on Work and the Workplace’. The Cordless Group consults on the future workplace, runs the Workplace Innovation Centre, and publishes and programmes events. Ross is the co-author of many books with Prof. Jeremy Myerson, Director of InnovationRCA at the Royal College of Art, including The 21st Century Office (Laurence King, 2005). And Cordless events include the WORKTECH series, the London event [404], one of which features Alain de Botton).

Ross’s talk cover low-cost telecoms and the death of distance, the limits of paper, and the dangers of building managers trying to ‘sweat the asset’. He looked at changing demographics, ‘digital natives’ and the ageing workforce (‘Kids see email as dead technology’). He discussed the modelling of communications, and what can be learned from it, and the importance of location-aware services. His Web 2.0 mantra was ‘Find, Use, Share, Expand’, and he cited research showing that the best answers to questions often come from colleagues one doesn’t know. He reported on a Sun Microsystems virtual building with avatars which connected to presence in more familiar systems.

New phenomena predicted included the ‘Internet of things’, the ‘pervasive Internet’, ‘ubicomp’ (ubiquitous computing). He referenced organisational dashboards monitoring, machine to machine communications, and smart devices such as fridges that could talk to your dustbin to work out what to re-order based on what you threw away. (Though he observed that throwing something away didn’t indicate you wanted more of it.) In wide-area communications, he covered WiMax vs LTE, and in local area networking the use of sensor networks in healthcare management (and the implications or insurance premiums). A key theme of his talk was ‘the cloud’, an always-on high bandwidth permanent network connection that would enable online applications and services. The future of the phone is around software and mobility, he claimed, and physical devices will be replaced by software: “Everything heads to software: the lump of plastic dies”. Meetings will be conducted via telepresence and will be wholly recorded for later reviewing. Ross didn’t dismiss the physical, and shared spaces, entirely, but argued that when one brings people into buildings one must have created a very different space, based around cloud-based organisations.

In interaction design he sees Microsoft’s Surface a realising the ‘Minority Report vision’. And the Amazon Kindle “leading to the slow death of publishing”, abetted by Plastic Logic’s roll-up paper. Meanwhile, wireless charging (already a feature of the Palm Pre) will be important, and we may use ‘intelligent mirrors’ as information devices in the home. We will live in a ‘Kandinsky world’ that is ad hoc, spontaneous, and peer to peer. Companies will jump on this to cut costs and attract the best talent, he argues, and cites examples of such workplaces, including the BBC’s Glasgow offices, WestPac in Sydney, Rabobank in Holland, Nokia in Beijing, Google in Zurich, and The Hospital in London (which he charming refers to as a ‘guild’).


Ross’s vision is seductive but exhibits a number of flaws.

First, it ignores the real world. People value working in offices for many reasons. Some are not clearly functional, others obscure and unexpressed. Interacting with people in person is more effective in many areas. And over-hearing peripheral conversations has great value in learning about and understanding what is going on in one’s organisation. On the other hand, remote collaboration tools are poor and thin. While Ross notes the limits of paper, he fails to acknowledge its strengths and affordances. See The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) [Goodreads] and The Myth of the Paperless Office by Abigail J. Sellen and Richard Harper (MIT Press, 2001).

It also ignores the challenges of culture and organisations. Kids may see email as dead technology but this is not a new observation. Rachel Abrams and I wrote about the limitations of email ten years ago (see Special Report: Interface Design ‘The Future of Email’ Nico Macdonald and Rachel Abrams, Graphics International, issue 61, 1998-1999), but little has changed despite excellent work such as IBM Research’s Remail project from its Cambridge, MA, lab. Organisations are conservative about moving away from email as the move to it was not that radical: it is about memos and attached documents. The overuse of, and continued adherence to, email also reflects organisational politics and risk aversion: higher-ups are CCd into to show that one is being productive, and to avoid doing anything that is perceived as risky.

Of interest to

Duncan Wilson, Lucy Bullivant, Tobi Schneidler, Garrick Jones, Tricia Austin, Gonzalo Garcia Perate, who I notified about the event. People interested via Archive

Originally published at

Published by Nico Macdonald

Communication, facilitation and consultancy around design and technology

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