With the ability to order lunch, converse with team members, collaborate in real-time, and alter environmental conditions such as light, temperature, and sound, our digital devices are literally changing the physical environment around us at multiple scales. As the digital realm increasingly develops new spaces for us to escape, to consume, and to communicate, there will be questions raised concerning the relevance of our physical environments. This makes it both an exciting and challenging time to be an architect.
Diagram illustrating how software products are quickly launched and evaluated to determine what works and what does not. (Credit: Lean Startup)
There are a number of ways I believe we, as designers of physical environments, can leverage digital technology to elevate the quality of space to meet this challenge. We can and should borrow more from the software development industry’s ability to quickly iterate and learn from products through the evaluation of user behavior. Evaluating traffic in a building is quite different from measuring traffic on a website, but the hardware and technology is there to allow architects to automate some of the processes of measuring physical phenomena.
A building’s successes or failures are often measured using post-occupancy evaluation (POE)—a process that typically takes place after a project has been designed, built, and occupied for some time. POE has been a common tool in the architectural toolbox for decades. With this method, one gains insights by surveying users or documenting field observations. The problem with these conventional methodologies: getting a sample set that’s truly representative of the larger condition is typically time-intensive and costly, and the majority of contractual relationships between architects, owners, and builders tend to limit the ability to implement this type of analysis.
Computer vision is a way to process, analyze, and understand images and video through sophisticated algorithms. It is used for facial recognition, feature detection, and image search or classification. (Credit: MathWorks)
As WeWork is a vertically integrated company—meaning we design, own, and operate our spaces—we have the ability to truly learn from and act upon any analytical work we conduct on our environments. WeWork’s Product Research team is currently exploring a number of ways to utilize emerging technologies to gain deeper insights into the uses and successes of our space types. From testing computer vision to infrared break beam sensors, we want to answer questions such as: how might we obtain data of use patterns without having to send a researcher to conduct field observations? How can we discover which areas within our common spaces are most popular? In short, what would the Google Analytics of buildings look like?
IR break beam sensors are generally used to detect motion. They have two parts: an emitter, which sends invisible infrared light, and a receiver. When an object passes between the receiver and emitter, the device will let you know. (Credit: Adafruit)
In one of our previous posts, Daniel Davis explained some efforts undertaken by Product Research that leveraged feedback from our digital assets. The data provided the team with insight into members’ feelings toward our spaces—in this particular case, our conference rooms. The WeWork Product Research team is currently expanding our analytical and member insight endeavors by utilizing sensor technology to bring the instantaneity of bits to the world of atoms.
A phone booth at one of our WeWork locations.
We decided to use the phone booths as a testing ground to achieve this instantaneity and conduct research into continuous spatial awareness. Phone booths hold a unique position within the taxonomy of WeWork spaces. Firstly, they serve as a sort of oasis within a high-octane, vibrant, and buzzing environment. When you work in a community of lively and ambitious go-getters, the tranquility of the one-person booths can offer some much-needed respite to make calls, contemplate, or finish writing an article. One of the few spaces that cannot be reserved via the WeWork app, phone booths are occupied on a first-come, first-served basis. Subsequently, phone booths are a highly sought-after resource in all of our locations.
Over the past month, the Product Research team installed motion sensors in the phone booths and nooks within WeWork HQ to monitor whether or not a booth was occupied and push the information to a web database. We then built a web app to display the availability of the nooks and booths in real-time, allowing us to view availability in aggregate or at a more granular scale of the individual booths displayed on a virtual floorplan. Now, rather than walking multiple flights of stairs or to the other side of the building to find an open booth to make a call, those in HQ can view space availability remotely.
Urban Theorist David Harvey writes in “The Condition of Postmodernity” (1990) about a time-space compression that occurs when technology alters the quality of our relationships between space and time. Once dashboards, sensors, and enterprise IoTs are as ubiquitous as iPads or automatic sliding doors, the technology, I believe, will bring about a condensing of time and space at the architectural scale of rooms, floors, and corridors, as the internet or the railroad did for global and regional transportation. Imagine the time that will be saved by not having to wander through buildings looking for a quiet space to meet, or going to grab a coffee to find the machine is empty.
Beyond navigation efficiencies or a real-time understanding of space availability, connected environments will allow buildings to communicate in unprecedented ways. Imagine a conference room that can tell you how if feels, that understands what the inhabitants might be feeling, and that can provide long-term analysis of the room’s usage over time. This type of information will be of value to the occupants, operators, and designers of the space. The datafication of our digital preferences (e.g. Facebook likes, Amazon buying patterns, and Spotify listening) have already yielded positive results for consumers—think recommendations or song and movie suggestions. In turn, the datafication of physical space will give designers the ability to optimize the material qualities of space based off of the data the feedback provides.
In Product Research, we have a number of ongoing projects that fall under a term we are calling “continuous awareness”. Similar to monitoring booth and nook availability, these projects are focused on an instantaneous understanding of WeWork spaces and community. Once we are better informed about our spaces we, in turn, can give feedback to our designers and operators about our spaces in new ways. It is this commitment to embracing new technologies to further our spatial awareness that we hope will elevate the experiential quality within a WeWork location.
Beyond better space utilization this methodology also allows us to look at historical data to view occupancy trends. We can now answer questions such as: What booths are the most popular? When is the best time to find an empty booth? Or, what is the average length of time people spend in the booth? With more than 100+ locations, obtaining this type of data, along with qualitative feedback from our apps, gives us an unprecedented ability to understand what makes physical spaces successful.
As the WeWork Product team, we want to ensure that our members are as passionate about working from our spaces as they are about pursuing the work they love. We can do this by providing them with environments that are unparalleled in quality. One way we hope to achieve this is by establishing a seamless integration between our digital and physical spaces. As a vertically integrated company, we can design and execute across digital and physical products, and ensure the quality of experience throughout—capabilities that may otherwise be impossible to accomplish in other organizations.