Design Thinking for Smart Places

Smart technology and the Internet of Things (IoT) are becoming mainstream, bringing with them design-thinking for a smart built environment that demands a different way of approaching projects. Where it was once possible to design a building or service according to technical requirements alone, it is now necessary to design with relentless interrogation of what the end-user needs.

That’s where ethnography comes in. Ethnographic research, traditionally associated with the work of anthropologists and social scientists, is concerned with the systematic study of people and cultures. Qualitative in many respects, this type of research has been peripheral to the design of buildings and buildings services and, until now, it has been considered largely the preserve of architects and mobile app user-experience (UX) designers.

More than simply field research, ethnography involves observing or interacting with the users of a building or digital service as they go about their everyday business – creating an access badge to enter an office building, or ordering an item for home delivery from a store app, for example.

Drawing together technical engineering standards, with businesses processes, and the findings of ethnographic research is difficult.  But true innovation is never easy – and the benefits of a smart building are undoubtedly worth the effort.

Why not just ask the client what they want?

Smart environments are so new, and so different, that clients are sometimes unaware of what can be achieved. There is a tendency to focus on the technology itself, rather than what that the technology can do for the organisation. Clients sometimes look at megatrends, such as artificial intelligence and the use of big data, and believe that’s what they must have in their organisation, regardless of whether, or how, it will be useful to them.

In fact, it can be difficult to dissuade clients from looking outward at new technologies and sideways at the activities of their competitors, yet they need to look inward to find opportunities for smart innovation. By focusing on the needs of a specific team, or a specific customer, they often can extrapolate what is required to increase the productivity of their business as a whole.

Technology is undoubtedly part of the solution, but it is only one component. Design thinking that knits technology firmly into the fabric of an organisation and the way its people work, is critical to the amount of value that results from smart buildings and services.

How does design thinking generate value?

Businesses frequently consider their corporate estate departments as a cost centre that is necessary to keep the business running, but does not deliver any value. They rarely think about what they want people to feel when they are using the buildings, either as a workplace or as a visitor.  They fail to see how this might generate value.

Ethnography is useful in this context and can constitute the first step of a smart building strategy. By taking a set of different types of building users and tracking their touch points throughout the day – whether these are actual physical parts of the building or whether they relate to policy and procedure, such as signing into the building and leaving it – we find out where the built environment, and the systems relating to it, either enhance or reduce productivity.

Coupled with this, by standing in the building user’s shoes, we can find out what happens when they are in the building and how they generate value. In a building that houses a financial services organisation, for instance, value could be related to the number of transactions settled in an hour, whereas in a creative agency it might be about the conversations that lead to a successful advertising campaign.

These are very different circumstances that might happen into two identical buildings.  Yet by starting the buildings engineering and digital services design analysis by looking at the human challenge, rather than the building itself, it’s possible to see how a very different smart strategy might serve each of these very different types of business.

Design-thinking as technology driver

Design-thinking is about looking at a building through different lenses.  One view offers a picture of what employees want from their built environment, another shows what organisations want from their built environment, a third shows how customers can benefit. Technology is the engine of a smart environment, but design-thinking is the driver that guides it, keeps it running, and gets the best performance out of it.

International professional services and investment management company JLL developed its ‘3-30-300’ explanation of the importance of the human element in assessing the value of buildings.  They say that in the USA, the average costs to a firm per employee, per day, are broadly in the proportion of $3 on energy, $30 on rent, and $300 on payroll.

It is easy to see from this calculation how an environment that enables employees to do their best possible job can boost productivity. Only design thinking can lead to the fully-integrated smart buildings that deliver in this way.

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