AI: Friend or foe for office layout design?

Christina Maslen
May 15, 2019 · 5 min read
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For nearly a century, science fiction has raised dark fears of a machine-controlled future. With recent advances in artificial intelligence, we are closer than ever to that vision, but should we really be nervous? Will we all lose our jobs? Will the world be ruled by bland, optimised conformity? Or — flip the script — could AI free us to be even more creative?

AI and the job market

The robot revolution is already here: automation has been steadily replacing human tasks in most workplaces. A McKinsey report found that up to 14% of the workforce may have to consider alternative occupations by 2030 as a result of automation; and, thanks to social and other factors, that number is much smaller than the proportion of work that could theoretically be lost to robots. Work displacement will not happen equally across the world, and will also be offset by economic growth (itself partly fuelled by the improved productivity that automation promises).

So we’re not all headed for unemployment in the next 10 years. But we may need to adapt. The World Economic Forum actually found that, although technology will be used to automate many tasks, it will also bring much more opportunity in the form of newly created job roles. One estimate predicts that by 2022, “75 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.”

So what does this mean for creative roles in our industry, and what new opportunities could emerge?

Can algorithms be creative?

Creativity as a basic concept is the ability to open our minds and play with ideas. We set ourselves free from restrictions. We test, sample, change, edit, adapt, and question all sorts of things. We play with ideas and push boundaries so that we go further than we have gone before.

When it comes to office layout and workplace planning, creativity is a huge part of the process. But not the whole process.

Algorithms can do many of the actual tasks involved in creativity. They can test, query and sample ideas, and they can do so in a fraction of the time that we can. This is what makes them so attractive in business. They can test countless ideas without sleeping, eating or even taking a five-minute coffee break.

Archilogic is now introducing new algorithms into our services that will automatically calculate the optimal layout for a home or office directly from a floor plan, saving a huge amount of time. Based on our expert understanding of the practicalities of living and working, the tool can provide intelligent recommendations adapted to a set physical space. (Check out the preview)

But as this example shows, algorithms don’t design themselves. They will only test ideas that exist within the parameters they have been set. The only knowledge or experience they have is the data that we feed them and the results of tests they carry out thereafter.

Right now, algorithms cannot be creative. But they can aid human creatives, by reducing the time needed to play with ideas before getting to the right one.

What new jobs could emerge?

As in many other industries that have been disrupted by technology, workplace planning, and office design will need to adapt to the new technology available. We can’t see the future, but we need to plan for it anyway. That demands its own creative thinking.

New tasks will be required to feed algorithms. Tasks that require social intelligence, complex critical thinking, and design thinking — tasks that require humans. This will result in some positions becoming more important, or completely new jobs being created.

Here are some tasks we believe will be increasingly important.

Algorithms can help designers test more of their ideas faster, but first, they must be briefed on the parameters of the task: how many work areas are needed? What style of office furniture is required? Where are the fire escapes? Are all work stations equal, and how should they be grouped?

The task for humans is to manage stakeholders and understand their needs — something that involves empathy and human intervention. Only then can AIs be informed of the requirements, which will likely change from client to client.

Once the parameters are set and testing is automated, designers do not need to waste time on questions such as, “Will that boardroom desk fit here?” The algorithms will figure out that in seconds. Instead, designers can play with bigger ideas, such as, “What if we removed these interior walls?” Creative roles will still exist — but in a different form to what we see today.

Around 80% of the work involved in making AIs work properly is related to data collection and creation. Having the right training dataset is vital for all AI algorithms — making it a key competitive advantage factor for companies providing design and planning services.

This means that data will become even more valuable than it is today. Data around office design needs to be continuously collected and prepared. It’s a massive effort to collect the data and knowing which data is needed to train an algorithm to meet the requirements set by the client will need a human touch.

The successful companies of the future will have AIs as part of their service or product portfolio. Today, companies that offer consultancy or design services base their rates on working hours. With the development of algorithms and rising competition for the best datasets, the winners of tomorrow will adapt or create new business models to accommodate growing technological resources. The design and development of these models will be a new task for us to master.

What now?

The core skill of the future is adaptability. For individuals as well as companies, embracing digital working (and thinking) in every way possible will be absolutely crucial. Many companies are already transforming their portfolios and practices so that they are ready to take advantage of the future changes to this industry.

Start mastering new technologies now, and you will not just survive, but thrive on the coming changes.

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Have you already experienced your job being changed by algorithms? Share your story with us below or ask our team any questions you have related to creative algorithms in office planning.

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