Return to the Anywhere Working City

by | Feb 28, 2017

I’m celebrating an anniversary soon – it’s almost 5 years since I co-authored a white paper with Philip Ross, founder and CEO of UnWork, on the subject of the Anywhere Working City.

The inspiration for the original paper was from working closely with Transport for London in the run up to the 2012 Olympics. The Olympic Travel Demand Team was liaising with big business about flexible working to alleviate congestion on public transport for the six weeks of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. However, the opportunity was not only to make visitor and commuter journeys smoother over that Olympic period, but also to be an inflection point in the way London works. How could a societal shift in patterns of working make us use our city infrastructure more effectively for decades to come?

The Anywhere Working City

The concept of an Anywhere Working City is a highly livable, polycentric city, driven by societal expectation of a different way of working and living, enabled by new paradigms of building, technology and transport. In the original paper we covered four concepts:

Beyond the Smart City: How can you embrace the concept of ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of City Needs’? For those cities that have been on the smart city journey for some while, we need to think beyond siloed initiatives to a more holistic view. We touch on the concept of a ‘transport architecture’ rather than a ‘transport infrastructure’. It is astonishing to think how the landscape of urban mobility has evolved in the past five years with the introduction of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Grab to provide such an ‘architecture’.

The Third Space: Many of us understand the polarities of working in the office and working from home. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the popular narrative of flexible working has become negative – centred on aspects of unproductive open-plan offices and the isolation or family inconvenience of home working. Sadly, those points of view miss the opportunity of more innovative ‘activity based workspaces’ and working anywhere in between. The concept of co-working and casually meeting a colleague or a taking a conference call  in coffee shops has had an uptake in recent years, but not enough to produce the powerful societal change that this could enable.

100 Mile City: The concept of the regional economic enablement emanating from a city’s Central Business District comes from Deyan Sodic and originally refers to the economic benefits being felt from a city that has transport connections stretching into the hinterland. If we expand the concept to both a polycentric city and also replace our physical transport connectivity with digital connectivity, how much further can the economic benefits spread?

Evolution vs Revolution: The final concept looks at the opportunities and challenges presented by green field cities versus established cities – there are pros and cons to both. Sir Terry Farrell, who we interviewed for the original paper, hints at the political dimension of large city experiments but also believes in evolution and making what we have work with small incremental changes.

Resilient and Productive – Anywhere Working Sydney

There was much interest in the original paper and many cities were asking us ‘How do I become an Anywhere Working City?’ (see my three-point plan below). The movement towards a more flexible model of working is still relevant to many of the city conversations I have had since. However, as I referenced above, the ideas of flexible working and unappealing desk sharing in open-plan offices have lost their popularity and I think we are in danger of missing the bigger opportunity for societal change.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation from Beck Dawson to one of the working groups around Resilient Sydney – part of the 100 Resilient Cities network. I’ve recently started to focus a lot on the growing smart city agenda in Australia and AECOM had assembled a diverse groups of folks. Although Microsoft is a partner  in the 100 Resilient Cities Programme, I hadn’t really had a chance to engage much with this agenda from a personal work focus. I have to say, the workshop shifted my perspective on the topic.

The key shift for me was acknowledging that resilience deals with both the shocks and the stresses of a city. And that shocks can be amplified by stresses. In my ignorance, I had always considered resilience to deal primarily with the shocks. In our group, we discussed how you make the business case around resilience in a city and the idea that it’s difficult to invest for the shocks alone… you have to invest to alleviate the stresses. And so, if we recast ‘Anywhere Working’, that was originally a convenient fix for the ‘shock’ (running an Olympics in your city) as to alleviate the ‘stresses’(reducing congestion, increasing productivity, improving community cohesion) we get a different perspective of the sustainable impact from deliberate intervention and investment. Maybe Sydney would get to realise its aspiration for the sub-30 minute commute.

How Do I Become an Anywhere Working City?

So, here’s my suggested (and unproven!) three-point plan:-

(1) Develop the vision of your city being open to embrace ‘Anywhere Working’.

(2) Establish a network of diverse physical spaces for co-working.

(3) Invest in the digital infrastructure to support and discover places to work from anywhere in your city.

Technology is often viewed as a short-term solution to busіness challenges rather than the longer-term driver of socіetal change that could determine our perceptions of the future of work. I’d love to see Anywhere Working Sydney as the first global city to embrace that mindset.

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