Prototyping a next generation workspace at Arup

How does a 70 year old firm of consulting engineers prepare to move to a next generation workplace?

Arup – an independent firm of designers, planners, engineers, consultants and technical specialists – could have approached this challenge in many different ways, but this particular firm decided to apply a digital mindset to the problem by building a prototype workspace inside their existing office in Sydney.

As part of our research into digital disruption in professional services, I jumped at the opportunity offered by Kim Sherwin to visit their prototype floor, which is being piloted in advance of their relocation to 151 Clarence Street in 2018. Kim is an experienced researcher and works as part of Arup University, through which she facilitates knowledge sharing activities and initiatives at the firm. She is also very conscious of the changing role of her own profession and has been researching and presenting on the topic of libraries in the future. This means she is well aware of the potential for disruption in professional services itself. The firm itself also has an unusual history and has a particular connection with Australia through their engineering role in the construction of Sydney Opera House – so who better to observe how professional services are responding to the digital era?

The pilot space is divided between a workshop and a new activity based working (ABW) ‘neighbourhood’. This represents a significant departure from the traditional office design of professional services firms.

Arup - Kitchen

You can watch a time lapse video of the studio area in action:

The main aim of my visit was to observe and explore what impact digital disruption might be having on the design of that future workplace for Arup. One of the obvious signs, although not clear in the time lapse video unless you know it is there, is the presence of a 3D printer. This printer is used for experimentation, but as an engineering consultancy it also has many practical applications to their work.

Arup - 3D Printer

Of course on its the own the 3D printer might not be significant, but when it is considered as part of the whole workshop space you begin to understand the overall intent of creating a platform for creativity and collaboration. This can be seen in the way the Arup University team are embedded as curators of the space, the multifunctional design of the kitchen area (which operates primarily as an informal collaboration space) and overall flexibility built into the studio.

Arup - Table

The team ‘neighbourhood’ elsewhere in the pilot space provides an area for focused or concentrated work, but the studio is where colleagues, clients and other visitors can come together to collaborate.

There is also a strong focus on the ease of use of technology and the performance of the space around this technology, particularly acoustics, as the benefits of mobility inside the workplace can easily become a distraction if it is too noisy or there is nowhere to hold a reasonably private conversation. In fact, throughout this research project we have heard consistently a mixture of disappointment and frustration that end-user technology is difficult to use or just does not add value to professional services. To overcome this, Arup have focused on installing technologies and interfaces that remove as many barriers to sharing digital content as possible. This includes wireless presentation screens but also simplified control panels on smaller content displays.

Arup - Controls

Other digital displays are also found around the space. In the kitchen the screen can be used for presentations, internal communication or sometimes just a social media wall. Some digital screens also display information about the performance of the building itself, such as their electricity consumption.

Arup - Digital Display

Arup is also experimenting with other technologies to monitor and improve the quality of the working environment.

Just like any business operating in Sydney’s business districts Arup needs to find ways to optimise its space to be cost effective, but the attention to detail in the prototype space highlights the importance of collaborative and creative work to the firm. The use of embedded, practical collaboration technologies in the studio also highlights that technology is an enabler in a progressive professional services firm like Arup.

If Arup’s new office eventually reflects many of the features seen in the pilot space this will be strong sign of the value offered by new ways of working to professional services. But it will also be a very human-centred application of technology – less disruption, more augmentation.

Arup Chair