All too human: in praise of inefficiency

Soho and Milton Keynes. Two places I have recently visited, strung at the opposite ends of the planning spectrum. One a rabbit warren, of intensely complex inefficiency and variation, a chaotic visual feast, the other a rigidly planned attempt to create an open skyline and green expanse – a city hidden below eye level.

Most people love Soho. They feel its energy, the irregular pulse, the mix of cultures and traditions, the integration of historical and modern. Yet we don’t build Sohos anymore. Why would we? We are conditioned by optimisation, and Soho is as un-optimised as you can find.

We want our space to “work for us”, to return on the investment in a language we understand, to be efficient – to get the most out of it. Scientific management 2.0 underpins this view of space, from the master plan all the way to the home and office. Optimisation is a pillar of the approach, possibly even the entire approach.

In the workplace community we are hoodwinked by the inevitable slides showing black and white views of the grid layouts of the 20’s and 30’s into thinking that it is historical, but it is with us today and underpins most workplace design. We demand our workplaces be efficient, effective, and expressive. We create easy access and movement, homogenised units of space, multi-functionality and logistical manageability.

Yet in doing so – and armed with policies and standards – we drive away character, personality, the inherent energy that grows in corners and nooks, the opportunity of community, and the ability to modify and influence the environment that creates interest and motivation. We forget who the workspace is for, and why. We love Soho but we always seem to want to (or have to) build Milton Keynes.

My argument – and it is not an easy one – is that last thing one should do with space is optimise it. By doing, so we prolong and support scientific management. We extinguish the very creativity and interaction we desire. We win awards while missing the point. Optimisation is the categorical opposite of opportunity. It denies emergence and spontaneity, and irons out accident and serendipity.

We need to take on a new, counter-intuitive challenge: to design for inefficiency. The workplace is for social, complex and adaptive human beings. It is not itself for the balance sheet, but its outputs are. It is for people to be inspired and encouraged, surprised and captivated, and thereby for the benefit of the organisation to perform and create. Our personal relationships are inherently inefficient, but the outcomes can be unexpectedly incredible.

An efficient and effective space does not create an efficient and effective human being.  We need to de-couple this belief, as it is killing the workplace. The sterility, homogeneity and predictability of the modern workplace is all around us. The association is fundamentally flawed. Space and workspace should mirror and appreciate the complexity and unpredictability of humankind, not deny it.

It is time to free the spirit.


4 thoughts on “All too human: in praise of inefficiency

  1. Absolutely agree. In fact, I am working on two projects at the moment that support this idea. One is a new build learning centre for a large petrochem company. In developing the brief and area schedule for the building, the client team has purposefully allowed for larger than needed circulation, and allocated space for ‘undefined’ needs, which are in fact irregular spaces and places in between other places where people can use for whatever purpose strikes their fancy. We have also been encouraged by the client advisor architect (an expert in design for higher education) to use irregular shapes in planing to allow for these interstitial spaces to occur. The second project was to find a home for circa 1000 people in a new London office.Theoffers on the table went from a super efficient large floorplate single building, to a pretty inefficient and almost unmanageable conglomeration of three different buildings hacked together. The one that scored high on efficiency and ease of operation scored low on character. Being a relatively enlightened client intent on creating something special, they have gone for the quirky character for the reasons you cite – they have chosen Soho over Milton Keynes. It will be a little more expensive, wayfinding may be a chore, and the FM team will have a job on their hands, but they will certainly achieve a workspace with character and personality that will enhance the business for years to come.

  2. Hi Neil

    I’ve just quoted this in a piece for next month’s FMX. It’s a case study of a firm in Soho. I find it a lot easier to write stuff when I can just nick it. 🙂 Hope you’re well


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