What the Bishop of Bangor tells us about workplace curation

Whither the fit-out contractor? Frightening as it may seem, Category A/developer standard carpeted and lit space can function with cabling and a fortyfooter full of product that arrives in boxes with a self-assembly flysheet. Well, in all probability with an assembly team with shoe protectors.

The drivers for this are the growth – especially in the financial and consulting sectors in Australia – of what continues to be clumsily termed Activity-Based Working (which is actually a Flexible Workplace – it’s just that what came before it and claimed the title wasn’t) and the response of the furniture industry in developing product that has finally started to address a greater range of need than simply desking and filing. Note, that’s where my reasonable nod to the furniture industry ends for this post and all others to follow – and where my disregard begins for the exorbitant sums being needlessly dwindled on consultants in an area which presents so simple a proposition.

Other than the higher levels of flexibility and occupancy achieved, which keeps the bean counters happy (they are our friends, as the previous post suggested), the advantage of such a workspace is that it can be reconfigured, added to or stripped down easily without need of a chainsaw.

In piecing together such a space, it may be that we are now changing the role of the both the designer and manager of the space – in many respects combining them. For a reference point, we need to consider a battle that appears to be ranging online about the difference between content, aggregation and curation. It is another example of where something that existed in old money has been transferred to the digital domain, scrunched up and then handed back again in a varied form to the tangible world, akin in many ways to the idea of tummeling.

At the risk of being flayed alive by enlightened digitals, the red mist that swathes the debate comes from curators angered that aggregators – a lower form of life, necessarily – are claiming their space cheaply, creating a continuous stream of content yet adding no value.  For aggregators think Nennius, the Bishop of Bangor who wrote his Historia Britonnum in the ninth century yet graciously claimed ‘I have made a heap of all that I could find’. In many respects therefore, like a whole lot of workplace design in the last decade. For curation – it starts where search ends.

In the physical world of workplace we have similar categories – we are familiar with “content” (the furniture, fixtures & equipment – FF&E) and “aggregation” (sourcing it, and then putting it all into the space available – sometimes with thought applied, sometimes without), but not so much about “curation” (understanding it, ascribing meaning to its functionality, making it all work in a space individually and collectively, now and over time). Most of the possibilities as they relate to space are delineated by the element of the space that is physically constructed – the aggregation typically takes place with what is left. There has, until now, been little room for genuine curation, which is why it is a new idea in workplace.

The challenge takes on a new personality when there is little delineation from hard-formed construction – just a large rectangle of open empty floor, and an expectation. It requires a very different role to that typically undertaken by most property and workplace managers.

The curator needs to understand the occupant, but also the content – design intent and ethos, historical development, purpose, possibilities and limitations. They need not only to be able to array the content as the customer requires at present, or in a way that may lead the customer to opportunities, but be wired to constant feedback about performance and the relationship of the items to one another, and to the functionality required.

It is a deeper relationship and understanding that that we are accustomed to, one requiring a far higher level of listening, observation and interaction, an appreciation of the context and journey, and an ability to weave it all together to enable others to understand and learn from it. For the curator, to make a valued contribution they need to be able to change, adapt and mould the space. And they need to be able to tell the story of the space for others to learn from. It is an evolution of the role and the skills required –designer, commissioner, interpreter and manager – combined, extended and enriched.

The idea needs some further consideration. It may be time to stop just making a heap of all we find – and to start curating.


2 thoughts on “What the Bishop of Bangor tells us about workplace curation

  1. In answer to your initial question Neil, all three- a designer should also (temporarily) assume the role of property manager/FM. However probably the most important role is that of a guide to how the space can support the desired activities therein, based in evidence to justify these claims and how it might need to be curated to adapt to future requirements?

  2. Flexibility is key on all levels. That includes the people as well as the landscaping and equipment.
    The suppliers who develop solutions in partnership with designers will be the ones who’s name will be synonymous with this truly flexible new work/collaborate/ concentrate/ swarm/ space.

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