I am contemplating a speaker line-up all huddled together on one side of the garden fence, looking over. Even the case study is offered by an engineering consultancy, looking to enhance their reputation. It’s like watching a Premier League team with no home-nation players, something just doesn’t seem quite right about it.
It’s in the garden of the arcane delight that we begin. Bioinspiration, where design looks to what’s already been designed for ideas, is a legitimate plagiarism because nature doesn’t hold any patents over its substance, structure, space, time, energy or information. Richard James MacCowan from Biomimicry UK, who wanted you all to know that he went for a run this morning, took us on a potted journey through the heat-collecting eye of the lobster. Stories such as the realisation that the insulating fungus-farming termites of Namibia are construction experts. What wasn’t really identified however is that the examples quoted were of highly focussed practices or processes, in which nature specialises intensely – and that, as the ultimate in generalised species, is the reason why humans need this hyper-extensive library of good practice. The Namibian termites are blindingly good at construction, but aren’t very good at much else and get eaten by aardvarks.
I’m drawn to asking what all this has to do with workplace, given it’s a workplace event: materials design and to an extent design processes principally. If one day hence you look around your office and think that perhaps it resembles a slime mould algorithm, you may be onto something. If you look around and see the slime mould without the algorithm, its nature telling you it’s time to move.
Like many ideas, however we’ve been copying nature since humans used the furry skins of animals slaughtered for food as clothing. Amidst the Attenboroughesque imagery, more perspective would have been welcome.
Biophilia still sounds like something that would get you onto a register. Perhaps that’s why it fails the spell checker, even after thirty years. It’s offered like a huge cold towel relieving us from the interruption to our circadian rhythm from our increasingly urban, indoor, overworked and tech-riven lifestyle. Oliver Heath asked us to picture our ‘happy’ space – and of course no-one said the office, but why would they. In tracing a little history it’s interesting that the migration to the cities during the industrial revolution is often depicted as a tragic event, humanity wrenched from the enveloping arms of the countryside en masse, yet it ignores the poverty and misery of the agricultural subsistence of the time. It’s easier to reconnect with nature on the back of the wealth we have created, to which those concrete and glass box houses in Chilean forests will testify.
We’re firmly into Elemental Workplace territory now with a focus on natural light, control over our immediate environment the use of colour mimicking nature, and choice of spaces. Just waiting for a reference…….waiting……..nope, not coming. That’s the world we’re in now. Of course wouldn’t be a discussion about biophilia without a reference to the Human Spaces Report, in which 17% of people surveyed said they wanted a view of the sea. That would just about guarantee 17% of the workforce would be blissfully unproductive.
Its Nigel’s gig, and he always has something new. The question, can workplace design foster creativity and innovation. We seem to feel that we are most creative in our own space, wherever that may be – it’s a well-trodden path that always leads back to isolation. This flies in the face of a workplace design trend towards collaborative spaces at the expense of the personal that has prevailed for the last couple of decades. It mirrors the conundrum at the heart of subjective perception versus objective measures of productivity. Like most themes in workplace design, it hangs in the balance, between personal and interactive time and space. Our creativity develops through time spent with others generating ideas, alone as we hone and refine, back in the group pushing boundaries, then alone.
It’s no surprise that the evidence points to enriched, plant-filled environments stimulating at least the subjective perception of creativity. The conclusion: if you’re stuck, struggling for a solution – get up, change your scenery. Don’t be afraid to let the mind wander. Not here though of course, it’s a conference.
In a darkened room without daylight or planting, or indeed any connection with nature at all, it’s time for an ‘attention restoration’ break. Watch out for the aardvarks, they’re hiding in the light.