Architecture, Construction, and Real Estate

Spaces that learn

April 27, 2016
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The spaces we use every day shape how we live, work, learn, shop, stay healthy and socialize. Many of them, however, aren’t keeping up with our rapidly changing world.

They were designed for a different era and are often too expensive, inflexible and digitally challenged. We need our spaces today to work harder and be smarter.

History is a good teacher when trying to make sense of changes in our built environment. One hundred years ago our spaces changed radically with the introduction of electricity, communication networks and the automobile. Real estate of almost every type was transformed over a 15-to-20-year period. We saw the rise of centralized schools, modern hospitals, office buildings and suburban housing. New industries like national home building and office furniture emerged to meet the new market needs. Sears and other retailers shifted their business models from mail order to suburban retail stores.

This era set in motion a pattern of real estate development that proliferated for the next 80 years. Freeways, subsidized mortgages and racial tension accelerated the pattern mid-century, but it was essentially cast in place through the innovation of the early 20th century.

We are currently approaching another major transformation of our built environment that will be driven by a new wave of innovation. Digital interfaces, sensors, smart materials, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence and robotics will begin to change the spaces we use every day. This new era will help us tackle social challenges such as the urban housing crisis, an aging population, rising health care costs and changing education models.

True breakthroughs, however, come from not simply overlaying innovation onto our current processes, but from challenging our assumptions and changing the underlying models. According to economist Paul David, it took almost 30 years for electricity to be fully adopted in factories due to the need to train a generation of architects and engineers to design for its benefits. The work of Albert Kahn on behalf of Henry Ford transformed factories from their traditional vertical construction to take advantage of steam power and its assumed scarcity to horizontal designs that took advantage of electrical power at every stage of the production process.

To accomplish real transformation today, we need to again re-imagine the design, construction and management of space based on the changing world. Examples are beginning to emerge that show a glimpse of the changes that lie ahead. Companies like Airbnb and WeWork are driving business model innovation that is shifting how real estate has been developed and leased for decades. Kasita and iUnit are changing how multi-family units are constructed and managed. Google, iRobot and Smart Things are transforming how we interface with our spaces.

Looking ahead it is not hard to imagine that we will see spaces that learn over time and begin to anticipate our needs. Our spaces will become more dynamic, digital and easily upgradable.

One of the best examples that typifies how our spaces change based on innovation is the Chicago bungalow home. This was the first new home designed and built on a major scale that assumed electricity, indoor plumbing, the telephone and automobile. Its adoption was accelerated by the shift from extended to the nuclear family and a reduction in domestic help as workers flocked to factories and higher wages. With electric appliances, the modern kitchen was designed for food preparation vs. canning and laundry as in the past. As a result, it was a smaller format home than its Victorian era predecessors, but was expandable for growing families with an often unfinished second story and basement.

West Michigan is uniquely positioned to be a leader in creating solutions for 21st century real estate. Thanks to the office furniture industry, we have a critical mass of design thinkers who understand both physical space design and innovation. Combined with the efforts of organizations like Start Garden, ours and other companies in the innovation ecosystem, we have resources unlike any other region. As Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once said, “You want to be considered the only ones who can do what you do.”

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