Future Studies – Philip Ross

When we first looked at pulling together a major Spotlight on Innovation, our thought quickly moved towards technology. Now who could we talk to about the technology of tomorrow and how it is likely to impact on the workplace of the future? There was always going to be one man for the job.

Philip Ross is the leading consultant, commentator and writer on emerging technology and its impact on work, the workplace and people’s lives.

He has worked with organisations such as Ernst & Young, Allen & Overy, McKinsey & Co, Cushman & Wakefield and Royal Bank of Scotland on future concepts and opportunities for innovation.

Philip has spoken at conferences around the world, including the Wall Street Journal, Europe CEO Forum on Converging Technologies, alt.office in the USA and CoreNet’s Global Summits in Beijing and Melbourne.

In 1994 he wrote and published The Cordless Office Report and in 1996 launched his incredibly successful business, Unwired. He has written three books on the future of work and workplace: The Creative Office, The 21st Century Office and Space to Work (all co-authored with Jeremy Myerson) and has contributed to a number of books including the Responsible Workplace and the Corporate Fool. Today Philip is CEO of UnGroup comprising Unwired Ventures and UnWork.com as well as chairman of Cordless Consultants and a founder of Building Zones and Building Sustainability.

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‘Our mission is for Ungroup to be thought leaders in the impact of new technology on the behaviour of people and their use of buildings,’ Philip explains.

‘We set out to predict trends and shape the future through innovative and inspirational research, analysis and forecasting.

‘We aim to communicate succinctly and clearly, avoiding jargon, so that people in non-IT roles can gain an understanding of how technology can enable or achieve innovation in their worksphere.

Through consultancy and advice, presentations and thinktanks as well as publications and training we seek to inform, educate, inspire and present visions of the future.

‘Our events bring the best minds together around the globe to envision the future. We now run WORKTECH events in Amsterdam, Auckland, London, Manchester, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai and Singapore.’

In fact, we’re lucky to catch Philip who, as you might have already guessed, does more than his fair share of travelling. In fact, at the time of our meeting, he’s preparing for a well-earned break from the 21st century world he spends the majority of his days discussing by trekking the Inca Trail.

Right now, however, we couldn’t be much further removed from the Machu Picchu and the trail, as we sit in a smart meeting room at the Office Group’s fantastic facility in The Shard, looking out across London and beyond.

“So the building, for the first time, has got the infrastructure from the technology to know what’s going on inside it – this is the next big turning point, I think.”

‘We’re just putting some iBeacons in this week,’ Philip grins, with his mind clearly still in the 21st century. ‘They’ve been shipped to us by MIT and we’re hoping to become the first in the country to link iBeacons to Amazon’s Alexa – so you can talk in a room like this and ask which rooms are free on the third floor, for example, or ask where Mick is, and it will answer you straight back!’

It is this type of research and implementation that has put Philip and the team at the very forefront of workplace innovation right across the world. We ask about him to tell us a couple of examples of the global trends and the continual innovations he’s seen on his various travels. ‘I think there’s been elements of people taking a leap forward in different markets for different reasons, which is quite interesting,’ he reveals. ‘In Australia, for example, they are starting to use technology in a very advanced way. Westpac’s new headquarters building in Sydney has some of the most advanced workplace Apps – where you can’t just find a person, you can even find a capability. So in a building of 5,000 people, if I need to talk to an expert in a particular field, this App will let me know who’s available to talk to about this.

‘For the first time, we’re now seeing real time real estate. So the building, for the first time, has got the infrastructure from the technology to know what’s going on inside it – this is the next big turning point, I think. It’s about connecting the unconnected. We’ve all got devices on us, but they’re not connected to anything – the building doesn’t know who we are, it hasn’t engaged with us. There could be a guy stood just outside in the hallway who happens to be a designer you’d love to meet – but you’ve got know idea who he is. There is no reason why we couldn’t have a real time social network here. It’s really close. This is engineering serendipity – or accelerating serendipity. This is the next paradigm shift.

‘iBeacons work on Bluetooth low energy. These are really cool little sensors – the ones we are using are powered by ambient light – and they pump out a Bluetooth signal that works with your device. So people like the banks in Australia are now using this to let people into the building, rather than giving them a silly little security card.

‘Once you’ve put on the Bluetooth to get into the building, it triggers the link to the iBeacons – and the vision is that you have an iBeacon in every building and space and rather than having to look to find out where you’re going, you pull out your phone and it already knows where you are and where you are going.

‘Similarly, if I want to find someone, I can see exactly where they are. The key here is that it starts to mine knowledge – what you read, what you write about, what k you’re working on – and that’s the real secret. So all these people are on a system through an App.

‘Facebook has launched its own iBeacon that allows small business like retailers to connect with their customers in real time inside a shop or other environments as part of the Facebook platform. This ‘location layer’ in a building is having a real impact in retail and my gut feeling is that it will also make a huge breakthrough in the workplace.

‘We’re getting used to the idea of location aware Apps and experiences. This technology is now taking that forwards and because we are getting used to this, I believe it’s going to take off in the office environment.

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‘We’re building Apps for a couple of our big workplace projects right now and they’re asking for two things – who’s nearby and who’s nearby that you might know. It might be someone who started at the same time as you – this makes so much sense.

‘There’s always negative reaction to this kind of innovation – but the benefits are huge and if you don’t want to be disturbed, you can either flag that up or even turn your Bluetooth off! But the idea that there might be someone really interesting to you in the next room is incredibly exciting.

‘There is a whole new culture in workplaces now – we’ve gone from blue collar to white collar to bare collar. This can massively impact on the way in which the next generation works, communicates and interacts. To make all this work you have to build innovation into the physical space.

‘What this all means is that the office starts to become much more of a business driver rather than just an overhead. You can start to really manage the space. The people who do manage buildings will be able to understand and become involved in all this interaction and productivity – not just policing an office. It becomes a much nicer role for them.’

This is the true innovation we were after. Does it mean that we’re never going to get that office robot we always hoped for? Maybe not. ‘There’s a really interesting new development from a company called Double Technology,’ Philip tells us. ‘If you take a look at a typical meeting room, you still have a widescreen TV hung on the wall and a landline phone on the table that is hardly ever used. What this company has done is to take something that looks like a Segway, with a pole out of the top of it and an iPad. If you are in a typical video conference configuration, everyone in the meeting room is staring at a screen up on the wall and nobody is able to have eye contact with one another. The idea of Double  Technology is that you put the person you are video conferencing on the iPad, at the same height as the rest of you, and you wheel them up to the table. You have a virtual person in the room. I’ve used it and it’s brilliant. It’s much more human, ironically.

‘I’m a big fan of technology becoming much more human and challenged in terms of how they are used in a space. Too much of this stuff simply isn’t challenged. You need to push boundaries – the technology and innovation is certainly there.’

This month, Philip – along with the international workplace design expert Jeremy Myerson – will launch the WORKTECH Academy.

Building on the success of the WORKTECH conference series, it will create a global knowledge community linked to the WORKTECH conference series, offering its members a wide range of top-level editorial content on the future of work and workplace plus opportunities for learning, networking and peer recognition. WORKTECH Academy’s six content streams are: People; Culture; Technology; Architecture and Design; Space and Innovation. Curators, writers and workplace experts around the world have been recruited through the WORKTECH conference network to develop high-level content. For more information go to: www.worktechacademy.com