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Wonderfully Wireless

Wires are a pain, and they literally chain you to the spot. So getting rid of them is a good thing.

The wires that carry information have been hacked away at for years. Starting with ship communication, then broadcast radio and then WiFi. Now ethernet connections are becoming extinct, satellites bridge the oceans and the telephone network is really a broadband distribution, while landline phones get squeezed out by mobile devices. The days of information carrying wires are numbered, so that battle is almost won.

01/05/2019 3 min read

What about power cables? Baby steps are being taken here but progress is slow. You can see inductive charging spots for phones in Starbucks occasionally, first class carriages in some trains have them on table tops and my toothbrush is charged inductively – but that’s about it. The power transfer is too inefficient to keep things going in real time while they are being used.

Will we ever get rid of those annoying power cables? The laws of physics limit electromagnetic fields to keep this prospect off the horizon. No matter how efficient devices become, the proximity to the induction coil rules out any portable use. Phones can charge when sitting on the charging dot, but it stops when you pick it up. The laws of physics are unlikely to be re-written.

However there is great hope in portable power, by which I mean batteries. The world of EVs (electric vehicles), renewable energy and sustainability is really pushing the boundaries. The rate of increase of renewable sources in the UK has shocked pundits – it is much higher now than expected 10 years ago, surpassing even optimistic targets. Elon Musk has forced car manufacturers to compete in a market that is only just over five years old, and city authorities are banning internal combustion engines, while central governments place expiry dates on their sale.

Battery technology is moving fast. You can already buy power banks for your home to store the juice from a windmill and a Tesla today might run for nearly 400 miles without charging (although a two year old iPhone will struggle to last a day). Electrical devices are using progressively less power, and batteries are becoming lighter and are living longer. What does this mean for the workplace?

“There is great hope in portable power, by which I mean batteries”

A recent experience has got me thinking. A forward-looking client in India wants an infinitely flexible workplace because he operates in a very fast moving world and any configuration today will be redundant tomorrow. Many, if not most of the elements in a workspace can be portable, or at least easily moved, so the challenge is getting the wires to follow the kit as it migrates. At the moment this means we can reasonably go wireless for telephones and internet connections, but we get stuck on the power for laptops, screens, mobile phones and the other devices we all have.

The usual response is to use the 50-year-old solution of a raised floor with all the cabling emerging where it is needed, but this client is in India, where developers do not install raised floors. We could build a bespoke floor and muddle through the problems of ramps, lift thresholds, stair landings, window sills and door heights, and of course a reduced ceiling height, but the cost is painful and the quality in a region where it is not done is unlikely to be guaranteed.

This is where batteries come in. I thought about our New York office, where they have the same problem of distribution, but for a different reason. My colleagues there inhabit the iconic Woolworth building, which is great but has many design restrictions due to its conservation status – which means no raised floor. So they too want flexibility in an inflexible building.

A tentative suggestion to look at battery power was taken up wholesale 18 months ago and now the whole office of 60 people drive their laptops and screens from small portable battery packs, which they charge overnight. Meeting rooms are hard-wired as they are next to the core, but the entire open space is a cable-free zone, and they have not looked back.

True flexibility is theirs, and battery technology has already improved in this short time to make cordless power even more efficient.

We will now see how this can work in India, at scale.

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