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Back to suburbia

An interview with Erik Veldhoen on how digitalisation will change the way we live and work by Steven Broekhof

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An interview with Erik Veldhoen

An interview by Steven Broekhof

As the world is preparing for the enormous migration of the world population to the city, Erik Veldhoen (1954, NL): strategic consultant and founding father of the New Way of Working, is predicting a counter-movement. As the writer of Offices no longer exist (1995), The Art of Working (2004) and recently You-topia (2012), he is a strong believer and initiator of the Digital Revolution that is rapidly changing our way of life.
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You are known as a strategic consultant and the founding father of the New Way of Working. Do you work yourself this way and how does this influence your daily routine?

I predicted that mobile tools and wireless networks would enable us to work in any place and that we no longer need offices

Erik Veldhoen When you invent something, you have to live by it. That goes without saying, really. Since around 1992, I’ve worked time and location independent. Because of the digitalisation of our work and our lives, you can organise the work in your own way and for that you need different facilities. In my first book “Offices no longer exist” I predicted that mobile tools and wireless networks would enable us to work in any place and that we no longer need offices. What I wrote in the book is actually already happening. In the past we didn’t have the same tools as we do today, but we did have the first cell phones and the first laptops on the market. We picked these tools immediately from the market and went on to see how we could use them and how we could organise our work with them. This had a great impact on the way we lived and how we could divide our days. I started to live in the countryside, though still close to the big city, with distant views and beautiful places where I could do my various activities.

You recently wrote the book You-​Topia – The impact of the digital revolution on our work, our lives and our environment. You mention a revolution time where we go from WorkLife to LifeWork: Work is becoming a part of our life back home. Does that mean that every house includes an office– space or a special space to work and meet?

No, it is activity-​based with things running through one another, it interweaves. One minute you’re sitting at a table to eat, but the next moment you sit at the same table with a laptop to do some work. In the past we had quite separate systems, you went to work in an office, or a school and you went home to do your personal stuff. Every time I go inside these silly office buildings I think what a ridiculous environment, what are all the people doing here in this in somniferous system? I meet most business partners outside my home environment. I don’t have a specific place for that. It depends on what I have to do and with whom. Those aspects determine the place where we meet.

Charlie Chaplin “Modern Times” (1936) /​chap​liny​clio​.word​press​.com

In a lecture organised by WT12 you state: “Office space will be reduced in 2020 to 0 m².” Is office space already declining?

Yes, you see this happening everywhere. At certain moments organisations choose to reduce their office space, for example when they are in need of other premises, because technology becomes obsolete, the lease expires, or for another reason. This applies to every organisation in our country (the Netherlands), but also in Belgium and England. Each organisation recognises: we need to change. They do not all have the solutions ready, but they recognise that an office as a sum of individual workplaces with people hardly using them, is no longer efficient. The search for solutions that enable organisations to cope with less space is ongoing. The differences are so big that office spaces will decline in the next 10 – 15 years by 75%. In that time span all those organisations will have had this issue at hand because their rental agreements will expire.

You mentioned 75%, but that means that some of the offices will continue to exist?

Yes, you need to go somewhere to meet and inspire each other, to be connected. You cannot always stay in your own place. It must be worth a journey, it must be worth a trip. So what we maintain as office-​space must be very special and worth the trip to do special things. That is not about working individually, but is about coming together and experiencing special events with each other. Those physical places must comply with this. That has nothing to do with an ordinary office building, but more with a meeting space, a grand café, an airport, hubs, or a museum.

What will happen to the Central Business Districts (CBD). Does it mean they will become deserted or do we need to transform them?

That’s the big question. It depends on where those areas are located. Let’s quickly say farewell to these motorway sites. These business parks /​monocultures with people arriving in the morning with their cars, locking themselves up in the buildings during the day and leaving again in the evening. In the evening and at weekends these areas are dismal. The places can be removed and given back to nature. We will slowly remediate these places. Office locations, such as the Zuid-​As in Amsterdam, which surely is almost located in the city, are ideal places to transform offices into housing.

Walt Disney Pictures “Tron” (1982) /​madis​on​movie​.files​.word​press​.com

You stated: “People will have their own responsibility. People will not work 8 hours a day, but a remarkable 3 hours a day. They meet once every three weeks to discuss.” How is this possible and do you think this will influence our social life?

What’s happening right now, digitalisation is increasingly profound, there’s no question about it. The next phase will be connecting computers to computers which will take over our work. In the Netherlands, 97% of tax returns are assessed and processed by computers, there is hardly any human involved. That means a lot of work is going to disappear. You can see this already happening in the financial sector nowadays. Achmea (the largest Dutch insurance company) announced 25% of its workforce will be made redundant next year. In the past I worked for Interpolis, which is now part of Achmea. During their first automation technology wave, Interpolis had to lose 25% of their workforce as well. In the insurance industry, 50% of labour has disappeared in the past 20 years. Such change is happening everywhere. In the Netherlands, about 7.5 million people are working, with about 4 million people working in an office environment. In the next 10 years of those 4 million jobs, 2 million will disappear.

Then the real issue: Who will do the work? Are we going to do that in the same straitjacket with fewer people, or do we let everyone join in labour sharing, but with the result of everyone doing a little less? These are political decisions that will have to be answered in time. If we want to avoid social unrest, we will have no choice but to involve as many people as possible. We might be going to a 25-​hours working week.

That would also mean that the hours we work will get a different value?

Yes, it will mean that we will have to re-​value it. Work has been overvalued in the past 100 years and that now slowly comes back on its feet; back to the way it has been for centuries.

You also say that this revolution will need us to build complete new suburbs with lots of small-​scale facilities like: education, care, health, work, safety and culture. Then we get back a social system that will be ready for the next century. The physical, virtual and mental environment will radically change in the next 20 years.

If your focus is not the routine to leave your home in the morning and to return in the evening, this results in you staying more in your own habitat

If your focus is not the routine of leaving your home in the morning and returning in the evening, this results in you staying more in your own habitat. In this new habitat all the facilities are already there. Social cohesion will be sought and found in this habitat. We also have connections outside of that habitat. In the virtual space we experience an enormous connectivity in which all of it contains a social aspect. I think this is the way it was before: social cohesion that took place where people lived, will increase again in significance. As a result you are not in need of this social cohesion in your professional relationships anymore, but rather a professional cohesion. If you then physically come together and it is worth the trip, then it is about the work, the profession and the skills you need and how to do the work together.

What will this renewal of the suburb look like and what will happen to the city?

We will modify the existing suburbs. I am currently working on an interesting project for a large municipality where we reflect on the community centre of the future. What should be happening in there? By adding some new elements, it will create an interesting place to meet, a place to work, a health centre where there is proper care and, for example, a place where the local police officer will have his place. That does not happen in a matter of days, it is an evolution. We have to think about it. We are going to split up large hospitals. The more simple care, which is more accessible, will be decentralised and positioned closer to the people, where it is much needed. All specialised, complicated clinical activities will be more centralised. Of the 120 full scale hospitals that currently exist in the Netherlands, 30 will remain.

Charlie Chaplin “Modern Times” (1936) /​moti​va​tion​s​geschichten​.word​press​.com

Do we not need people and a certain density in order to fund these facilities?

It can be placed in larger organisational connections, but physically everything will be decentralised. We need to seek the appropriate scale. Viability and magnification do not seem so much interlinked to me. If you overshoot the scale, it may be economically viable, but not attractive to live in. We need new concepts for development; that is the challenge for the next 10 years.

Do you think that this development will also take place in Russia where most people live in suburbs?

Digitalisation is global, so everybody gets a turn. I do not like the suburb concept, because it gives a sense of desolation. Small communities will arise, where people can spend their lives and where people can do all the things they need to do.

We are currently trying to solve several social problems occurring in suburbs in Europe, like homogeneity. Don’t you consider these new suburbs as a risk from this point of view?

The problems in today’s suburbs are caused because of the fact only living is facilitated. The places are mono-​functional. We need all kinds of activity in these suburbs, like culture

The problems in today’s suburbs are caused by the fact that only living is facilitated. Because of that you will not get the social cohesion you are looking for. These places are monofunctional. We need all kinds of activity in these suburbs, like culture. Culture is how we treat each other. Of course there are now places where it is not nice to visit. We need to pull these out of the doldrums. In the Netherlands we have the tradition that we can convert these places into very attractive areas. I see that happening in London and Germany, too. So I see more opportunities, but only when you think carefully about the programme you want to put there.

How do you consider massive migration to the city as a contemporary trend? Will we move out of the city again?

I see an opposite trend, but I also at the same time see that we have to facilitate enormous population growth with a place to live. We cannot all live together in the countryside, that is just not possible. We also have to apply some densification-​strategies, but when you look at how we integrate, live and work with each other, then especially in these densified residential areas, we should make public facilities to facilitate healthcare and work in good order. These are not major things, but are the things that can make life a lot more pleasant there. You can see it in large cities with the rise of the CoffeeCompany (Netherlands), Starbucks (International) and work hubs and all those kind of hotspots we use intensively. There has been tremendous growth. The cities will continue to exist.

I live in the countryside, but I can bike in 40 minutes to Amsterdam, by car it takes only 10 minutes. Not everybody can afford a big house and the quietness just outside the city. In the past because of our jobs we had to go from villages to larger unities, where economic activity was located. That time has passed.

There will be a revival. South Limburg (Netherlands) today is great in promoting itself as an area where you can live and where you can work at a distance. I have lived there for 30 years myself. In that kind of area an aging of population has occurred because many young people left to economic centres. Such necessity is declining, because we have this virtual world. You see people moving back to these areas again and doing their work online. They go once or twice a week back to the city for one thing or another. That’s a whole different perspective on how you live your life, and that creates a whole different quality of life, instead of being that ‘Limburger’ that works for ABN-​AMRO (bank) on the Zuid-​As (Amsterdam) and is forced to live in Almere (Netherlands). This latter has been a stereotype for the past thirty years, and now we can go back to the place where we want to live and that’s interesting.

Marshall Poe teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (Cambridge UP, 2010) and is the host of “New Books in History” He states: “The Internet is not new anymore. It’s amazing in the same way a dishwasher is amazing — it enables you to do something you have always done a little easier than before.” “The big picture now looks a lot like the big picture then” Has there been a lot of progress in the Internet itself and what will be the next step?

I do not agree with Poe, because it has obviously brought us a lot of comfort, but also had a great impact on our lives. That impact will become even bigger in the next phase, like I described in a part of “You-​Topia”, and to some extent I can now add to this; that virtual space will become a real professional space. A space where we start and organise our daily activities. That is gradually going to happen. Virtual space is more than the sum of the applications that we use, it is much more, it is becoming the control mechanism of each person as an individual and will determine how and when we do what. What adds to that evolution are two major developments:

Firstly, the rise of cloud technology. We are putting all our information online. This allows us, through all kind of devices, to access our work and other information to organise our daily routine.

Secondly, there is the social media. This is still in its infancy, but it will grow up and will dramatically affect the way we communicate with each other. I am working together with a number of large organisations re-​designing these processes. Social media is going to dictate how we should do things. The pace therein is hugely different in comparison to how we are used to doing things. For example, if we take the municipality, they develop policies, fix them and carry them out and will then tell the people they need to behave.

But in the future the citizens will gather in social media and say: “Dear municipality, we do not agree and you need to do something about it”. Then afterwards policy will arise which is developed in the virtual space between the municipality and its citizens. That is starting to happen and will have a huge impact. It will change the roles of organisations in this society, it will change our democratic system, it will change the importance of institutions. All because of the Internet.

In the old way of working, the social media is constantly rating everybody that matters. As a result, much unrest arises in our society and here we need to find an answer. One answer is that we’re going to tilt the whole system and that this way of communication will be leading the way in how we position ourselves in the market as a company or as a public authority and will decide how we deal with our customers or citizens.

Volumetric transfer system: the path to real innovation in transport infrastructure

Volumetric transfer system: the path to real innovation in transport infrastructure

Would this also mean that revolutions will take place because of social media?

Egypt is a good example. Without the social media this revolution would not have taken place. It is an example of the ruling class being rated and the people that conquered. After this revolution a government has been installed that does not deserve any prizes, but the idea is that you, yourself, in such a strong way can organise your rulers, who for decades had the greatest power, but who you now can dissipate.

You also see it happening in Ukraine. The power of social media is that there are only a few that have to start things moving, and where there is much dissatisfaction it mobilises itself very quickly. Social media means that, if you do not respond within 20 minutes, and you do not keep your agreements, it will explode. If you look at the world of finance, if the banking crisis had taken place today than we would have responded completely differently. We, as victims of mismanagement, would have mobilised ourselves differently.

You received a lifetime achievement award. Have you achieved the goals you wanted to achieve and what do you expect from the future?

I find it very interesting to examine the impact that these developments have on our lives and in our work and what we need for that. I see this as a new challenge that touches everything. My system is so constructed that I think integrally, in the three environments: physical, mental, and virtual. Without saying ‚the physical element will pass by and demands us to create a new programme, a blueprint on what cities, rural areas will and should look like. To think about the programme that belongs there sounds like a wonderful challenge for the next 10 years.

I see opportunities for us to improve the world. The power of social media is inevitable. I have made my work out of it and adapted my attitude to it: detecting unavoidable events and translating them into what that means for our lives, our work, and so on. I consider that as my major task, to continue to indicate what is inevitable. The impact of the inevitable is growing more and more. The time in which we should do it with small steps has passed. For some things we face a big change, where we should not change, but where we have to start from scratch. You need guts to do that, but that’s an issue we need to confront. We really need to do several things in a radically different way.

Does that mean we need to radically build new things, or that we only need to radically make some mental changes?

Yes! Let’s just radically build the city of the future. That sounds great to me!

What do you expect, which problems do we have to solve and what would your advice be for the future generation?

I think that architecture has become an instrument of the financial industry. I think that is very unfortunate, and we should get rid of that. Buildings are only being realised for financial reasons. We have to realise buildings again, only when we really need them. If you look at it from that approach, then you’d better rethink what cause you are building for. This requires a revolution in thinking, and in models. This financial strength is great, but is suffering much nowadays. Especially let the thinkers and the creative sector come together and become more powerful. It is very difficult because all architects are on the edge of bankruptcy, because their revenues have plunged drastically. They are exploited, because there are more architects than there is work. That contradicts what I was saying, but a good time will come again. At the moment it is very complicated and I realise that very well. Perhaps the architect should not just wait for an assignment, but should take their own creativity as a starting-​point. I believe this is how it happened in the past and this is also how beautiful cities emerged.

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