How the ’15-minute city’ will transform work

Are so-called 15-minute cities, where employees work and socialise close to their homes, the answer to collaborating effectively in a remote-working age?

Even before the coronavirus crisis, a key topic of debate among town planners was how to create a sustainable, healthy urban environment that is easy to get around by either walking or cycling.

To this end, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who has been leading a radical overhaul of the city’s mobility culture since taking office in 2014, embraced the notion of reshaping France’s capital into a 15-minute city.

The concept, which was developed by Sorbonne Professor Carlos Moreno, advocates the creation of a city of neighbourhoods, in which workers find everything they need in terms of work, retail and leisure within 15 minutes of their home.

In a work context, this would see offices added to neighbourhoods that lack them so people could work closer to where they live. There would also be local co-working hubs, enabling them to come together for meetings and to collaborate when necessary.

The secret to new home working?

But this raises the question of whether Hidalgo’s 15-minute city could be one possible answer, in an urban environment at least, to widespread concerns over the intangible capital of innovation and creativity being eroded by remote digital working.

The problem is the often ad hoc sharing of knowledge, ideas and skills, which is commonplace in most offices, is very hard to replicate on digital communication platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

In fact, the importance of such informal social interaction in enabling innovation was illustrated clearly in research published last year by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. It revealed that the number of patents filed in 1920s Prohibition America fell by between 8 and 18 per cent, depending on the state, because important social hubs in the shape of bars were closed.

As Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at advisory and research firm Gartner, points out: “The magic of innovation occurs when people with very different ideas come together to create something new and different. This means that to innovate, you need people with expertise to be in the same place.”

How the 15-minute city will change how we live

So, with such dynamics in mind, what workplace shifts are we likely to see in a post-COVID world and where does the notion of Hidalgo’s 15-minute city fit in?

Ian Mulcahey, urban planner at design and architecture firm Gensler, believes many of the ideas behind the concept reflect the current zeitgeist and are likely to make themselves felt over time, whether actively planned for or not. While most urban environments in Europe at least were originally based on the idea of the 15-minute city, in that it was possible to walk across their centres in that time (about a mile), things changed when urban design became car focused.

This situation has resulted in present-day inhabitants spending most of their time in what Mulcahey terms as “two 15-minute villages”, the one in which they live and the one in which they work. Into the future, however, he expects these two villages to increasingly merge.

Cities will move away from their current role as large employment centres surrounded by dispersed residential communities. Instead as employers repurpose and, in many instances, downsize their offices and more high street stores become vacant, there will be an increasing shift towards city-centre living.

At the same time, amenities, which include co-working spaces, will improve markedly in the suburbs, with people choosing to live in one environment or the other, depending on their preference and life stage. This situation will go hand in hand with a shift in the traditional office function.

Mulcahey explains: “There’s currently a weird analogue debate going on that people will either work from home or in the office, but we see more of a blended environment, where they’ll work in both, but also in transit and in places like co-working hubs and the foyers of art galleries. Things are already gravitating that way, but ultimately it’s about moving from rigid workplaces to a range of different work styles based on what people need to do.”

Repurposing the urban environment

Josh Bersin, president and founder of enterprise learning and talent management consultancy Bersin & Associates, agrees. “Hybrid location work is the future,” he says. “We’ll see people working in many places on any given day, with high-quality video connectivity and high-quality meeting spaces offering the mix that will get the most out of us.”

But this scenario does not necessarily mean the office is dead, in an urban environment or elsewhere; in fact, far from it, says Mulcahey. Instead he believes: “It’s about repurposing the office and using it for what it’s really good at: bringing people together to collaborate, innovate, learn and share. I don’t see that disappearing.”

Gartner’s Kropp takes a similar view, saying office space is on the verge of a big redesign as it starts to take on “a different job”.

“Companies are currently thinking hard about what they want their corporate office space to become and I believe it will be quite dramatically different,” he says. “It won’t be a place where employees go to do everything; it’ll be a place where they do specific things like meet customers or engage with their local community, and their desk at home will be used to focus on tasks that can be undertaken alone.”

This means office headquarters, even in large urban environments, are likely to be smaller, no longer containing banks of desks. They will instead be purpose-designed and consist of an appropriate mix of meeting rooms, social areas, and collaboration and learning spaces.

“Employers are appreciating that collaboration and creativity is hard in a virtual environment. So offices will assume a different purpose and become all about building social and cultural relationships, which are always at the heart of innovation,” Kropp concludes.