Futurist Parke Rhoads' Vision of Living Post-Pandemic | the Robert Benson Interview Series

August 27, 2021 - by commARCH
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Futurist Parke Rhoads' Vision of Living Post-Pandemic | the Robert Benson Interview Series

For more coverage, browse our Digital Issues for highlights of the Robert Benson interview series, related articles, and much more.

cA: In the January-February and March-April 2021 issues of commARCH, we asked leading architect Robert Benson to interview key individuals about the transformations currently occurring and what we should expect in the future regarding the built environment. For a transcript of this conversation, more interviews from the project, and full digital issues of the commARCH magazine, please visit the commARCH website at www.commarch.com.

This interview's conversation is with Parke Rhoads. Rhoads is Principal of Vantage Technology Consulting Group. As a futurist and technologist, Parke helps organizations explore the human-centric design of high technology environments; leveraging technology for innovation. His thought leadership is informed by a wide variety of experiences, including as athlete, scientist, professor (Physics & Astronomy), technology design consultant, and the technology architect for the United Nations Headquarters.

Thank you for joining us - let's head into the Dialogue.

Robert Benson: So - let's jump in.

And you know, obviously, you are working in a technology industry, and as a futurist, this puts you in a unique position to imagine. I read this morning that there is a strong theory that coronavirus becomes like a common cold and never goes away. And our children will get it all the time and it just - their systems will be able to adapt to it. It won't hit them like it has hit currently. And it's just going to be something that our species is going to live with from now on.

So that really begins to speak to the fact that it's pretty obvious we will not return to, you know - December of 2018 will never come again. And the way that we experienced everything is definitely going to change somewhat.

How do you feel about that? The new normal and the adaptability - but then really what technology do you think has the most impact in this new normal, post-pandemic?

Parke Rhoads: Sure. Touching briefly on your first premise there. As a futurist, something that we often do - we look for analogues - past analogues - and then try and project into current or future tensions and forces and market forces and those sorts of dynamics, and then try and unpack how they don't fit.

So I think about coronavirus- and just speaking out of my wheelhouse for a minute in the public health realm - the coronavirus, it may be, you were using the analogy of common cold. I might counter that with the analogy of polio. And we don't talk about polio anymore because there's been a massive national campaign of inoculation.

And I'm actually not clear on whether the - I know the virus still exists, but it does not persist human-to-human in a way that it used to, as a fact of life. And that may be where we are. So what's different in that way are all the distribution chains and the technologies, the tools that we have available now, to track individuals and to think about that have changed. And so hopefully the time that we have to live with coronavirus as a specter will be much shorter than we did with polio. We're seeing that.

RB: But with polio, the vaccine worked. In this case, the initial data is saying that the most you're going to get immunity is about five months, and in some cases, three. So there's a principle difference- (Overlapping)

PR: I have no idea. (Overlapping) That part, I try and take the long view of, that we still don't know on that realm.

RB: Okay.

PR: It might be something that we have to get a regular boost on. I don't - you're asking me way outside of my wheelhouse on that one. What I can, I think - I was trying to steer towards the other framework, which is disruption, that of disruption. And there are certain commonalities in the disruption framework between coronavirus and the dawn of the internet, or the growth of the online retailer and the disruption that gave to local community mom-and-pop shops. Or 9/11, or -you can look at these analogues. But in any case of those, a new paradigm sweeps through and completely changes everything that we do and how we do it.

It's a hard swing of a pendulum. And oftentime people talk - it's our nature, our conservative nature to think about what, when this swings back. Or we're going to counter this, or whatever it is. Yeah. And I think that's probably not reasonable that there - that we will not, we will certainly not - I think it's obvious to me that this is not going to be a hard swing. We're all going to get inoculated, and we'll just pretend like this never happened and we'll get back to face-to-face.

And I'll unpack a little bit more of that, but I think the disruption framework is in some ways like - the event has the incident happens and then there is the base layer, survival shift. How do we survive - how do we survive in this moment? And then: reaction. What do we stand up and start to build? What are the - after the Visigoths storm the village we put up punji sticks or whatever, and then a thrival shift.
So how do we now take what we've learned and in this new paradigm begin to really shift and learn and incorporate what's been good about this moment and what we can - what we liked or miss or don't miss about the last - the previous paradigm - and synthesize into something newer and better. You know, from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance. And so that's what I think about as a futurist. One of the greatest things that you can do is to move out of the doom of the moment to think about, the idealism of like, how do we - what's in 2030. And so I, I think about that. And then you asked about technology.

So, using those two things of finding analogies and pitching them to the future with all forces, and what does it look like to thrive? I think about things - if I get really specific, because oftentimes that's helpful, really specific about the tools and then begin to weave a story with them.

You know, I think about - it's not sexy anymore, but - the cloud, and moving data to the cloud. It seems like a very - what's the big deal about that? What's new? But I'm still shocked at how many people don't understand how - the value of having a shared space that is not placed specific or personal specific. I still see people talking about, oh yeah, we need to connect to the Q Drive back at work, and VPN, or the X Drive. Everyone's got a random letter drive, or they're dragging files back to there because they're still in this model of tangible assets.

And I'm going to pull this down from the shelf and put this latest on my desktop and I'm going to edit it and then I'm gonna email it to people. And what you're missing there is this way to cross the threshold from the - people I think, they're missing this value that you can cross the threshold from the individual and the personal space which we have now, and the corporate space, regardless of where you are, or what you're working on, or when you're working on it, or who else might be working on it at that same time. And having that sandbox - the cloud is really in some ways a sandbox where we can all work.

I can send you a file on my phone, or point you to a file on my phone, and then you can jump on it and I can jump on it an hour later, and we can work and collaborate in many of the same ways that we can't now with two red pen and a document at a table together. So I think that that's one piece that allows for now - that's the first piece, I think, in an important way of sharing work, sharing workflow in a permeable layer between the face-to-face, the physical, and the individual - the personal space - and that has implications, which I'll paint later for I think, commercial architects in the design of workspace of the future.

RB: Really quick, I want to jump in there with the cloud. And I don't think that the Millennials or the Gen Zs or whatever comes after Gen Z is going to deal with, is concerned with this at all. But-

PR: And that's the thing, where we got to get ready because my daughter has a Chromebook with no hard drive.

RB: Yeah.

PR: She will be entering the workforce sooner than we're ready.

RB: Yeah. So with that, two things come to mind. One: complete and utter dependence on a broadband connection. So if that Chromebook has no drive, she has no ability to work if there's not a broadband connection. And as you know, that is very, very dangerous. They fall - they don't work all the time. You might be in a location where it's not possible, any kind of bad weather. Anything can knock that out. Two: I have a lot of data on Apple, for instance, do I really own that data? Or does Apple co-own it with me and do they read it? And do they scour whatever I have in there? And they have - I'm sure they do. And they change the terms and conditions so often that, if you had faith in Marshall Fields existing forever, you're feeling pretty sad right now. So while it's impossible for us to imagine Apple going away or Google going away, what if all of our - that cloud is not a public entity and it is subject to invasion and it is subject to - and it's happening all the time.

PR: There are loads of questions that have an interesting physical analogy. Like we never ask people to every day load up a chair from home and bring it to their desk, regardless of how rickety or robust it is. And we never expect the CPA in the finance office to say, "You know what, here's all of our finances - here's a pile of cash for the company. And it's okay, take that home and just mix it in with all your stuff and bring it back tomorrow." And those are policy issues that definitely -when we talk about your second question that you primed me with about social - that I think a culture of security... these are definitely questions that we're just on the front edge of that will become, I think, much more firm, in the next 20 years.

We're right now, we're definitely challenged with those because our previous paradigm was that the physical space was a proxy for that layer. Physical space was the scar tissue of policy, "that's okay - you can just lock the money up in the corporate safe at the end of the day," or, "that's okay. you're relying on our - you've got to come to the office, you're going to plug into our network that's connected directly to our server with all our files on it. And you, you know, we would penalize you if you've ever loaded up your MP3s on that same drive."

And those are definitely things that we need to contend with.

RB: If you and I are working on cold fusion. We're not going to want to load that to the Apple cloud.

PR: Exactly. Well that's - and higher ed institutions are struggling with this right now, especially, even pre-COVID. You know, what happens when you're working with Boeing on some super secret NDA research project? And how do you have that shared with freshmen seminar 101's term paper, right? Same cloud. And how do you prevent that from being accidentally or maliciously grafted?
A lot of these have easier answers when we were just dealing with this as an architectural challenge, as a physical architectural challenge, because there was a security guard and a card swipe. And access control can be generalized to - as we talk about moving to more architectural, that physical and virtual realm, there are a lot of analogies and things that we need to get consistent.

So I was actually going to give you three things. Is the cloud what's next for Zoom and sensors and wellness? I think there's our next "Zoom", we're all talking about Zoom, but I think that also this has maybe more clear implications for architecture. This idea that Zoom was a collaboration and meeting collaboration platform. It was never designed as a presentation space. It was never designed as a classroom, a virtual classroom. It was just a video conference replacement. A replacement for the Cisco life, whatever they call it.
You know, now we're working and we're thinking about workflow and we've used this tool. This tool has gotten us to a new place and now there's always the cycle, would go back and look.

And I think that we're thinking about - I'll call it the "next Zoom". Inside the technology realm, we talk about this differently. But I think to the lay person, "what's the next Zoom and how does it change how we work?" is a easy, compelling way of talking about that. And I think there's two dynamics that we need to think about. One is asynchrony, it needs to be a better Teams or Wiki-like platform - and we'll get to the social why later - a way of having work continue or persist or ideas captured and evolved over time. Because Zoom is a synchronous thing. We're all getting together. And in fact, we are all moving like slaves from one-hour meeting to one-hour meeting all day, and we're missing that heads-down deep think time or a place to capture that stuff. And so I can see a future where instead of writing reports and handing them to each other and having marks in the margins, we've got a Wiki sort of a format to something.

RB: Is there like a wormhole where you and I - let's say we have much bigger monitors and we would just leave it open and connected and we would take different calls and we would do different things. And then when we had an idea, we might say, "hey Parke, you got a second? Blahbedy blah, blah, blah." In that way, it's not scheduled. It's spontaneous, is that-

PR: Yeah. Serendipitous. I think that's one piece of it. That's the serendipity piece and that can be synchronous and asynchronous, but that's mostly - we think of it as being synchronous. Like, okay, let's - we were off on different timelines and all of a sudden we snapped to and converted to the same timeline and we're talking. Zoom can kind of do that - and Zoom is now getting to the point where they're selling phones. They just started with - ah, shit that might be NDA, actually - we've been good friends with Zoom since before they splintered. And we are a corporate beta tester for Zoom and they are now invading our personal and our desktop phones. And we are now, as a firm, getting to a place where we can actually transfer phone calls to Zoom seamlessly face-to-face and bring up video, or bring up files.

We're really progressive on that, but we definitely see that kind of brings one thing. The other side of this is like Microsoft- (Overlapping)
RB: It's like FaceTime. (Overlapping) You can be on the phone and then switch to FaceTime.

PR: Yeah, exactly, but corporately. And there's another piece of this, which is the... like Microsoft Teams. I don't know if you've - it's not a great product, but it does demonstrate this idea of you can leave, park an idea, "hey, does anyone know anything about this?" And then come tune in an hour or a day later and see all the, "oh yeah, I've done that, And yeah, I've done that, and yeah, I've done that." and it also allows maybe for a little corporate culture. Inside jokes and little things, it's basically like your own internal Facebook. And there's an asynchrony there that's nice, that you can park things. You don't have to always be in sync with people or having these thoughts in real time.

And then the synchrony, a better real time collaborative experience, right? You and I are just seeing each other in face-to-face or I bring up a presentation and walk you through it. It's lecture or conference table. It's not, let's get up and pin stuff to the wall, right? It's not that ideation. Ideation is very challenging in this scenario.

And I think a lot of design cultures are struggling with that. And we were going off - we do a lot with Mira and other sort of post-it notes, sticky note type things, but that's all got to come back together. And then I also see, is there an AR-VR sort of realm here too, where we can all bring each other back together into one room experience or something. What tools can we add to this so that we can be present to storyboard together? And how do you do that? Also, as we get back from coronavirus in a way that we can do it - some people face-to-face, some people virtually and have an equitable experience.

You know, you can imagine - I mean, the most literal example of that - I don't think this is actually how it will be manifest - would be that now instead of a screen mounted to the wall, one wall is a screen with a table, pushed up to it and there's half of you are all together. And then there's a Brady Bunch there in real time. And you're all working on, instead of, I'm pinning stuff to the wall and you can't see it, that we're all working on a second wall or - there actually is a phrase, "second screen". We talk about second screen, that you and I are talking here and that I'm working - you and I could do this now. You're well-equipped to this, that you and I are working with a stylus and an iPad together and we're joined virtually here. So you and I are having eye contact, but at the same time that we're sketching in real time together live, so that we're having that ideation piece, there's another piece that needs to come in.

The third piece, I think, that will also shape - I'm getting more and more little towards physical architecture - are sensors and wellness. You know, we talk about it as Internet of Things. Technologists, IOT - but I think IOT doesn't really bring home the value. It's the kind of the tool first and not the "so what?" So I think for architecture, there's this sensorification, this wellness, this bionification of us, which gets towards the social piece.

So I'll just give you some examples. Biobot. The city of Boston has installed real-time sensors into its sewage system and is actually able to get public health stats in real time about how many people are affected with coronavirus without having to do swabs. You can go online right now and see how many people in the north part of the city, or the south part of the city - what the concentration of viral RNA is in the sewers. And so Boston is able to report without necessarily grabbing tests or even waiting. And, it can be a four- or five-day lag before all that information is gained and returned from sample sites, from swab sites. And it's a portion of the population. They're able to look at the whole population and I can see that 
distributing- (Overlapping)

RB: Is this through human waste? (Overlapping)

PR: Yes.

So, they're looking at - one of the things that they can detect - they can detect all sorts of things like pollution and medication load, you know, how many people - there can be a lot of medications excreted through urine and feces - now we're getting really detailed - and they can figure out like, "oh God, we've got a real problem, we need to really treat this before we put it back into the water system, " you know, and pull out all the Prozac or whatever. But in this practical moment, right now, a pandemic comes in, they're actually able to detect the MRNA of the coronavirus. And so you can see in real time, as opposed to a five-day delay of a portion population, the whole population's real-time effluent MRNA, and they're getting really good gauge for the rise and fall of coronavirus in the population.

And I can see that moving to be at least the block - the city development, or the developer thinking about providing some of those sensors, and it's not just health - but let's focus on health at the moment - into the air handling. Into the water system in the buildings. You know, I think the other things like the network as a sensor - we think of wifi as giving us data, but it can also have data. It can be telling you, "gee, there are a lot of people milling about over here in this corner." And there's two things, like as an IT person, I think that probably means that we need to add wifi over there because they're more people crowding the wifi, it's like "gee, a lot of people use this one bathroom, we need to add stalls." But the other practical effect there is that you can have a very low cost and easy way of post-occupancy.

This is really working, you know, in a retail environment where retail stores are constantly changing or you're constantly changing stuff up. You can now have a whole running experiment and see where people are milling about - that sort of a thing. So now think of all those things... low-voltage lighting, right? We've now got the situation where you could have LED lighting fed by your solar panels through your data network and the light switches are not high voltage line voltage on-off, they're actually other IT devices to on-off or whatever. And you can change lighting so that a switch can change what it does to the lighting instantly. And all of a this is low voltage. So you don't need the MEP, you don't need a professional engineer in a ceiling grid. And now you've also had these things that can provide sensors of like - how they can provide wifi. So now we're talking about really simple, hyper agile, super configurable system, right? Low-voltage lighting is actually a data thing that provides sensors and a whole package. And no one has to know. It behaves just like it did, only much less complex. So there's some examples.

Oh, one last thing: bionification of humans, right? I've got this thing (Gesturing at smartwatch) and it's a convenience for me, right? It tells me the time, date, what's coming up next in my meeting. But Apple has also registered itself very quietly as a power distribution company. Why the hell would they do that? Well, this can also potentially be tied into your building system, if you're a developer. And people can be setting up their own hyper personalized comfort level. And this watch can be saying, "gee, you're not sweating. It's summer, it's a hundred degrees outside. The power company is having a hard time supplying this building or the city with the energy required to cool. Would you be willing for me to, wherever you are, raise the degree, decrease the temperature by two degrees, in exchange for not having to fire up a cogen plant?"

This is the concept of negawatts. It would cost millions of dollars for just a few hours of pumping up, of firing up a cogen plant and the savings of not having to do that simply by having a couple hundred - couple thousand people around the city with watches on saying "I'm not hot yet, I could go up two degrees," and not having to start the air handling in that area, the saving power. Developers, this is real money and it's real hidden money. And so that's what's in it for them.

The other side of that is that I can walk in any room. My devices are interacting with that room and know exactly what I want and what my comfort level is, and the room is configuring for that. So I win, everyone wins. The city wins, the electric company - the utilities company wins, developer wins. I win.

RB: I think that part is interesting - if you are wearing that device or that device is implanted and then it knows whether you have the coronavirus, now I don't - if everybody wore that I wouldn't need the sewer and I would have a hyper realistic sense of what was going on. And I wonder, which generation takes that, is it-

PR: So, I am speaking right after this, I'm doing a version of this with an Olympic athlete that I know who's also an MIT neuroscientist. And we are going to discuss constant glucose monitoring. So she is implanted with a chip, right now that is - you know, don't scoop me on this. There is a thing called constant glucose monitoring where people are currently, right now, diabetics and starting to move into the elderly or other things, when you want to monitor something, and it used to be a pinprick, every four - four times a day at most - now you can get, yeah. 100 times a second, and people are implanted with a chip in the back of their arm. And it's just it's just sensing constantly.
There is no reason that couldn't be on the earpiece of my glasses, which, by the way, this is an affectation, right? This is a prosthesis.

RB: Yeah, yeah.

PR: This is (Gesturing to earbuds) becoming a prosthesis, right? So, this is a prosthesis (Gestures to smartwatch) , so there's no reason that these things are - this is monitoring my heart rate. And there's no reason it couldn't also be saying, "geez, your heart rate is accelerating and your temperature's going up and it's been consistent like that for the past four hours. You don't know it yet, but you're about to be sick," right? Or, "you don't know it yet, but you're about to go into diabetic. shock." We're starting to deploy these things for those higher-level, like really important things. But there's always a trickle down effect in technology. And you know, there's no reason those things can't also be saying comfort or monitoring cortisols. "Gosh, you seem really stressed right now your cortisol levels are, I've been consistently going up over time." There's another - I was dared by my doctor to say, "I bet you're talking about stress and you're talking about it as a mental condition. It's also a physical condition. I bet you, Parke Rhoads, you're a smart guy. You could measure it, bet you've got enough data."

And she was right. I started scraping data off of my watch and my heart rate monitor that I use during exercise. And I've been able to measure a sawtooth pattern over the week of stress, stress, stress, stress - release - stress, stress, stress, stress - release. And that's been eye-opening for me because it means that wellness can be objectively measured and we could be... So that, I think, would be interesting. And also be informative in planning spaces because we can now empirically say, "this workplace is bleeding stress," or "this retail space is exciting."

RB: I'm going to have a really good script for a few new Black Mirror episodes after this conversation, but yeah.

RB: Social behaviors, are you-

PR: Social behaviors?

RB: Yeah. What's going to change there? What's the big impact?

PR: I think, because we can do lots more work remotely and we're seeing that we can do lots of more remotely. I think that there are a couple of really interesting things that are gonna come. One: we talked about asynchrony and synchrony earlier. And I think that there's a certain equity and permeability that come with not being obligated to go into a specific prescribed workplace. And I think that we need to figure out some way, because some people prefer - people are social. We do like to be a pack and we might like to get together sometimes. And there's sometimes when we might not. And that economic swing is vastly different now.

You know, you think about what drove people to the suburbs in 1950s and then going back to headquarters and what drove people to the urbanization of the nineties and aughties. And now we've got this new thing, which is that you can spend some of your time at home. And if you have social anxiety or, you know, if you were - if you're not cis-gendered, the restrooms that were offered. Or if you're disabled and you're having to make do in an environment that's designed for people who are, you know, differently abled from you. It's that bell curve thing. It was designed for most people who are not like you. Even if it's just, "it's hard for me to reach up to the top cabinet where HR stores the coffee filters," right? Now that we're increasingly letting people remote in from where they are comfortable and where they are best optimized.

But also we need to find some ways of bringing that benefit back to the workplace, which might be as simple as just - some of us are at the workplace and some of us are not, and yet we can still connect and work well together. And that's going to be a challenge because right now what we're doing is just what used to be the screen that we would throw the PowerPoint slide up on, now we're putting up Brady Bunch and that's not good enough.

RB: Let me just jump in right there in the conversation - the idea that I go to work and turn around and get on another Zoom call is... I have a - that's a sort of full stop. I think from a workplace standpoint, there is a huge advantage to being in-person because we don't have a full wall with a table next to it to really collaborate yet. And the reality is when we are working together and when I'm sitting in a space and I overhear a conversation that I'm not even invited to, it changes my thinking. I think of new ideas just because I hear two people talking about some restaurant they went to. So there's an intangible about being in the workplace that can't be replaced.
So while I agree that you're going to see fewer and fewer offices that are warehousing desks and people just drone on, I think there's going to be real value to spending half of the week in the workplace. And optimizing that workplace for better collaboration and the opportunity to rub elbows with people I'm not working with on a particular project. I think that's going to be a big advantage and we need it back.

PR: I think that's a generational perspective. As a devil's advocate - it's generational, I'm in your generation, I agree with you - but as a devil's advocate, I just finished an article about the virtual agora, right? What you're describing is the agora experience and a technologist often recruits from UX, user experience, in design. How do we design for that experience? And you can see little analogues of that in Microsoft Teams or Facebook, or - there's definitely an echo chamber there. It's not perfect. And I will also say that we should not be thinking - there's a danger in analogues. I think we should be playing the strengths of each. There are definitely strengths to being in a space together in a volume. There are strengths, unique strengths that technology might bring. And so I think what are the things - can you overhear that conversation four hours after it happened? And that's where technology might be of advantage. Where for instance, that might be part of a chat that you're listening into. And I don't think that technology replaces that experience, there are ways in which technology might enhance or provide new strengths that we haven't explored before.

I do think this is also potentially the death of the cubicle. The economics change and a lot of the drivers that I see for cubicles, despite what we said about collaboration and all that, was largely just densification and maximizing square footage and cost per square foot. And I think that if we have more people staying home, and we have these other conditions where - I didn't quite frame it this way, but one of the things I talked about is bring your own device, right? We are now increasingly - this laptop, that I'm thinking of, is mine. Or at least it's at my home most of the time. And I've got my home set up and I've got all of that. I want to be able to, if I'm in work, I'm not going to have a desk that's just mine. It's going to be everyone's. And how do we set up an environment where we're learning from this moment where people are safe and healthy and maybe even self-contained, but also highly agile, so that we're dropping into a desk and quickly firing up with my laptop and my iPad, and and everything's setting up.

And one way is - the cloud is a big pathway to that. 'Cause it doesn't matter. It's not saved on my desktop. It saved up there somewhere. And even if I'm using somebody else's computer I can access it or I can create my work environment just like it is at home. I think that that BYOD and that focus on the individual is going to be a huge change in the workstation, how we look at the workstation and that might change the square footage and the layout. We might - half the space is individual workstation and the other half of the space is collaboration spaces and spaces to get together. And that ratio is much different now, it's, you know, 80-20 or something.

RB: The generational thing that you mentioned - you know, we're both, you're gen X, I'm assuming. Mentoring Gen Z that-

PR: I'm 45.

RB: Yeah, you're Gen X. Mentoring is a huge - there's a huge demand for mentoring in the Gen Z demographic, that's far beyond where even gen X was, and maybe even the boomers. I think in a lot of cases, Gen X the idea of - you weren't mentored, you just were thrown into the fire and you, made yourself metal. Now there is a real coaching aspect, there's an expectation. I think the digital realm gets to be really difficult that way. I think there's also the inner - I understand that the social media and the interaction is very digital for those groups. So, do you think that you'll find that the romances, for instance, in the workplace. Super common because you're spending so much time together, you think that just, it just takes you over to Tinder work app and it still happens, but it has nothing - that's completely disconnected and that it has nothing to do- (Overlapping)

PR: I think that's already happened. (Overlapping)

RB: Yeah?

PR: I think that happened before this, that people were increasingly - the workplace romance still happened, especially - you bring in certain anxieties and things, people sometimes people are introverted, and the only time they really get to open up to somebody is just through constant contact, pervasive contact in smaller increments, on some what is the sociological term for that? ...counterfeit! Some counterfeit issue or counterfeit alignment you know, "yeah, we're working on this design of this car, but I'm also learning how to dance around you and be excited about something, that we have something in common. And two years later, we finally are enthralled."

But I think for that, some portion of the population, I think the other proportion who were just, gregarious or we're just looking for contact have already found other conduits - Tinder, you know...

RB: So, human touch. Do you think that is going to be lessened post-pandemic?

PR: I worry about that side of things. I think when you're looking at early surveys with students going into remote learning - and these are the future workforce people - they're expressing, they were already expressing a lot of sense of isolation and loneliness as being one of the biggest issues prior to COVID that somehow moving to the internet has, seems to coincide with a sense of loneliness, which is a really interesting, counter-intuitive thing. And I think that is absolutely something that we need to think about. And if I'm thinking about design of environments and experience design, I'm trying to think about how do you - I would think that's something that, that technology doesn't really do well. It's not its strength, and that that's the space for environment. That's the place where environment really helps with that. And wellness and feeling safe and feeling protected and feeling loved.

These are really high-minded things to say, but I can think of spaces. When I think of the warming memories of my life, there are people, and then there are also just those... there was one lounge spot in the library in graduate school that I could go to because it was just peaceful and quiet. And when I was hyper stressed, and I just - I go back there sometimes, in my mind. I don't think about how great that chat was on Facebook.

RB: Yeah. Right.

PR: So, anyway, that gets to that security and health piece. 
And we've already talked about next generation and pipeline, right? We've got to think about high school and college and their remote virtual experience. Cause these are the workforce people, the future, and what are they expecting? I think that covers a lot of the social. We're past your time-

RB: Last question.

PR: Yeah.

RB: Markets or industries? And I want to preface that - I'm not exactly asking this in the A&E sphere necessarily, could be anything. Obviously, restaurants, entertainment - completely and utterly decimated. But, you know, coming out of the pandemic, are there markets that are going to be exploding and growing, exponential growth. And are there some that are never coming back and they're gone. How's that change?

PR: We have gotten so smart and so overloaded with warehousing and logistics, that I think we're seeing companies like Amazon and even the US Postal Service, UPS, they're chasing the last orders of sigma. Right? They're after. There's squeezing every little bit out now. They're no longer in that explosion growth when Amazon started to sell more than just books. They're at their last booster rocket - which sounds like I'm being negative - but I think COVID really just took what might've been a flattening effect of online retailing and logistics and shot it back up again.

And in that moment, I think about looking at, for instance, the self storage industry. Which is really secret, how profitable they are. But they have begun to do some really amazing things around trying to get from the outskirts of the city, into - it'd be better to be - where you had scale to smaller and more local. And I see logistics following some of those models. You know, Amazon has massive warehouses. Now they're starting to play around with things like drones - that may be successful and may not be successful - but those sorts of things point to, we're trying to find ways to get closer and closer to the people. And we may end up with situations where a lot of developments or developers that might have storefronts or restaurants, or other things. Amazon or other logistics might be moving into those spaces or might find other interesting ways of integrating logistics into the cityscape.

And there's more than just retail at stake here. Logistics for vaccines, we are now also focused on. If we are all moving in, back into our personal spaces, the retreat aspect of that's going to go away as we get better with COVID, but we're all comfortable here and we're all, not wanting to do our commute as much. And even if we're all going in the office half as much, that's half as much.

RB: Yeah. (Laughing)

PR: We're not- right? We're not circulating around in the same ways. And so the traffic patterns, the patterns of my life will change and I'm not going to stores. And so the store is going to have to come to me more. The medical treatment's gonna have to come to me more.

RB: Do cities continue their growth in population?

PR: So I'm going to get to that in a second.

RB: Okay.

PR: I think that there're lots of slosh-backs, of the pendulum. I think that cities may actually be a loser, I'm not sure. Or, at least, it's going to change. I think about - we are all now interested in... one of the downsides of personalization that I started with- with cloud, right? This mixing of what is mine or what is the individual versus the collective or the corporate. And I am no longer shopping for a house - part of that. I'm not going shopping for just a house. I'm shopping for a school room or an office. So I want a two-bedroom, one-office condo, right?

RB: Right.

PR: And so that changes the developer's perspective - that might even change the amenities that the developer's offering. If you're thinking about an urban development and where I might have, WeWork on the middle floors and the residents and the top floors and the retail on the bottom floor - I'm not quite sure about retail just yet, that might be where that logistics piece comes into play - but let's talk for a moment about those mid tiers, right? I used to shop - not me personally but someone like me - would shop for a two-bedroom condo with a gym, or whatever. And that might still be true, but I want that gym to be safe and maybe even sorted very differently, spread out a lot more differently, but I might also be interested in, now I want two bedrooms and an office. And the question is, can I afford a three-bedroom, and turn one into an office or are they gonna start selling me, "look, you can have the space and then your own private elevator-" or, whatever "-instead of cycling through the city and having to take public transportation, just descend four floors down and there'll be - you have an office space and you don't have to have this empty room that you're paying $300 a square foot for and only using half the time. That's okay, just sign up for the first half of the week." And that's your time that you're working from home.

RB: Yeah, I think you're right - coworking becomes part of your neighborhood. And, you know, if you're in a suburban situation, perhaps the coffee shop gets a lot bigger, becomes a coworking node.

PR: Yes.

RB: If you go downtown - I don't think, I cannot wait to not work at home. Again, we're Gen X, this is driving me crazy. I don't want any part of it. I like the distance between the things, but ultimately that wall of technology that you're talking about, I don't want to pay for that. I don't want to have to adjust to that and it's going to change and upgrade, do all that stuff. I'll pay a percentage of it when I use it. But I think, again, like the cloud, I'm going to walk into a coffee shop. I'm going to touch the wall and my stuff's going to come up and-

PR: And Starbucks has the resources. If they're smart enough, Starbucks has the resources to set that up.

RB: And they haven't, they have not moved towardcoworking. They were already there, the first coworking company, in my opinion. (Overlapping)

PR: Yeah. (Overlapping)

RB: And they have not taken advantage of.

PR: So, the large corporations can do that. They could, theoretically - they have the money to invest. They could, especially right now, they could buy at three times as much storefront ,space the tables out, have a little separate quiet area and it's coffee first, co-work second, but you have a great place to get up and go get lunch or whatever, right?

RB: If you're co-working they should just give you the coffee.

PR: Yeah. That's the other side of this, yes, I agree. I think also about like restaurants, or other smaller mom-and-pop places should be getting on this bandwagon too, but can't afford to, and that's another place where urban development might be able to - the developer can say, that's okay, you also can for your patrons- it's not just the bathroom coin anymore. I pay for my coffee and now I can use the bathroom. I pay for my coffee. And on my receipt is a QR code that allows me to look at the amenities and to schedule and manage that. There's another piece too, as we get virtualized and shared, the technology layer can really help us manage and co-share and all those things and set that up.

But I think that's interesting. I think, however, that I myself am representative of a lot of people who have fled the city. And many of us are really eager to get back, but eager to get back in a retro way. And I'm not sure when we get back that all the pizza shops will be open or that we'll want to get on the A train with a thousand huddled masses, in the same way again. And I think that in this moment, I'm very interested to notice that one of the market forces is that people are - they can work from anywhere. And there's an large amount of arbitrage. I am sitting in a house that we co-bought with my in-laws so that we could create a Camp COVID. It is five times larger than my condo in Boston, and I purchased it for less than the equity I have on that condo.

And there's no reason that I can't work from here other than I miss pizza and seafood, and we will get back as soon as we can. But there are a lot of people for whom - as a company I think about, I can recruit the best talent in Montana now. I don't have to just look at Boston.
RB: That's true. That's true. That's true. (Laughing) But Montana may didn't have any.

PR: Well, but you get my point. If I were a shale oil company, there'd be a lot of damn good talent in Montana that could work for me.

RB: Yeah. My wife's company is headquartered in Houston. She's Exxon's global key account manager now, and she got a promotion during this. She sits in Chicago. They don't care where she sits. But that's only certain jobs. And I would argue that there are a lot of jobs that isn't going to work that way, I'm going to- (Overlapping)

PR: -there are a lot more than it does. (Overlapping) There are a lot more that it works for now than it did before.

RB: I think people. And this is, I'm going to theorize with you, and I might be giving you a little advance on the article. People will absolutely come right back to the cities because they still want all of the lobster and all the choices. They want the theater, they want - there's still physical experiences. The concerts. You're not going to run into - where you are right now, the odds of you running into Billy Corgan having a reunion show at the Metro in Chicago, you're never going to have that where you are. But with the serendipity and the experience and the entertainment and the people in the city - I think that's all still there. But I think the people with means like yourself are going to have Camp COVID and they're going to be able to do that, I think that's a big deal.

There was an article before the pandemic in the Times, that people were renting in Manhattan, but buying out in the country.

PR: Yeah.

RB: Flip that. So they were renting for their primary residence, but then they had their retirement and vacation thing outside the city. I think you're going to see more of that.

PR: But I think that what you're talking about are actually two different people with two different markets.

RB: A hundred percent.

PR: You can attract them in two different ways, and in a way that you couldn't before. So there are people who are like, "I really wish I could be out in the country, but I'm working for GE-" well, actually, GE is out in the country, "-I'm working for.. Morgan Stanley and I have to be in the city, if only I didn't have to be there." And now you've opened this place up where that is possible. And I think that - so, what you're talking about are the things - you and I are urban, and those are all the things that attract us to the urban environment. And I think those might get ramped up. If I were a developer, I'd be advertising the shit out of that to make sure that I bring those people back. 'Cause there's some people who are not coming back. And if I'm also a developer, I might be thinking - or if I'm also an economist - I might be thinking about what is attracting those other people, because they don't have to come back now.

They have a choice that they didn't have - an economic choice they can make that they didn't before. They can continue to work out of someplace else. And there may be some opportunities there as well. I'm not sure. I can talk about that, but I don't think that's quite the thesis of your article.

To your point - this might shore up your thesis, if you're trying to be slanted with the article - I think there are definitely some losers in this de-urbanization, your de-re-urbanization. You know, there are - there's a huge equity, like a place and access challenge here. Urban environments. I've done some work for a town in Texas and they had - 40% of the population could not get access to the internet, without the municipal library, right? Low income. There are states where governors for decades have ignored infrastructure investments. And to the point where now Vermont, Montana, Arkansas, West Virginia-

RB: Michigan.

PR: -Michigan.

RB: Who was discharged for the water.

PR: Yeah, so - water, Flint, right? So goes really good fiber, or good internet, and these places -there are a lot of people who have houses in Vermont who are having to make five-hour commutes for that half-week where they're in the office right now, because they cannot connect well because, state legislations thought, "well, what's the big deal. It's not like we - we don't need this. We're just farmers." And all of a sudden that pendulum shifted. You're not just farmers anymore. Your people are trying to work from their cabin. And we all got caught with our pants down and those are going to be the-

RB: Well, Elon Musk is going to fix that, right, with the satellite internet access, every surface of the earth?

PR: That that will undermine - that would definitely, that would definitely undermine this market force for sure. And there are definitely people who are working on that. And that will work very well for rural areas that do suddenly have coverage because they're not sharing it. It doesn't work well for urban, low-income areas. And I think there's a lot that developers could do and HUD could do there as well. Biloxi, Mississippi, Naples, Florida, Washington, DC, Las Vegas, Nevada. These are spaces that have less than 8%.

RB: I'm blown away. I'm on the phone with a colleague in Oklahoma. Who's in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and he's a professor and I'm doing reviews. I try to talk to him on the phone and he's at his house and I can't hear him. He doesn't - if he's driving, forget it. The mobile coverage there is so bad. It's blows my mind in 2021, that that's still an issue.

PR: Yeah. Yeah.

RB: The Zoom's gonna time out, Parke. So I'll give you the-

PR: I gave you everything - I gave you everything that I had in my brain, I think, so...

RB: I can't thank you enough. What a wonderful few minutes to - and this is only scratching the surface, I'd love to continue with it further.

cA: Thank you for joining us for this episode of the Robert Benson Interview Series in commARCH Dialogues. To stay up to date with commARCH content, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on your favorite podcast platform. For more content like this, including a full transcript of this interview, other interviews in the series, digital issues, and more, please visit the commARCH website at www.commarch.com. Thanks for watching.

CityZenith's Michael Jansen on Digital Twin & the Future of the Urban Environment | commARCH Weekly 07/2020

In this episode, commARCH has a dialogue with Michael Jansen, Founder and CEO of CityZenith, to discuss the burgeoning landscape ...

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