We've built millions of suburban office parks. Now what?
Quote of the Moment
Never forget, if you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan cities for people and places, you get people and places. Plan for the city you want.
| Fred Kent
Kent’s admonition is very apt for today’s big story, The Rise and Fall of the American Suburban Office Park.
By the end of the twentieth century, America's suburbs contained more office space than its central cities. | Louise Mozingo
Andrew Curry, another substacker whose writing I admire, profiles a new series by Hilary Cottam called The Work Project, one that I touched on recently. Curry pulls out different takeaways than I did, so it’s a good complement, and Cottam is fascinating.
In World-building in hybrid organisations Lee Bryant cites an idea from Alex Dalco:
We talk a lot about the responsibility of leaders to create and curate an environment in which their teams can thrive, but what does this mean in practice? One metaphor from the huge gaming and movie industries is [the idea of world-building, as outlined in this post by Alex Danco](https://alexdanco.com/2021/04/10/world-building/). In some ways I find this a more practical and richer frame of reference than tackling just purpose, ‘values’, culture, etc. as individual components, which could help us think through how we create hybrid work models that combine the best of online working with our innate need to work together in co-located groups.
As Alex writes,
"System problems cannot be fixed in one step, nor can they be fixed in a sequence of linear steps. Why not? Because when systems find a steady state – which is probably where you’re encountering them, if you’re setting out to change something – they’re ‘steady’ not because they’re static, but because they’re dynamically held in place by feedback loops. If you try to change one variable, you can apply as much effort as you like, but the minute you let go, the system will just snap right back to its original configuration.”
Kylie Foy looks into the interactions of AI and humans playing games together:
In a new study, MIT Lincoln Laboratory researchers sought to find out how well humans could play the cooperative card game Hanabi with an advanced AI model trained to excel at playing with teammates it had never met before. In single-blind experiments, participants played two series of the game: One with the AI agent as their teammate, and the other with a rule-based agent, a bot manually programmed to play in a predefined way.
The results surprised the researchers. Not only were the scores no better with the AI teammate than with the rule-based agent, but humans consistently hated playing with their AI teammate. They found it to be unpredictable, unreliable, and untrustworthy, and felt negatively even when the team scored well.
It seems that AI can make moves that humans don’t understand, and humans don’t react well to that:
The Lincoln Laboratory researchers found that strange or seemingly illogical moves were the worst offenders in breaking humans' trust in their AI teammate in these closely coupled teams. Such moves not only diminished players' perception of how well they and their AI teammate worked together, but also how much they wanted to work with the AI at all, especially when any potential payoff wasn't immediately obvious.
Even when the moves might be later seen to be smart, people get mad. This is a real problem area since we will have to learn how to dance with the robots.
The Rise and Fall of the Suburban Office Park
In Lonely Last Days in the Suburban Office Park, Emily Badger probes the economics, aesthetics, and urban ecology of suburban office parks, which are increasingly being deserted.
Without us really thinking much about it, over 50 or so years of American capitalism created a gargantuan, sprawling, disconnected landscape of suburban greenery, parking lots, and uncountable numbers of office buildings, and even more quickly we turned off the lights and the lawn sprinklers and walked away.
The people left. The chairs stayed.
In their prime, suburban office parks offered a modern alternative to cramped office towers, and easy car access when mass transit was faltering. They promised, in the place of seemingly noisy, congested, unpredictable downtowns, a quiet space to sit in a cubicle and concentrate.
Prepandemic, these parks were being rejected in favor of more urban settings.
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