Developing smarter communities to enable smarter working

In the UK, 4.1 million people work from home for at least half the week. The current growth of self-employment, freelancing and enterprise are supported by new technologies and smarter, more flexible ways of working. It is likely that increasingly people will develop part-time home-based businesses. These can either start from skills developed in professional life, or from pastimes or hobbies that develop into saleable services or products. The growth of part-time home-based business inevitably leads to the blurring of boundaries between home and work. With the home as a centre of domestic enterprise, paid work becomes a more normal part of family life, rather than something separate, that mysterious thing that mum and dad do that takes them away from the home and family every day.

But these interfaces between home, community and work will not function well if the spaces in which we live and work are not fit for purpose. When we put together the trends of:

• Growth of part-time working

• Grow of home-based working for employees

• Growth of home-based enterprise

• Growth of people having multiple sources of income

• Increased lifespans – including working beyond ‘retirement’

• Trends (in the western world, at least) to share caring responsibilities between parents

• The attractiveness to home-based workers of workhub/co-working facilities

…then we can see the need for thinking of how we plan for homes and communities.

In this context we need to think about how homes and communities should ideally evolve over the next 10 years by:

1. Optimising systems and communications technologies based on evolving people’s need

At the top of the list needs to be ubiquitous connection with superfast broadband. Communications need to be optimised for people, wherever they live, and however they move, to be fully enabled to participate seamlessly in the world of work.

When people work from home, in the local area, or on the move, they need to be able to use whatever systems and communications technologies are necessary. As we have seen, the upcoming generations of communications technologies are likely to be far more bandwidth-hungry than those currently used. And work use of the bandwidth is likely to have to compete with an ever-increasing range of other non-work online activities.

2. Re-thinking how we design homes to accommodate working areas

Homes need to have spaces in which to work, and/or to study. This does not mean having an odd-shaped room on the second floor designated an ‘office’ or ‘study’ in the brochure. But an area in or attached to the home that can be used for professional work. A proportion of homes should have larger spaces in which to run businesses, and which allow access for colleagues and customers without coming through family areas.

As offices become more the focus of collaboration, and as computing interfaces gravitate towards voice and gesture, we expect home to become more the workplace of choice for many tasks requiring high focus. Working on the kitchen table or the corner of the living room will become increasingly a less viable option.

Homes should be designed with the capacity to set up intelligent environments, e.g. with smart surfaces that can be used for computing and communication, and that interface easily with mobile devices.

3. Rejuvenating a local network of services

The impacts of more people working from home or being at home part of the time offers the prospect of being able to break away from the Industrial Age pattern of dormitory communities that are empty during the day as commuters go elsewhere to work.

But to create sustainable communities, people need to have services within walking and cycling distance. There are opportunities here to develop new local businesses that support the local home-based and free agent workforce, and their family needs – but the danger is the opportunities may be throttled by outdated planning laws based on the rigid separation of home and work.

The evolution of the nature of work and business also has an impact on the nature of the High Street. Planning laws have tended to restrict certain areas to retail uses only. As a result of out-of-town malls and online shopping, the local high street has suffered, with sometimes long stretches of shops boarded up.

The future of the High Street may well be in places to meet – workhubs and cafés – and ‘shops’ as places to showcase products and services, more than to buy them, supported by local markets of home and locally produced goods. Live/work high streets may even be part of this future. In many countries the structure of local taxes, rents and planning constraints does not support such an evolution. But with many more people able to work at or closer to home, there are opportunities for increased footfall in local areas that are currently stagnating. Planning for the future of work needs to be part of the local mix.