New Working Environments: Shared Space: Nothing is safe anymore. Or is it?

New Working Environments Office Trends Open Space

No, this is not a review of a science fiction novel about cohabitation with extra-terrestrial life forms. Or a report about wild animals living side by side with people in megacities. And we certainly aren’t talking about chat rooms, shared file storage or how to combine augmented reality with collaborative working. No, this is about something completely different...

Like the name says, Shared Space means collectively used (living) space. It’s about having space for encounter, communication and social interaction.
We first find the term in traffic planning, where it refers to a revolutionary concept that was developed back in the 1980s and 1990s, yet which was only discovered and implemented outside the Netherlands in the last five to ten years.

Wrong way?

It’s usually like this: We see a road with markings, sidewalks on the side, traffic signs and lights to govern intersections and pedestrian crossings; that’s what we’re used to. We’re also used to seeing rather unattractive thoroughfares in many towns, with cars frequently flying by at excessive speeds, enjoying priority over pedestrians and cyclists, and not just in terms of the amount of road they take up.

The developments that led us here began in the mid-twentieth century, when individual motorised traffic began to gain the upper hand and people began trying to bring the traffic situation under control. Up until the 1970s, cities strove to accommodate cars – traffic was supposed to flow as freely as possible. Pedestrians were banished to the sidewalks.

This concept is viewed with a great deal of criticism today. We have seen that the more "comfortable" we make motorised transportation – meaning the more it is allowed to flow quickly and unimpeded – the more traffic we create, and the distances people drive become even longer. This impacts the environment, city centres and the quality of life.

Individual responsibility instead of law & order

Shared Space is a concept that is meant to counteract these problems. And it is meant to grant all traffic participants equal rights while increasing overall traffic safety. Shared Space means doing away with traffic signs and lights, lane markings and sidewalks, to the greatest extent possible.

When you see something like this for the first time, it’s initially surprising and astounding: pedestrians, cars and cyclists share a traffic space as though it was the most natural thing in the world. There is no physical separation between traffic lanes and sidewalks. There are only a few stop signs or red lights. The only two rules that everyone observes (and must observe) are: "traffic from the right has the right of way" and "pay attention". Pure chaos – that’s what you would expect, yet the concept seems to work. Drivers slow down in confusing, potentially dangerous situations, thereby avoiding accidents. And the quality of life in public space improves.

Less safe means more safe

It seems like a paradox: if we make situations less safe, then we create a higher degree of safety. Hans Monderman, inventor of the Shared Space concept, found that people in the traffic system today often rely completely on signs and signals – they rely on rules instead of their own responsibility. It doesn’t seem necessary to consider things that go beyond the rules. Yet these rules create a false sense of security. It doesn’t help anyone to say after an accident, "But I had the right of way." If a traffic situation becomes more uncertain and thereby potentially dangerous, then people have to become more cautious. Individual responsibility kicks back in – people are forced to pay attention to one another.

Yes, but…

...that probably only works in exceptional cases – in small villages with nice people, right? These "exceptional cases" have grown to include over 100 municipalities in the Netherlands alone. Other projects are being implemented worldwide.
There are discussions and trials going on to find out whether the concept will also work in larger cities. Graz, Austria, for example, has redesigned one square to try it out. London has incorporated a few aspects of the design into Kensington High Street, where the number of accidents has been cut in half. Exhibition Road in London was recently redesigned along 820 metres and reopened as a fully implemented Shared Space.

A concept that can grow

But what really makes Shared Space so interesting are the processes behind it. Because Shared Space is of course much more than a traffic management concept. It not only has a huge influence on public space, it also forces people to give up conventional modes of perception in favour of a new view of their surroundings. This can only happen if they approach the concept with as few predefined notions as possible and are ready to change their habits and behaviours – even when we all know that is not so easy.

In an abstract form, Shared Space is much more familiar – and has long provided important inspiration for office designers. There is a reason why this term has been broadly accepted in the office furniture industry – especially in places where the modern office is an expression of corporate culture and provides varied spaces to their employees.

Spaces for cooperation and exchanging information

The focus here is on the analogy between urban spaces and office landscapes as vibrant living spaces, as sites for meetings, communication and social interaction. This is because lively interaction is central to today’s knowledge-based work. Rapid and successful communication is decisive for quality and success. With its diverse zones and areas, the Open Office promotes quality interactions, networking and exchange; its multifaceted nature inspires employees and promotes creativity. These open structures encourage knowledge workers to work away from their own desk and to share the entire office infrastructure, turning the space into a field for dialogue. Creating networks, both inside and out, has become an essential component of our work profiles.

Depending on which tasks have to be completed, knowledge workers can select the most appropriate area to do their work. These spaces may be rooms for focused work or privacy, so-called ME-places, or areas for cooperation and communication, so-called We-places. We-places include meeting and conference rooms, zones for spontaneous collaboration and meetings held while sitting or standing, as well as the lounge and cafeteria. Diverse, lively, communicative – and: shared.

Space and time

Today’s knowledge workers are mobile at levels never seen before. They often work at different places in or away from the office – at customer sites, partner companies, branch offices, their home office or "third places" such as cafés, airport lounges or in public space. They don’t need a fixed desk in the office; instead, they need workstations that they can use on a temporary - and uncomplicated - basis whenever they are in-house. When their work is finished, they move on and leave the workplace for the next colleague to use. But even "stationary" Back Office workers in open (shared) space benefit – from an additional, temporary workstation - for instance, during highly focused activities: thanks to shielded, peaceful coves in the open seas of the office, so to speak.

Many knowledge workers internalised the idea of shared spaces long ago, supported of course by certain office rules, codes of conduct and open, respectful interaction with one another, as well as a readiness to try out something new. Because one thing is for sure in everyday office life: we won’t get far with old structures and outmoded patterns of behaviour...


Brigitte Schedl-Richter

Texterin, freie Journalistin,