Better by design (thinking)

by Tiffany Paczek
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When it comes to problem-solving, is design thinking the answer for facility managers? MICHELLE DUNNER reports.

Whether facility managers are coming to grips with something as basic as a faulty elevator, right up to strategising and implementing an organisation’s desire for a new way of working, their only constant is meeting the challenge.

With a vastly varying degree of complexity involved, workplace issues old and new require facility managers to use a new lens. One tool that could prove to be of immense value is design thinking.

Arising out of industrial and product design, the process of design thinking is now being widely applied through corporate life. Essentially, it’s a set of practices that helps organisations and individuals see problems from a new perspective and potentially find atypical solutions.

But, most importantly, according to those encouraging its use within the built environment, the principle underpinning design thinking is to be ‘human centric’. Maureen Thurston, chair of Good Design Australia and global director of Design to Innovate at Aurecon, says facility managers by definition are design thinkers.

“In their stewardship of the building(s) within their portfolio, facility managers are not only accountable to deliver good business practices but, at the end of the day, their ultimate responsibility is to ensure the safety, comfort and well-being of the people within,” Thurston says. “The decisions they make should be on behalf of people – with the goal of making their work environment a great place to be.”

Essentially, Thurston believes: “A facilities manager should be designing backwards from the needs and expectations of the people interacting with the space, not simply following a prescriptive formula.

“The traditional norm of what constitutes an ‘office’ is evolving. Working nine-to-five is a myth. Dedicated desks are disappearing. Some workers don’t even work in an office. To navigate the complexity of change, a facility manager needs to adopt the mindset and methodologies of design to survive, let alone thrive.

Dr Martin Tomitsch is an associate professor from the University of Sydney’s school of architecture, design and planning, and says a key challenge is that, in designing environments to be used by people, everyone has different requirements for the space.

“Because our daily work is becoming more diversified and complex, solutions need to be more individual,” Tomitsch says. “There’s no longer one standard way of doing things, or only one solution we need to find.

“Design thinking allows us to deal with complexity and problems that are non-linear. There are always multiple solutions available and facility managers face that on a regular basis. So, what’s the right way to go? Within the framework of many constraints, such as building codes or standards and balancing technical needs with human needs, design thinking is a valuable tool.

“We’re at a point in time where design impacts all our lives – it’s no longer limited to design professionals. Design is not seen as a craft, but rather a way of thinking, so using design methods allows anyone to solve problems or contribute different perspectives.”

With a growing requirement to deliver better environmental outcomes within facilities, both in terms of reduced footprint and better comfort levels for occupants, Aurecon’s managing director, Built Environment, John McGuire believes design thinking is vital for facility managers to embrace.

“We believe that design thinking is an essential skill that is necessary to know what the right environmental outcomes are that need to be provided,” he says. “We feel that, in the past, perhaps engineers and designers were too disconnected from the end users and didn’t have the right knowledge, skills and capability to understand the needs of the end users at an empathetic level.

“Engineers never really went and observed what end users actually needed, what was superfluous and what were the difficulties that some end users experienced in the buildings that they were designing.

“Now, each building typology and each user will have a different need. A hospital building will be very different from the needs of a start-up incubator – but it was rarely the case that the engineer would go and ask a patient or a clinician or a start-up company what they actually needed or what was causing them frustration.

“It is only through the adoption of design thinking skills that we are now just starting to have the skills to understand real end user needs. We have not perfected this skill set as yet and so there is still a long way to go, but we are making advances through this rediscovery journey around design skills like design thinking.”

Tomitsch believes environmental outcomes and sustainability issues are additional parameters that need to be considered within the design process. “There are legal requirements, there are building specifications, there are desired outcomes and all of these feed into the design process – they just add complexity.

“While design thinking helps make sense of all the different requirements, one of its critical aspects is that it introduces the mentality of trying out things and prototyping. At its core is working not necessarily towards one perfect solution, but on many different iterations of possible solutions.

“That doesn’t always involve building the solutions. Using methods like storyboarding, we can reflect on the solution before investing more money in any particular one. We believe that if you fail early and fail often, you get to a better solution in the end. In acknowledging failure, it’s how we learn.”

Tomitsch cites the work of US aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready, the inventor of the first human-powered aircraft. “This was a competition, where the aircraft needed to fly a figure eight around two poles and it had a large prize attached. No one was able to solve the challenge because they were spending all their time and resources building the perfect aeroplane and it would crash.

“MacCready instead used an approach where he envisaged many different versions of the plane, building small models that he could then scale up. He’d crash a model several times a day and rebuild it. He essentially kept reframing the problem, which is one of the major methods in design thinking, and ultimately found the solution. This is a very good illustration of what it means to embrace failure, as well as the value of prototyping.”

Image: Dmitriy Shpilko ©

Image: Dmitriy Shpilko ©


Given the rapidly changing nature of work practices and workflows, Thurston says there is a flow-on effect to workspaces.

“We are seeing that digital is disrupting many traditional business models and it is amplifying the competitive landscape for just about every business,” she says.

“Most businesses are struggling to understand what this will mean. They know that digital will change their current workflows and how they engage with their customers, but many are unsure how to compete in this new environment and what steps they should take.

“Many are failing to see the building that they occupy as a means of adding competitive advantage to their transition to a new digital world of working. This is best articulated through an example, such as the telecommunications industry, which is experiencing disruption.

“Some of the issues they are facing include how do they transform their business from a voice communication business (basically phone services) to a data solutions business and B2B valued partner? How do they transform their current 4G networks to 5G networks?

“The answer probably will include the fact that they will need the very best computer scientists, the best hackers, data analysts and electronic engineers in the market who can innovate to help them solve those problems. The right question then is: ‘What does space and place mean to the best hackers and data scientists and how does a telecommunications company attract them and put them in an environment where they can innovate?’

“This reframes what space and place means to a telecommunications company from a necessary evil that ‘We have to have to accommodate our staff’, to a valuable differentiate that helps them win in a competitive world.

“Thinking like a designer teaches us to search for the right questions to ask. We must have a deep understanding of the stakeholders for whom we are providing the facility. It is only by asking the right questions and immersing ourselves in their world that we can start to develop solutions that help them with the real problems they have.

“The facilities management staff then need to know, understand and anticipate what kind of space and environment will solve that question. Understanding the needs of the end user business, the changing needs of their business model, the role that the business has for people within it and their changing work practices (through design thinking methodologies) then allows the building designers and FM teams to match the physical asset and its spaces to the needs of the organisation.”

Tomitsch says it’s about making better use of space and providing better value to occupants, especially in developing spaces that foster new ways of working and collaboration. “There needs to be a mindset of experimentation because the requirements are going to be different.

“Collaboration is a complex issue. We shouldn’t start from the premise of designing a space to enable collaboration, but rather first understanding the role of collaboration within an agile workplace. We need to ask when people need to collaborate, where they should do it and how it’s important. After that understanding, if it’s not happening already, we ask why it’s not and then could potentially lead to a physical space design solution.

“But design thinking goes beyond the space and the solution may well not involve physical changes. It may be more about providing opportunities to collaborate at certain times of the day, just bringing people together, or the need to offer better virtual opportunities through digital solutions.

“The facility manager here can play a very important role if they use design thinking to get to where the issues are around encouraging collaboration. Often, we see this as a ‘top- down’ directive; i.e. ‘we need our people to collaborate more’ and design thinking can allow FMs to respond to this with evidence-based reasoning and possibly demonstrate a more cost-effective and sustainable outcome.

“Starting with physical changes to an office or building can be very expensive and there’s a limit to redoing them if they don’t result in the right outcomes.”

Thurston agrees: “Asking ‘why’ to uncover the real purpose will reshape how we design buildings.

“We get so caught up in the technology involved, focusing on everything from building management system apps and information screens to automated elevators and rooms that are air-conditioned and lit a few seconds before occupants enter them, that we forget who a building is ultimately designed for: people.

“Building design is not (only) about bits and bytes, but flesh and bones – we need to take a step back and remember that humans are at the centre of everything we design. Buildings of the future are about designs that unlock human potential. High tech is only high value if that same technology enhances human experience.”

Thurston believes buildings were never meant to operate in isolation from users. “Rather they should operate in ‘synchronisation’ with them. For a building to be smart and connected, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s up to the building designers to consider all the complexities involved in designing a human-centred and emotionally intelligent building – and then to design ‘simple’ ones. This means having empathy for the needs, challenges, daily tasks, desires and long-term goals of the people who use them.

“Creating buildings that are both intellectually and emotionally intelligent will be the currency in the future as companies start to realise that their bottom line depends largely on the wellness, happiness and productivity of their people.

“At Aurecon we have invested heavily in getting our people to ‘think like a designer’ in the engineering and services we provide. We have employed industrial designers to work side by side with our engineering designers to make this happen.

“Given I’m an industrial designer, I may be somewhat biased, but I believe these skills are the perfect complement to engineering. Together we can create more meaningful value for our clients as well as the stakeholders that interact with the buildings we create for them.

McGuire adds: “And so, when we think about does technology need to be ‘baked in’ to the built environment, the answer is most likely yes and no. First, technology is only relevant if it is meaningful to the people (the workers/ occupants) who are intended to be the users of it. If a technology is of no use to them or is meaningless, then they are not likely to use it. Technology for technology’s sake is most likely a waste.

“But second, we believe that technology should be invisible in many instances to the user. The user of an iPhone doesn’t really know the technical detail of what is in a smartphone or how it does what it does; they just love its functionality. Moreover, they love that it gives new meaning to what a phone is (it is now a social interacting device).

“The same can apply to a building. People can love the building and all it does for them, without necessarily knowing how it does it or what is doing it. They just need to know that the space simply works for them and allows them to achieve their very best.

“Being stakeholder-centric allows our designers to know what is meaningful to the intended beneficiary and then allows us to develop (or bake in) the technology that enables that to happen, even perhaps without the end user being aware of the technical detail.”

Tomitsch says the focus needs to be on the people rather than the technology. “Design thinking helps us to understand where to use technology. It’s important to have an awareness of technology, so we know what’s possible, but it’s critical not to see it as the ultimate solution, or an end in itself. Technology is a way of assisting the people working in our facilities, to take away their pain points.

“Facility managers should be considering how the space design supports use of technology, as well as making better use of the physical space – merging virtual and physical needs.”

Image: rawpixel ©

Image: rawpixel ©


Thurston says a design thinker is first and foremost an advocate for the stakeholder. “Design thinkers are driven to explore and experiment as a means to uncover new value. Nothing makes a design thinker happier than challenging the status quo – always asking ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’ because they know that progress depends on asking beautiful questions. They look at the whole picture to gain better understanding and test their ideas to ensure they’ve arrived at the best option.”

Tomitsch, who co-authored a book called Design. Think. Make. Break. Repeat. says facility managers need to think more about the process and less about specific problems. “They should engage with their stakeholders and try out different solutions, break them quickly and come up with an improved solution. Doing that, while considering their stakeholders, will ultimately ensure they come up with more human-centred solutions.

“Whether we’re talking about facility managers, engineers or anyone who wants to transform a current situation into a better one, they’re all design thinkers,” he concludes.

This article also appears in the February/March issue of Facility Management magazine.

Lead image: Wavebreak Media Ltd ©

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