MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

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What is "workplace" design?

Among our offerings to clients through our consulting practice is a bundle of services under the heading of “Workplace.” Among our friends and others who look at our portfolio of great workspaces is a general perception that these are “corporate interiors” services – selecting and specifying finishes and furniture for spaces designed by project architects. While this is descriptive of a portion of what we do, it is a substantial understatement of the services we perform and the value we bring to clients. I thought I’d offer, then, a brief primer on “workplace” design by telling a story about a current client.

The client’s strategic context

Our client works in one of the most dynamic and unpredictable businesses of our time. Delivering health care insurance and other services to its customers, the company operates in a context that is at the top of the national agenda. The national political discourse, the state of the economy, demographic trends, lifestyle trends and other factors generate an uncertain, unpredictable, and highly dynamic set of conditions for business performance.

Looking into the mysteries of the future, this company has set a strategic direction to define its future purpose and performance, and shape its evolution from a claims processing business to a health and lifestyle consulting business.

It has now also formulated a set of initiatives intended to attract customers and grow the business. These initiatives have influence on the company’s entire corporate culture and specific impacts on its organizational design, its human resources policies and practices, its information technology systems in both operations and customer-facing domains, and its business processes.

The company has also generated an initiative for the design of new workspaces wherever it works. This program is influenced by the other operational initiatives, and is also recognized as having a significant potential impact o the success and benefits of those other projects.

Strategy Design – Design Strategy

In a recent letter to the company’s employees, the COO clearly signaled the importance of the design of the workplace to the performance of the company by defining the goals for the workspace initiative.

He explained that the design initiative would play a “vital role” in the success of the company and enable everyone who worked there to live its brand attributes every day. He defined these goals for the design –

▪          Shape the corporate culture ▪          Secure the brand’s sustainability for future generations ▪          Stimulate creativity and collaboration ▪          Improve the ability to provide the highest quality of customer service

So that is the beginning framework for a “workplace” project – linking the  business’s strategy design to our design strategy and developing a workspace that enhances the quality and benefits of the company’s work.

Let’s take a quick look at how we’ve embraced this mission and what we’ve been up to so far. This might give you a better understanding of what “workplace” projects are all about.

Brand Repositioning

As we entered the project, the company had just complete a “brand repositioning” initiative. This was a first step in shaping their strategies for success in this dynamic business context. This involved an exploration of the potential needs of their customers and developing a deep understanding of their experiences as they sought resolution of their healthcare objectives.

With the insight that the customer experience is driven by the employee experience, the brand repositioning defined key differentiating behaviors of the company’s employees and the impacts they would have on customer experience.

Employee experience

We’ve long believed that the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of work. That is, as business success increasingly demands innovation in processes, services and products, there is an increasing competition for the top talent necessary to deliver innovation. Attracting those people increasingly means providing the contexts where top talent can engage with others inside and outside the organization and experience the pleasure of accomplishing great things.

We were therefore pleased to enter the discussion with the company’s leadership around this subject of employee “behaviors.” We began to speculate on the working experiences that could be associated with those behavioral objectives and, in turn, the characteristics of the working environments that would provide those experiences and nurture those behaviors.

Design principles

Workplace design has long been characterized by a very limited “lexicon” of form. Dilbert was the perfect outgrowth of the corporate workplace typology in which two forms – offices and high-walled cubicles – defined the nature of work and the culture of companies. Almost all of our clients come to us knowing nothing other than this lexicon, and expecting only a stylistic variant on that tired theme.

It was therefore very important for us to help our client visualize other possibilities and to have other goals for the design of their next workspaces. We formulated a set of “Design Principles” that made a direct linkage between their brand differentiators and the innovative concepts we might propose. These principles allow us to move into a much more robust engagement with the client and a much richer conversation about design, experience and performance.

Design vocabulary

The Design Principles then had two influences, backwards and forwards in the process – they began to influence our client’s development of “company values” aligned with the brand and strategic initiatives, and they informed our development of a “Design Vocabulary” for the project.

The Design Vocabulary consists of a number of concepts for “work settings” including all physical and infrastructural components of the environment in which people would work. This has helped us bring an largely new approach to workplace design and policies for the company.

We are developing concepts around teams, not individuals; around work activities, not titles; and around a future state for the company, not current conditions.

Prototype templates

Among the challenges given us by the leadership of the company was to develop a design that could be implemented wherever they were and wherever they would go. This, of course, is both about place and also about time – how to design in a way that would be relevant over the next 10-20 years of the company’s development and growth.

The Design Vocabulary was a core component of this approach. The settings are team platforms that can be plugged in or pulled out of any specific project as the scale or organizational mix required.

We then tested this approach through the development of prototypical “templates.” These were illustrations of the application of the work settings to both “greenfield” and specific local contexts. We tested alternative floor configurations, alternative scales of occupancy and alternative mixes of organizational functions as a way of “proving” the relevance of the Design Vocabulary, its authenticity to the Design Principles,  and how it would affect employee experience and deliver on the goals of the initiative.

The developed concepts will then form a set of workspace design guidelines that can be adapted to the specific conditions of location and time. We are now about to start the implementation of the design for a phased development of the company’s 1,000 person headquarters.

Turning point

This is now a significant turning point in the initiative. Up to now, the company’s strategy has been influencing our design strategy. As the company begins to occupy its new workspaces however, it will be our designs that influence the successful accomplishment of the company’s strategies.

Our workspace designs will affect the experiences of the employees, in turn affecting their behaviors and, through their interactions with customers and development of new and innovative solutions, affecting the experiences of customers and the success of the company.

Stay tuned.

I hope this story-in-progress gives you a better understanding of what “workplace” strategy and design is all about.

Remember a couple of core ideas as you look around and talk with your own clients and friends –

Work looks different now – The technologies we use, the ways that we work, the challenges we face all beg for a radically different approach to the design of the spaces and places where we work.

It’s about the experience, stupid – The leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “own” the experience of working – top talent will choose where they go and who they work with based on how the organization provides the innovative resources of place and space to nurture differential purpose and achievement.

Encouraging people to mingle and ideas to flow

"...encouraging people to mingle and ideas to flow"

It is interesting to look into the hospitality industry for the way it perceives trends in the needs of its customers and tests alternative settings to meet their objectives.

Today, the New York times notes –

As the line between office and social life continues to fade, with more people checking e-mail after dinner or texting friends between business meetings, hotels are taking the cue in redesigning their meeting rooms.

Multiple chains are transforming some of their traditional and somewhat antiseptic meeting rooms into more comfortable lounges aimed at encouraging people to mingle and ideas to flow.

It's a bit too bad that similar experimentation and development does not take place more easily in the places where it matters most – in the office.

(click image for link)

Will Instagram displace Apple as the great strategic story of the decade?

Will Instagram displace Apple as the great strategic story of the decade?


The most important part of the Instagram story may not be the billion dollar purchase prize, but the transformational influence that Kodak's failure in the light of Instagram's success may have on corporate strategy and design.

Corporate cultures are influenced by short horizons. In a recent Forbes assessment of the Kodak bankruptcy, Larry Keeley observed this condition –

At least once a week, top executives tell me that new growth businesses in their firms are intriguing and potentially important, but they simply "don't move the needle." Said in plain American: "The hot new thing simply cannot produce enough revenues this quarter to improve my bonus as a senior executive." So those projects are starved of resources instead of nurtured.

And in the New York Times, Nick Bilton observes that –

Even if Polaroid or Kodak could have developed Instagram, it’s likely that the project would have been killed anyway. What would be the reaction of almost any executive presented with a business plan to save the company with an iPhone app that had no prospect for revenue?

We've become very interested in this concept of "stock and flow" from other influences, but highlighted by the Instagram story.

What are your experiences with this "stock and flow" pattern?

How car dealers uncovered a surprising key to greater customer satisfaction


One of the more active and heated debates on the value of design to business is over what are called "factory image programs" for car dealerships.

Most car manufacturers, concerned about the alignment of dealership appearance with their product programs, periodically impose or strongly influence updates to the physical quality and character of dealers' facilities. Most dealers resist the programs because they are unable to link a measurable business benefit like increased sales to the high cost of these programs.

So the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) commissioned an independent study to uncover and identify the value in the programs and recommend a resolution to the ongoing conflict between them and the manufacturers. The study was just released at the annual NADA convention a couple of days ago.

I expect I'll return to comment further on the study in the near future. But I did want to offer an initial and very interesting out-take from the study.

After discussing the diverse and complex array of considerations and influences that made solid conclusions almost impossible to derive, and especially after uncovering that the annual costs of billions of dollars spent on dealership facilities meant very little, if anything, to people buying the cars, the study uncovered an unanticipated yet solidly expressed value in the programs.

…dealers expressed pleasant surprise that, after they completed a store upgrade, it became much easier to attract, retain, and motivate good staff. One multi-point dealer even told us that "I modernize as much to attract good staff as to impress the customers." Another pointed out that with improved employee morale came improved CSI scores, which makes sense. The impact seemed especially powerful in the service area: as one interviewee put it: "A dropped ceiling in the service bays will do wonders in attracting and retaining good technicians, who are pretty used otherwise to being ignored."

Despite the experiential evidence that there was this direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction (CSI = Customer Satisfaction Index), there apparently has been no survey by the manufactures or the dealer association to uncover and verify these anecdotal, and logical, findings.

And I think that's where I'll return in future commentary. I have some significant experience in factory image programs and have consistently been surprised with the fact that they align things (store fixtures) with things (car designs) but not the real experiences with and in these things.

That to me is the most important point of this study, affirming what we know from other places. The real power of workplace design lies not in the "brand image" but in the experiences of work. The quality and character of the workplace directly links to attraction, engagement, morale, motivation and performance of good employees, and that directly links to quality and character of the customer's experience with the organization.

The NADA has, in other words, discovered what we've said in so many other places – the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who "own" the experiences of work.

Where you [don't] sit in the office

We reflected recently on the debate taking place about the appropriateness of an open office to meet the needs of a diverse population with diverse needs and characteristics. Our position was and is that this is not an either/or choice of the rightness of open versus closed. We are also concerned that a hybrid may not be the best or more robust response, although we certainly believe this is an acceptable midterm-in-the-transformation-of-the-office solution.

Our emerging position is that work has changed substantially and fundamentally, and we now believe that the either/or/hybrid battle uses an increasingly archaic language. We believe that an entirely new lexicon of form is essential to get on and stay on the curve of the increasing momentum of change.

Beyond the open/closed debate, there is also the one about where we work – home or office – and the relative value of each. A recent example of this debate was published on the Bloomberg Businessweek site, here. As with the open/closed debate, we think that these arguments proposing that one or the other is the more correct place are the delightful indicator of a revolution in the making, yet also reflect a depressing tendency to hang on to an ancient lexicon and miss the currently delicious opportunity to design a new language of work and the places and spaces of work.

What is, however, great to grab from the debate is the data from the emerging science of space and interaction. In the Bloomberg Businessweek debate, Ben Weber cites the growing evidence of the benefits of productivity, engagement and job satisfaction that come from face-to-face interaction. This kind of data is helpful in shaping new solutions for the place we've called "the office" and is also helpful in identifying the cultural characteristics and attributes of personal and group behaviors that should be the "program" for designing new types of spaces where the new activities of work can take place.

In yet another example, Bob Frisch asked the question, "Does it matter where your top team sits?" in a recent HBR article (here). He is, essentially, advocating something we've done in past work, which is to provide multiple settings for people to do their work. "Two seats for every employee" sounds counter-intuitive in a time of great compression, but the mantra reinforces the recognition that capturing the value of face-to-face interactions means supporting it in lots of different locations.

Our take is that all of this discussion is the illumination of the fact that we work differently now and need a different response to thinking about and designing the workspace(s). Whether we sit at home or in "the office" or with one team or another, or in a place for focus or a place for collaboration, we should begin to recognize that we work in all of these places and in all of these modes. We should no longer demand a place only for one of us and try to make it work for all that we do, and we should no longer accept a place of work provided by the companies we work for that does not provide lots of places for us to work in the modes that best support what we need to do at whatever time of the day we need it.

We desperately need to move on in the world and get new stuff done. We need new places to do that.

Getting out of groupthink and into pursuing opportunities

There has been a lot of conversation in recent days about the form of the office and how to design it for those who work in it. This is enormously interesting to me because this conversation, like many others in culture, politics and business, is an exciting signal of the search for real innovation and of a desire for a revolution in the way we provide the places and spaces where we do the things we do.

Argument and revolution

The “conversation” that I reference is the point and counterpoint in recent debates about which way is best – the old comfortable way or a recent newly proposed and tested way. A round of confirming and contradicting commentary was recently evoked by Susan Cain's article in the New York Times. While trying to make a case for consideration of the closeting needs of introverts, she broadly bashed the new, open workplace as a product of "groupthink" in its pejorative connotation. Using the same term in almost the same week, Jonah Lehrer referenced the incredible volume of creative product emerging from the famous Building 20 at MIT, "one of the most creative environments of all time," generally credited to the informal interactions happening between people of different backgrounds and interests. And Alison Arlieff weighed in with the groupthink that collaborative spaces aren't all they're cracked up to be. Closed office vs. open office.

The “revolution” that I reference is my belief that a third form with a new language will emerge. This third form will have immediate credibility in the forehead-slapping “of course” mode and will make both of the currently debated forms artifacts in a rapidly receding history.

Getting out of groupthink – New forms will be generated from a new lexicon

I propose that the current arguments are nostalgic and a bit arrogant. They are arguments of an estate that recognizes it has lost its case but does not yet know where to turn. And they are arguments of a self-appointed enlightened who believe that the right way is the way they proposed to counter the old way but is now being uncovered as having had insufficient rigor, and that now has piles of data bias making a great case against it.

I think that the core issue we are now confronting arises from the loss of meaning of familiar terms like “office” and “workplace” and, even, “work.” “Office” is a term left over in the slow evolution from industrialization and carried the implications of production and supervision in its form. Attendance, for example, was a key characteristic of its managerial mode. “Workplace” implied a single setting, the place where work was done, the place that was separate from the other stuff we did, the place that was defined by time, location and character. “Work” was something separate from “life” and disregarded the reality that, even in the old mold, one defined the quality of the other.

In almost every meaningful, productive, and rewarding context now, these terms are antique.

“Work” certainly has changed dramatically from the dreary and dreaded stuff we did for “the man.” Most of what we call work, the valuable stuff, is creative in some form. Most of what we do is self-defined or collaboratively determined with a team oriented to a goal that is more frequently something defined by them and not by a manager.

There is no single “workplace” any more because we do what we do in multiple physical settings and multiple virtual settings, as well. Time, also, is no longer a limiter in what we do. We carry huge amounts of information on tiny devices everywhere we go, and we connect with our networks anywhere we are. In an odd inversion, we may find solitude and focus sitting with our headphones on in a public cafe and, when we are ready for socializing our ideas and learning from others, we go to the office.

The office best serves as a place for connecting with a network of knowledge and resources to get purposeful stuff done. The productive social buzz and innovative activity that now takes place there is called “distraction” and blamed on an “open” office by those who claim a value of “focus” to name whatever it is that they do behind their six-foot tall cubicle walls. They are missing the reality that entitled square footage for playing computerized solitaire never had, and now certainly no longer has, value. They miss that the work that is valuable is not the consumption of time but the generation of new ideas and approaches with a team of other highly motivated people. Those people, when they need focus, find a place for focus. Otherwise, the buzz of collaborative activity is the visible manifestation of the generation of value for the world.

Pursuing opportunities

Arguing about which of the existing ways of designing a workplace is wasteful. It is a form of the groupthink that the debaters debate. Work is no longer done in one place, and the office is no longer one thing.

Reflecting on what we do, and how we really do it, and then generating, testing and developing new environments for the activities and behaviors of work is productive and valuable.

As Kevin Kelly says, "Don't solve problems; pursue opportunities."

Things we've noticed

How. And why. Not what.

This is a very nice piece on enjoying the "how" and "why" in the process of answering a challenging question rather than rushing to the "what," the answer.

The process of answering a question should be a voyage of discovery, a journey during which you learn something, and one where you enjoy yourself in the process.

The essay made me think about the invisible processes in business, and also how the places of businesses are not designed around the how and why. If the design and planning of workspaces made clearer the purposes of the enterprise, and if the processes people and teams used to get to the what were more transparent and observable, would an organization learn more, create more valuable knowledge, and achieve more?

What innovators share

Somewhat related to the above is this review in the Ottawa Business Journal of a recent book on the "innovator's DNA." The review reflects on the power of "the five whys" while also noting the five distinguishing characteristics of successful innovators.

associating, observing, questioning, experimenting and networking

We'd found our way this week, in the midst of our own annual strategic planning, to a discussion about the uniqueness of the places and spaces where innovation seems most successful. As I carry the images of those spaces, I'm making a resolution to shape our design mission – our client's "program" or "design brief" for their corporate workspace – into a form that links workspace concepts to these 5 attributes.

That is, since most of our clients are engaged in a search for how to generate and support a more entrepreneurial culture, I intend to test a change of the lexicon of workplace design from conventional descriptors of corporate organization and function ("accounting") and conventional workplace form ("conference room") to new terms reflecting these innovation behavior attributes.

I expect that radical transformations in design processes and concepts will emerge.

Augmented reality

There are many things to enjoy and reflect on in this proposal of trends for 2012 from the Smithsonian here and here.

I expect I'll come back to the list for further exploration and comment, since I stopped almost immediately at the first subject, augmented reality.

In a recent project, we found transformative approaches to design through our slogan of "augment, amplify, activate." A client had a new workspace designed by others, but then found it experientially flat. It satisfied the organizations, functions and facility metrics of the enterprise, but did nothing to change their culture and performance, which was the purpose of the project in the first place. Our slogan was a motivator to the occupiers and the designers to explore conceptual modifications to support behavioral change and development.

This sense of "augmentation" seems like a rich territory for exploration in design. A while back I had speculated on "the autoupdating workspace." And more recently, a colleague raised a question about augmented reality which made me think in entirely different terms about the "productivity" of both the principal artifact of our service, digital "drawings," and the activities that take place in the spaces and places we design. I've become increasingly interested in how to build layers on top of our digital design information and capture digital information from the physical spaces we design.

The Race Against the Machine

Related to the above, I've just finished reading Race Against the Machine, and am now both tremendously excited as well as terribly frightened.

The motivation for me is to begin to imagine the role of the workspace in assuring the race with the machine. Finding a strengthening signal in the requests we are getting from clients, there is an accelerating realization that space supports enterprise sustainability, but this is increasingly tied to the changes in the way we work together because of the extraordinary acceleration of technology.

We are now attracted to, and attractive to, clients whose enterprise is shaped around technologies that, yes, automate creativity. These enterprises are now, or soon will be, seeking spatial solutions well beyond the most advanced corporate real estate solutions.

The Singularity

And, of course, this.

Focus groups

I am not sure about this, but can't stop thinking about it. That is, is Facebook a relevant a valuable data source for workspace design? It seems so logical to "crowdsource" criteria and concepts for a satisfying and uniquely productive work do we best do it?

...and, in case you were wondering

Why humans have chins

An autoupdating workspace?

A couple of influences this week evoked once again my great interest in how to conceive of a workplace that is continuously updated and enriched by the actions and adaptations of its users. There were, of course, the many reflections on the culture that Steve Jobs developed at Apple. I found interest in a video we’ve referenced before with this specific observation about the Apple design culture – Every time you present the user with a non-essential decision to make, you have failed as a designer.

It is easy to appreciate the meaning of this in the experience of Apple’s products, and in its retail environments. In architecture in other places, it conjures up Mies van der Rohe, Tadao Ando, Louis Kahn, and others. The work of each is beautiful in its sparseness, in its precision, in its critical attributes, in its reduction. It is also easy to imagine how these environments would be seen as disappointments to those who were not their direct commissioners.

The notion that google's Chrome was developed as a blank platform with an “autoupdater” that progressively enriched the platform is a great inspirational concept, too. An app gets progressively more valuable as the experience of thousands or millions informs its designers, providing the insights for its progressive development and enrichment.

Buildings learn, it seems, but rarely cumulatively. And in between the experience of the users of a building and its learning potential is an authoritarian structure charged with control and armed with the limiting tools of standards. Its role is unidirectional by intention, but even when embracing an interest in more progressive approaches it is under-resourced to effectively and accurately receive and respond to information coming from the direction of the occupier/user. The user is, of course, also under-resourced, without tools or opportunities to experiment or implement what they perceive to be better approaches to environments that might help them do their jobs better.

Designers are unintentional disappointments, as well. That is, the desire for recognition from peers, and for appreciation from users, frequently generates fully-loaded designs perceived as rich environments for their purpose but stripping the user of opportunity for authorship.

Is it possible, in then, to develop a workplace infrastructure in which the initial commission can be the minimally awesome product, and in which the users have resources and authority to make progressive adaptations based on a commitment to purpose and a goal of performance and the insights from ongoing experience?

What do you think?

Jim Meredith

Have you been there? Have you seen it?

I am going to go so far as to suggest that Occupy Wall Street as an anti-establishment movement has offers insights to guide planning and design principles of significant value to the establishment itself.

Read More

things we saw this week that you might like, also

Among some of the things that caught our attention last week and that may influence our thinking this week are these –

This is a delightfully simple essay that illuminates the power of spatial experience in moving decisions and closing deals.
"The idea that cars run free...that idea's about to change." Sculptor Chris Burden has been working on this rather remarkable interpretation of "Metropolis" to evoke the energy of a city
This was a brief but interesting conversation about an apparent bias toward modernism in most design competitions in the UK. This question seems to have its own answer: "Should modernity be preferred precisely because it is innovative and forward thinking?"
This seemed an unlikely place to find a discussion about the "green workplace" but, once past the intro, is an interesting insight into the subject and, more significantly for me, how a bit of research required by an event led to a deep dive into a subject and then a globally recognized expertise.
Detroit is struggling to remake itself after decades of irrational and obsessive self-destruction by almost every leader, "civic" or private. We find it hard to accept this preferential apportioning of the limited resources the City has left, feeling it to be a better-dressed replay of prior practices.
Designer-driven innovation – This is a rather pretty concept to illustrate a debate about whether markets or vision are the optimum origins for innovation

A new value equation for organizational real estate

Emerging opportunities in organizational real estate and workplace programs – and how to capture their value

I have become considerably optimistic about the future of our practice from the evidence of disruption that had been latently present and now is increasing activating our economy. What had been a slowly emerging awareness of the need for doing things in new ways is now attaining greater momentum through the recognition that a fundamental shift has taken place, and that new strategies and designs are essential to successfully get in the flow of new achievement.

I sketched a diagram, an emergent equation of sorts, that begins to express some of the shift and its potential in a couple of domains of interest for me.

It tries to express that the content of the institutions and organizations of the recent past, which had still been bound up in closed and constrained systems, is breaking out and finding new value through more open and innovative systems. The impacts of this change of state include the collapsing value of the services and infrastructures that sustained the older systems in the first decade of the millennium, and the emergent power and potential residing in the transitional white space between the recent now and the yet-unformed next.

Some familiar recitations

Corporations, as individually competitive entities, were essentially closed systems where not being number one or two meant death. They were administrated by hierarchies enclosed in towers expressive of stature, status, and power. The value in these towers was attained through internal controls like efficiency of utilization, and external influences like financial instruments.

These real estate values were achieved through a set of services, equipment and standards managed separately from the core purposes of the organization, and yet influenced the shape of buildings and cities. People sat in policy-defined cubes. Furniture manufacturers fabricated responsive and dimensionally-confined systems. And architects and designers influenced site selection and lease negotiations based on "test fits" measuring the efficiency of the ratio of space enclosed in cubes versus the amount of space left over. Developers achieved "investment grade" ratings on their buildings by, among other things, reducing the inches of building constructed between the module of the furniture systems proscribed by the corporate standards and the minimum dimensions of aisles defined by code. Geometric precision defined economic value.

Then, a confluence of global comic development, financial meltdown, technology acceleration and the innovation imperative scrambled the value set. Rising real (and artificial) estate costs initiated a quest to squeeze, and "footprint hierarchy" disappeared. Technology enabled a work-anywhere potential, and realistic real estate utilization metrics proved the case for dramatic reduction in real estate demand. Innovation, the key to competitive differentiation and precious growth, was now believed to arise from a culture of creative and cross-disciplinary collaboration for which the cube was an enemy. Even after economic collapse and the disappearance of price pressure on real estate decisions, the demand for space may now be felt more by the coffee shop than the corporation.

Leading organizations are now trying to find ways to operate as networked clusters of competencies rather than closed corporations. The concept of work "stations" now only has value if you believe that if you have one you will not get laid off; instead, quality of place and attraction of space get attention. Work, in any case, is no longer contained in a company's buildings, nor by the clock, and is progressively becoming part of a seamlessly networked, diversely urban lifestyle. People now much more agile in place and time, choose places and spaces that are the most effective, or can be made more effective, for whatever activity is part of their workstream.

So, what might this mean?

Our clients regularly ask us about trends. Understanding what is happening in workplace planning and design, for example, allows them to become current, test their status against industry and competitors, and make more informed choices about their own programs. Trends, a term borrowed from the world of style, may however be evidence more of group-think and less a valid tool for decision-making. The trend-setter may actually have been the only one in the chain who made an authentic move, creatively adapting and innovating their workspace to meet the unique and differential needs of their organization's purpose. His followers may now be experiencing the frustration of trying to fit function to form.

In a recently posted video of his presentation at a TED conference, Simon Sinek offers a diagram – "the Golden Circle" – of the path to influential leadership, and a simple formulation that people want what you believe, not what you are. Individuals and organizations with a well-formulated and articulated belief system ("why" – their purpose for being) develop aligned and authentic means to deliver on their promise ("how"). In order for the "how" of their organization to be effective, they shape their presence in place and space in the character of their culture ("what" – the tangible and physical expression of their unique DNA).

Trends in organizational real estate and workplace design

In their real estate and workplace design programs, aspirational organizations may see the impact and influence of others' space moves and, sensing "trend," may choose a similar approach for themselves, believing they, too, may benefit from the concepts.

The trend-setting organization may say – we are relentless in our quest to understand the needs of our clients and their customers. To get this understanding we do our work standing next to them, enabled by technology and support policies that allow our people to work in our client's places. We've developed an agile workplace with all of the tools to support and nurture our highly committed and recognized staff.

The trend-following organization sees a "trend" to shed real estate costs through a reduced space inventory and minimized allocations. They initiate a mobile work "policy" and measure their success with a 40% reduction in occupancy costs, which, they believe, enhances their competitive position in the market. Their people begin to experience a high level of stress, make  harmful decisions based on the celebrated internal metrics, and cling to a cubicle as an entitlement and an assumed job insurance.

If I could apply Simon Sinek's principles to our advice to our clients, I would always propose that we design from the inside out. Developing a deep understanding of the purpose and goals of the organization (the why), we would then begin to shape with them a strategy design (the how) to meet their goals and then begin to uncover, test and develop concepts to shape a design strategy for place and space (the what) to enhance the performance of people and to achieve and sustain leadership in their mission.

In other words, I'd try this new formula with them–

  • Articulate why you are in business and let that purpose be the principle drive of real estate programs and decisions
  • Define how you uniquely do what you do, first without reference to space
  • Shape space and place around the how

This is a great time for corporations and other forms of organizations to reassess the purposes and power of place for their own goals and objectives, whether considering new initiatives or reviewing the impacts of past or recent programs.

What do you think?

© Jim Meredith

Why can't the world's best architects build better web sites?

(sorry, do not have original credit) I've been spending time lately in the development space of entrepreneurs for the purposes of designing spaces for entrepreneurs, and I am learning. A central ritual of entrepreneurial life is the pitch to venture capitalists. A central discipline of the pitch is its conciseness of form, its brevity in delivery, its formula for content, its cadence, its medium, its goal.

This essential crispness of discipline is reinforced over and over. The VC's motivation to commit millions of dollars of investment is tied to a handful of PowerPoint slides and no more than 15 to 18 minutes of clear accessible language in presentation and conversation.

I reflect on this because of the contrast it has with the performance in my core practice – architecture and design. The connection arises because recently Fast Company gave voice to Alissa Walker who offered an appropriately stinging commentary on the design of the web sites of leading architects. Web sites and pitches are not directly aligned, but they relate here because architects' web sites are part of a culture of presentation that evokes sharp reactions from those outside of the profession who see something that does not make sense to them.

And does it make sense for architects, themselves, anymore?

I went to a lecture last night (these are always, actually, portfolio presentations)  by a very well-known architect. Organized around a small number of key themes, she presented mostly what we call "work on the boards." These were projects well advanced in design, but not yet constructed.

Among the projects she presented was work done for the federal government. "As you know," she said, "the GSA's Design Excellence projects require you to develop 3 schemes. We gave names to these schemes – Z, T and I."

Encapsulated in that sentence are several aspects of the culture and practice of the profession that characterize architectural presentations and may be contributing factors to the enormous frustration people feel with architects' web sites.

First, by way of background, architects are chosen on the basis of "qualifications" and, in the parlance of most clients, this means "experience" and experience means the display of projects that are like the project contemplated by the client. Rarely is there an interest in the chance luck of a great piece of architecture coming out of a start-up or otherwise inexperienced firm.

In a project, despite months of extended conversations between architects and their clients, architects are compelled, typically, to present not one big idea but three. This practice comes both from the insecurity of the client and the insecurity of the architect, and may also be a tactic to attempt to move the client from a preconceived concept to one that the architect prefers or recommends as better for whatever reasons.

Architects are also notorious users of jargon, mostly from the domains of academic criticism and usually obscure and inaccessible. Even in the case I cited above, the selection of very simple letter designations is a layered abstraction. The letters relate to the plan form of the building concepts (Z-shaped, etc.). This, of course, separates form from function, and separates the architect's language of shape from the client's language of purpose, production and performance.

I expect that architects' web sites are an extension of all of this. For a diverse practice, the necessity to present a large number of projects is a way of potentially participating in a client selection lottery, of sorts, assuring that client X may find at least one project that satisfies the qualifications checklist. Verbal jargon may very well be a way to suspend the conversation, in a way, so that the precision of words does not imply or incur exclusion. Flash animation is participation in a domain of presentation and technology as a way of claiming currency and legitimacy and, perhaps, also the continuation of the practice of presenting form before content.

After the collapse of the economy, and of the opportunity to build, I realized that almost every project opportunity I might have could only become real by treating a project like a business plan, like an entrepreneur's pitch. Every move to access and utilize capital by the project had to be linked to a performance result, an impact on the organization or the business that resonated well beyond the building itself. My client became, in essence, my client's customers.

Opportunities arise now not from the presentation of qualifications validated by a portfolio of past work, but through a concise conversation about how place and space will measurably enhance the business or transform the organization. The design solution is less these days the form that emerges after the extended development of a program of requirements, but the fresh idea presented at the first meeting with the client that demonstrates a well-developed understanding of the challenges and opportunities in their domain of operation and the factors that will move them to differential success.

I expect that this new form of practice will begin to reshape the way that architects present themselves – in lectures, presentations, and web sites. (And gives me my own homework, here!)

As part of the mashup of news and ideas that occurs in my daily dawn review of RSS feeds, there was coincidentally, in addition to the Fast Company article, a link to this TED Talks video of David Rose's advice on the entrepreneurial pitch.

Architects, could you imagine a client interview guided by this advice? Clients, if VC's will make a commitment of millions on the basis of these guidelines, why not you in your projects? [ted id=353]

4 places for transformation – not recovery – of the architectural profession

The demand for corporate real estate is down dramatically and the vacancy being counted and reported now does not yet represent the depth of the problem. Corporations are either not willing to take losses in disposition of real estate, or are holding property and leases for an imagined future and are yet to confront the real scale of recovery. Landlords, believing that vacancies harm them especially when leases to some companies represent property status, are not yet reporting the actual scale of occupancies. Historically, rising employment and a traditionally aligned increase in real estate demand lags the trajectory of recovery by months. And credit supply, certainly, has a different relationship to real estate demand now.

Business recovery, no matter how robust, will never absorb the current building supply.

Many architectural firms whose fortune and fame were built on corporate space are still in denial. Past indices of architectural revenues had a relatively direct relationship between white collar employment and services demand, so most firms are wishing and waiting for "recovery." I think that the wait for new architectural commissions is going to be very long.

The growth of real estate demand and the resultant rewards to the profession over the early portions of the past decade had foundations that were both real and virtual. Actual business growth was part of the mix, as was a need for smart infrastructure to support the momentum of technology implementation in the workplace. Lagging commitments to corporate standards, including a surprisingly tenacious hold on the office as perk, also fueled a demand for space that was larger than the effective working need. And the attractiveness of debt – that is, the availability of cheap credit – was, as we all now know, a driver of global construction without a real market supporting it.

As things began to collapse, we already had an abnormally high ratio of space to real and emerging demand. It's all dynamically correcting now, and the current metrics of the issue are not yet balanced.

So what is the future for architects, and for their clients?

square foot0001

First, a quick review. I believe that the actual emerging demand at the front edge of the recovery (when it happens) will be a small fraction of current supply. If this block represents 100 square feet of pre-collapse space, the crisis could finally reconcile demand at 50% of current supply, if not still significantly less.

The reductions in demand come from –

  • Rightsizing Corporate layoffs now represent not just a temporary alignment with an economic downturn, but will also ultimately reflect a permanent change in the scale of business. This permanency will come from a new conservatism (corporations, like shoppers, realize that bling is dead, and sustainability as a value looks real), a lag of response to demand, and new ways of doing things brought by the operating discipline imposed by the Great Recession.
  • Utilizing As the recession was beginning, we began to deploy new analytical tools and metrics  in workplace planning to more effectively align our design practice with business strategy. We were able to show that the typical workplace was unoccupied for much, if not most, of the workday. It appeared that the (finally) lighter and more ubiquitous technology, and collaborative workstyles generated by the innovation agenda, meant that the fix on individual and assigned workstations was beginning to wane. Corporations were rapidly learning that adherence to traditional and even recently updated standards meant a 40-60% competitive disadvantage when measured in real estate costs.
  • Mobilizing Corporate globalization, technology improvements, wifi infrastructures and new workstyles also contributed to global, local and internal mobility. This mobility not only directly revised the demand on real estate, but the managerial and HR tolerance of work done anywhere meant that home, Starbucks, and the airport replaced the office.
  • Standardizing I actually consider this a bad word, but there is at last a move in corporate facilities departments, and among us as planners, to institutionalize revolutionary new metrics for office and real estate occupancy. Square feet per person and dollars per square foot are not measures of the work that people do. The proportional alignment of space to an individual and not to the mission perpetuated higher costs and barriers to competitive differentiation. In other words, previous methods of forecasting and planning for real estate demand overlooked a concept of real estate as a tool for business performance.

So if corporations, and cities, are already overbuilt (and they are), and the reconciliation of demand and supply will mean that there will be even more vacant space going begging soon, and if the drivers of corporate demand are easing, then what are the opportunities for architects and designers in this New Normal?

As with any transformation program, an examination of the business model is an important discipline. Conventional architectural fees are based on consumption, not performance. Fees are typically expressed as percentages of construction cost, or as dollars per square foot of project size. Bigger and more complex is better. As clients seek to do more with less, however, and if architects can respond effectively, the relationship shifts from the amount and cost of space to the effectiveness of place to deliver positive influences in the achievement of the organizational mission.

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I'd suggest that as architects have been embracing sustainability as a key value informing practice, conventional metrics and methods of practice, now reinforced by the New Normal, provide the platform for rich opportunity in at least 4 newly defined areas in the emerging business landscape –

It's about place, not space – Some of our past clients have been occupying space at up to a 30:1 seating ratio. That is, their mobility practices and other workstyles have led to such a reduction in space demand that they need space only for the equivalent of one person where they used to provide individual assigned space for 30. So the role of the office changes from where I do my work to where I connect with my brand, culture and colleagues. The making of a compelling place to be, a place where employees want to go, is the new role of the architect, rather than the design of a standards-driven container of cubes.

Work looks different, now – The new values of work are about innovation, speed, opportunity, service, and differentiation. These require continuous learning, managerial transparency, visual and verbal connectivity, dynamic collaboration, and organizational agility. Architects have a great opportunity to remake the workplace based on a new formal lexicon in support of the enabling workmodes of socialization, learning, and collaboration.

These two concepts may represent the entire domain of practice measured by the level of reoccupation of corporate space in an emerging economic restoration. What happens with the rest of the space? Do we bulldoze the city?

I'd offer a couple of more optimistic suggestions –

New metrics, new typologies - Floorplate size, dimensions, configurations, volume, infrastructure, building image, location and other metrics all have an influence on corporate (people) performance. Previous planning, if aligned, has been a denominator strategy, delivering cost reduction. New approaches, built on our awareness of beneficial associations of place and performance, enable us to evaluate properties for their contribution to numerator strategies – direct relationships of place to performance. Buildings that fit our template have the potential for longer term sustainability. Re-profiling these buildings to gain attention in corporate expansion may be the most beneficial and rewarding planning and design service in the recovery transformation.

New markets (and Squelettes) - If all of the above is achieved, there remains a large portfolio of property that may be considered obsolete for corporate purposes. What about this surplus? In the ongoing, maybe increasing, competition between city and suburb, obsolete urban corporate properties have re-use potential that can yield highly attractive options. This is a very challenging domain, but seems to have a place in conversations even in unlikely places. Wired magazine, for example, has proposed a term form these properties and begun a discussion about what to do about them. A great illustration of spirit, thought and potential is in this example from Brazil in which a group of artists and architects intends to occupy and transform a 20-story tower in Sao Paolo as a cultural and civic laboratory.

Overlaid on all this is sustainable design, of course, which has some momentum moving from using less to occupying less to building less to reusing.

It feels as if we are at one of those historical/cultural/social inflection points and doing things in new ways feels more rewarding and productive than waiting for "recovery."

© Jim Meredith, 2009

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The repurpose agenda – more on participation agreements

Photo : Getty via

Rob Walker's article in the New York Times Magazine today (the Infrastructure issue, also called the Architecture issue other places in the Times) on the glut of retail properties in the country was a good reminder to get back to part two of a post I'd begun earlier.

The catalyst of that earlier thinking was reading about a concept of "participation agreements" that evoked a sense of community sustainability. The source was GM's announcement that it was going to require  participation agreements of its dealers in the "new GM." They were intended to address matters of business, but also upgrades to the quality of the dealer properties and facilities. I thought that was a good idea, not only for GM and the communities of its dealers, but for communities in general. My earlier post was on the dealership in the community. But let's expand the concept.

The idea that anybody with property, in any community that cares, might become bound by a commitment to its originally expressed ownership and development intentions seems like a great concept for durable quality and development sustainability. The implications of the content of those agreements, their methods of enforcement, potential resources for support, and other inherent factors seems to suggest a method to commit to long term care of property and development and to build new only with well examined need and considered intention.

I expect that almost anybody reading this lives in a city where retail development has come to almost dominate the landscape. The overbuilding, resulting in a glut of vacant or abandoned properties is, as he notes, both a factor of a down economy as well as a robust one. Retailers in good times expanded operations leaving behind the buildings and communities that were in the last path of expansion. In this economy, they are leaving even those behind, with vacancies from Madison Avenue to the Mall of America.

We are still learning the lessons from the financial crisis and are seeking regulatory response to a system  that had gone out of control. As our cities now bear the compounding burden of excess real estate development – the costs and other impacts go well beyond the storefront – what might be appropriate responses to the emerging lessons to the retail bubble? Here is some speculation – 15 emerging concepts to test  to avoid further over-retailing of our communities.

1 Participation agreements Communities are complex ecosystems where the quality, character and development of the physical environment also affects the social, financial, and infrastructural health of the community. Shouldn't there be more asked of those who come to do business with the members of that community? Could communities become strong enough to be able to ask for sustainability commitments as part of a retailer's "participation" in the system of the community?

2 Certificates of need I pointed to this concept from health care in an earlier post seeking solutions in a similar way in the housing domain. Health care in many states is controlled by a mechanism that requires hospitals to prove the demand for new facilities and equipment before being granted permission to build. Could a more rigorous examination of need be developed by communities to require retailers to demonstrate a differential, durable and sustainable market there before granting the building permit? How could diversity and choice be assured in a system like this?

3 Exit taxes Do I recall that certain states have the right to assess a penalty against corporations leaving a state and causing a resultant unemployment? Is there applicability to retail and other uses? Could communities levy a "tax" on retailers who exit the community and leave behind a property that has no new tenant? Note in Rob Walker's article that some retailers have contract conditions denying the ability of competing retailers to occupy abandoned stores.
4 Exit strategies Exit strategies are typically weak studies intended to project the costs of leaving a community for a corporation, or the marketability of a property for different users by a developer. They are intended to inform the initial decision to build and the character of what is built. Is there a way to develop a more rigorous discipline of the costs and burdens of exit that might generate more easily recycled properties?

5 Regional trades In a recent competition to become the home of the headquarters for the New GM between Detroit, its current home, and one of its suburbs, someone suggested a trade – You can have GM if Detroit gets another corporation from the county to fill the GM headquarters. Sort of a regional zero sum game, but interesting in the implications for the avoidance of excess real estate. Would this also tend to reduce the tendency of communities to preyon each other with incentives attracting a business to the detriment of the neighboring community?

6 Zoning standards Planned Unit Developments are a means to enter into a contract for the quality and character of a development. Typically the PUD takes a broader and more creative view of property development than otherwise granted by the underlying zoning. Could this device be expanded, and could an even broader context for consideration – the entire community – come into play? Could a better balance be achieved by this means rather than the softness and ambiguity of the master plan on the community scale and the zoning regulations on a property scale?

7 Sustainability banks Sustainability is growing as a community value and it seems that both the origins as well as the ends of building could become more critically reviewed. What about the idea that some portion of the taxes paid by retailers is retained to develop a bank that could provide resources and act in creative ways to assure rapid repurposing of retail properties if a retailer were to move? Perhaps a little less of a disincentive than an exit tax?

8 Integrated financial and real estate databases I get a sense that much of what happens in real estate and finance, while perhaps ultimately linked in syndication devices, happens as if in separate worlds. Would a system that provided an integrated analysis of a community so that leasing and building decisions became essentially district, neighborhood or community based, would there be less of a tendency to move up the street to build the next big box?

9 Reverse mitigation In some places, if you built in an area where there was a wetland, you'd have to find another property and build a new wetland of larger scale to mitigate the environmental impact of your development. Could there be a similar policy applied to the built environment, perhaps in reverse? To build a new store, you would have to first make sure that the old store had sustainable tenancy.

10 Loose fit versus tailored In most of my work, we have sought to assure a developer or tenant that the floorplate of the building we were proposing would yield a high level of usable area compared to the gross area of the building. This meant making sure that construction materials, systems and furniture standards were all considered and impose planning measurements and metrics on the new property tailored to that tenant's utilization efficiency goals. Of course, we also then were part of alternative property evaluations for others and recommending against buildings designed as tailored fits for others but just not the right fit for our client. Is there a way to assure adaptability and flexibility without sacrificing efficiency and embedding years of cost on a tenant?

11 Volume Maybe it's time to rethink spatial paradigms. In most of the site searches i have been part of, in which the client is interested in exploring building reuse, the properties that rise to the top are those with high volume, like many retail, industrial and warehouse properties. While this is good news for retail property reuse, what about the growing obsolescence of office properties? Should we get away from the 8-foot ceiling? Would higher volumes everywhere assure greater potentials in reuse? Are high volume properties more

12 Site search parameters Clients in interested in LEED certification have a small incentive to consider existing properties for reuse before developing new properties. What if communities, as part of the permitting process required retailers to develop a report and assess the potentials of reuse? This could cause increased awareness on the part of retailers, assure certain due diligence by their real estate brokers, and perhaps even cause some creativity and imagination to enter the process earlier.

13 Utilization metrics Corporations are waking up to the fact, given new utilization measurement tools, that their office real estate is characteristically occupied less than 60% of the work day. This is leading to increased agility and mobility solutions and leading to an entirely new kind of workplace. I can begin to imagine similar metrics generated for retail that might influence perceptions about the amount of space demanded by current planning standards.

14 District planning Urban district councils provide a coordination of planning, but mostly on a promotional basis. Most of the location decisions that retailers make are still on the basis of individual properties. Is there a way to assure a district-wide consideration and balance in every location decision? Is there a way to bundle, for example, a retailer's location decision with a corporation's and a residential developer's so that planning, and sustainability, move outside of a single property transaction?

15 Zoning business plans How many community master plans and zoning (an antique concept when you seek urban textural and use diversity?) ordinances have business plans integrated with them? Is there a way to bring scenario planning into the planning process more effectively to assure that changing future contexts have responses in planing policy and regulation to assure community sustainability?

I guess the common ingredient in these concepts is the attempt to find a self reinforcement mechanism to reduce the mobility of retailers and the demand for new space fueled by artificial financial instruments rather than a long view of sustainability in all of its factors.

The day after The New York Times article on retail overbuilding, there was this article in the Telegraph of London (with hundreds of comments) on the demolition of American cities due to general overbuilding. Seems like a global discussion is emerging.

I'd be happy to have your own ideas and comments.

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10 more ways to jump-start the auto business

600-muscle I have only done a very quick scan of the article, "25 Ways to Jump-Start the Auto Business," in a recent Fast Company issue. But I am impressed by the fact that out of the 60 people in or close to the industry who were asked to contribute ideas only one, it seems, looked to the intersection between design/production and consumer/consumption.

Even though the experience of buying and selling cars has already changed radically in the Internet age, the lingering stench of going to the dealer remains and many experts see room for improvement. "We need to allow manufacturers to sell cars over the Internet," says Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book. "Linking the purchase process to 'just-in-time production' will start to remove the tremendous inefficiencies in the distribution channel and increase their ability to estimate demand." And it might also make buying a car, dare we say it, fun.

I have been critical, as many, about the American component of the industry, but I also believe that a key issue is that most people cannot break through paradigms about design and quality that are, in reality, a decade out of date. The financial crisis also obscures the fact that there are great products being generated that are getting the right kind of attention from a younger generation of potential buyers. What's missing is not so much a remake of the designs, not so much the quality, not so much the industry itself, but a lot about the interface between these companies and their customers. Almost everywhere else in our world, people are paying close attention to the interface between production and purchase. There is a heightened focus on customer service, the retail experience, and brand protection.

If we look at what others are doing, we might get a few clues about what to do here, as well. Some of these might be-

1. Stop screaming-We are not motivated by the screaming ads placed by local dealership groups. This is such a predominant style of communication that it affects our perception of the quality of your products and of the entire industry.

2. I'm an American, but not that kind of American…why do you make us resist buying that truck we want for the work it will do for us?-It's about utility, isn't it; not about patriotism and living in the country and dominating everybody around us. And stop screaming.

3. Why do you think we do all of our research on the Internet instead of in your dealership?-You know the statistics. We avoid you like the plague and make all of our selection decisions before walking into the dealership, where, again, the only thing that matters is the deal. Isn't there some value to you in making our relationship more robust, more complete, longer lasting, mutually interesting?

4. It looks like your web sites are intended to be a starting place for our relationship; you should design them to do that-We want simplicity, clarity, efficiency and speed. And a follow-up when you say that you will. And why not give is the same or better information we can get through 3rd party sources-We get specs, prices, availability from other sites, and you know we do, so why not offer it to us yourself? We might like you, and trust you, more.

5. We're really interested in the product, can we suspend the deal for a few minutes?-Money matters a lot to all of us these days, but transforming your company and your industry means we should first be interested in wanting to know more about you and your products and services. But we can't see through the deal clutter.

6. We am going to spend a much longer time with this vehicle-It looks as though everything from the economy to manufactured quality will mean that this vehicle is in our garage for a few years. How will you make us interested in what you have to offer over that time? How will you design the experience to make our extended relationship mutually valuable?

7. Redesign the sales process to become a respectful buying experience and an expression of an interest in a long-term relationship-Clean up your desk; this transaction is about us, not about you. Redesign the finance and insurance process; get rid of 75% of those forms most of which look like 25th generation Xeroxes. Get the sales manager to give you some authority to conclude the deal yourself. We'd like to walk out feeling pride in our purchase, whole after the transaction, and interested in coming back for the updates.

8. Think through the design of your store to promote the quality and value of your product-If your product is so great, of such quality, then become a member of the community. Plan your site to not be a blight. Give us a great experience driving by, and driving in. We might then leave your license plate frame on.

9. Really great brands connect the retail experience and the product experience-It seems you are trying to say, "Look! Look! Look at me!!!" Try designs that invite us to explore what you sell.

10. Partner with or influence others in the community who have something to do with the auto, too-We wonder what might happen if the makers and sellers of cars, realizing that the older sense of the car being part of the culture was valuable, would work together with the entire services chain to make ownership and use a delight. Start with gas stations, for example-why do these things have to be blindingly lighted, for example, so the only thing we see as we drive by is an under-canopy array of ugly bare light fixtures. It's called light pollution and we believe it decreases the property values and security in my community. Think about your product in a broader cultural context.

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