Commuter on a bicycle racing through city center.

A New Space Race

Part 1: Physical Space

The requirements for any kind of infrastructure often change much faster than the physical structures and systems that support them. That has always been the case, but we have rarely – if ever – seen an example of changing requirements quite as extreme as the pandemic lockdowns.


Overnight, bustling workplaces moved to suburban video calls, crowded canteens gave way to quiet kitchens, and rush hour traffic became a walk from one room to another. Suddenly, we needed radically different infrastructure.


The big question is: how will our requirements evolve from here? Investments in buildings, energy and transport infrastructure are made with time-horizons measured in decades, not years or months, so today’s decision-makers need to project into the medium- and long-term, designing workplaces – and whole cities – to suit the models people settle into once today’s turmoil is history.

Kid on a kickboard between smart buildings

What is the New Space Race?

This thought leadership study reveals how infrastructure stakeholders view the immediate and longer-term future of our built environment and energy systems. Discover fresh perspectives on how our infrastructure will be reshaped by the global pandemic, a new era of digitalization and the urgent need to decarbonize.

People have changed

 “I think there are quite fundamental shifts going on in people's ideas around work, where they want to work, around work-life balance and what a good life means,” says Kerstin Sailer, a Professor in the Sociology of Architecture at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and co-Founder of Brainybirdz, an agency specialized in the dynamics of spatial design and organizational behavior in working environments. 

The feedback we're getting from our clients is that the office will continue to be the center of the work ecosystem.
Jeremy Kelly, Research Director at JLL

Our survey highlights some of the uncertainty this is creating. For instance, nearly two thirds of building owners/occupiers in our survey say that after the pandemic employees at their organization will return to pre-2020 office/facility attendance patterns, but only 26% were strongly confident of this, and one-in-five just don’t know yet (see Fig 1.1). 

Fig 1.1

The majority will return to pre-pandemic attendance patterns

While close to two thirds expect their pre-pandemic attendance patterns to return, the majority are also reducing their office/facility space requirements.

“We've heard lots of conversations in the last 18 months about the death of the office,” says Jeremy Kelly, Research Director at JLL, a global real estate services firm, “but the feedback we're getting from our clients is that the office will continue to be the center of the work ecosystem.”


While it may remain the center, in many cases workplaces are downsizing. Some 59% of building owners/occupiers say that their organization is reducing its office space requirements in response to the pandemic. 

Firmly centralized and flexibly decentralized 

Many believe new hybrid work models will offer the best balance for the future, but it is not yet clear how these models will operate, and how effective they can be across various industries, companies, and cultures.


“Everyone talks about the hybrid office - there's lots of opinion, but very little data,” says Sailer. “As a result, there are a lot of myths around how much we need to return to the office, and around what is possible or not possible remotely.” 

Digital buildings will support a new level of control and insights that are needed to make future buildings more resilient and flexible.
Matthias Rebellius, CEO of Siemens Smart Infrastructure

Sailer believes companies should be using a trial-and-error approach, rather than thinking they can optimize a new model immediately. “Right now it's so hard to get right because we've very little experience,” she says.


At minimum, workplaces need to become more resilient than they were pre-2020. They need to be flexible enough to cope with lockdowns and other potentially disruptive events – as well as having better health monitoring capabilities – irrespective of whether traditional, hybrid or fully decentralized models prevail in the long term.


Digital tools will be a fundamental part of achieving these goals. “Buildings will be a lot more digital in future,” says Matthias Rebellius, CEO of Siemens Smart Infrastructure, “a facility manager will not only be able to automate, and remotely control, more functionality, they will also benefit from a wider network of better sensors that flow into integrated visualizations and richer datasets. This will support a new level of fine-grained control and insights that are needed to make future buildings more resilient and flexible.” 

New workplace designs are blooming

Companies in some regions are already piloting various attendance models, while designing new spaces for work and making full use of technology, from new approaches to video conferencing to software platforms that enable flexible working.


These models are partly driven by a fresh set of priorities, but not all are wholly new. Indeed, both Kelly and Sailer believe the pandemic has, for the most part, accelerated trends that were already in gradual motion. For example, one only has to look at Lego’s headquarters, which opened in 2019, to see that workplace design was already moving towards more varied and flexible ways of working. The fast pace of change, however, means new workplace designs have to be implemented urgently. 


From a business perspective, getting new spaces and models optimized quickly is likely to drive significant benefits. Our survey reveals the extent to which building design and management can impact the profile and well-being of the workforce. Close to three quarters believe building design and management can have a major or moderate impact on each of worker productivity, employee wellness, top talent attraction, and retention of high-performing employees (see Fig 1.2)

Fig 1.2

Building design and management support workforce quality

A strong majority believe building design and management impacts productivity, retention, wellness, and talent acquisition.

“It's clearly driving design,” Kelly says, “Architects are having to think about health and wellness, as well as being able to turn levels of safety on and off as needed. We will also see the office of the future centered much more around collaboration than it was before,” says Kelly. “it's about connectivity, it's about engagement, it's about socialization.”

The new importance of well-being

Wellness is a relatively new priority, covering a diverse range of factors, including physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, social and environmental contributors to our wellbeing. It is a broad, intangible, and variously defined area. This makes it challenging to incorporate using traditional methods of planning, design, and management. 

People are used to measuring costs and performance in many areas, but they are less used to measuring wellness, despite most feeling certain about the impact it can have. 
Ewan Jones, partner at Grimshaw

“People are used to measuring costs and performance in many areas, but they are less used to measuring wellness, despite most feeling certain about the impact it can have.” says Ewan Jones, partner at Grimshaw, a global architecture practice. “Some elements of wellness are easily measurable, such as light levels and ventilation, but the way a space makes you feel is much harder to quantify.”


As Jones points out, it is not a science, and is still in its infancy as a consideration, relative to other metrics. “But it is now receiving much more attention,” Jones says, “which is linked to the recognition from many businesses that their people are their best asset, and therefore that it is important to keep them happy, productive, entertained, stimulated, healthy and encouraged. If all your staff are happier, you could have lower absence rates, and people might prefer to come into the office, rather than working at home.” 


This could make wellness especially important for organizations that want to encourage more in-person collaboration in future, when the option to stay at home is likely to be much more available.

Future adaptability

When it comes to designing a new building or facility, however, the most critical factor is adaptability (e.g. being able to repurpose spaces to suit new kinds of occupants). In our survey, this was deemed both the most important, and the most difficult, to get right (see Fig 1.3)

Fig 1.3

Future adaptability: important and difficult

Future adaptability is both the most important and most difficult area to get right in designing a new building or facility.

The importance of adaptability is perhaps not surprising, given how many factors are in flux at the moment, but many expect this to continue to be a priority. “The adaptability of spaces is really going to be key going forward,” says Wayne Butcher, director at Grant Thornton, a global tax, accounting, and consultancy business. 


Butcher, who specializes in advising public sector organizations on infrastructure projects, believes that adaptability is important both in terms of major reconfigurations, as well as designing spaces that can change by the hour. This could include, for example, changes to suit different tasks, focused work alone, one-to-one discussions, or larger gatherings, virtually or physically.

The adaptability of spaces is really going to be key going forward.
Wayne Butcher, director at Grant Thornton

“Adapting to remote working has already built some flexibility over the last 18 months,” says Butcher, “but combining physical and virtual adaptability is now key, including how our physical environments align to a very different set of needs, which may need to shift once again at short notice.”

Digitalization is a universal enabler

The themes we have discussed above are relevant across many industries and regions, but there are important exceptions with different drivers, goals and barriers. For example, in many parts of the economy, the potential for hybrid work is limited or impossible – think of those in agriculture, healthcare, construction, education, cleaning, transport, hospitality, mining, physical retail, manufacturing, numerous informal industries and others. It has been estimated that more than half of the global workforce have little or no scope to work remotely.


The pandemic has been more challenging for industries where remote work has been impossible or harder to implement. Far from accelerating a long-term shift forward, these industries need to shift backwards – back to something like the pre-2020 normal – as soon as possible. But while attendance is more important, these industries are still moving forward in the digitalization and automation of their workspaces and facilities.  

The pandemic has been more challenging for industries where remote work has been impossible or harder to implement.

There is also one area where the importance of advancement is near universal: health management and monitoring. The pandemic has proven the value of, for example, automated body temperature monitoring and touchless access controls (such as face recognition). Like many of the ambitions stakeholders have for the infrastructure of tomorrow, these systems are enabled by digital technologies and new sources of data.


These can be disruptive, and at times organizations need to master a balancing act between what is feasible, legally defined and ethically justifiable. Acting with integrity and sensitivity in these realms is essential to maintaining trust and creating the contexts in which new approaches can deliver benefits. While the moral and social aspects of each case, jurisdiction and culture may vary, the majority of infrastructure stakeholders worldwide, understand that the new physical space race is inextricably linked to the maturing, digitalized, automated, data-driven reinvention of infrastructure operations. 

We would like to extend a special thank you to the diverse set of industry leaders and experts who shared their ideas and insights with us as part of this study.

This thought leadership study is based on a survey, in-depth interviews and desk research. It is not an academic or scientific research paper. Our goal is not to provide any final answers, but rather to start conversations, stimulate thought, and encourage infrastructure stakeholders to reflect on what today’s megatrends mean for the future of our energy system and built environment.


The survey included 501 respondents from 10 countries. The countries involved include those large-scale and/or highly advanced infrastructure assets and ambitions. It was fielded in June and July 2021.






















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