Why do we work in office buildings?

This simple question was inspired by emerging trends that are creating new opportunities for situating knowledge work in the city. An increasingly mobile workforce is being attracted to a wide range of public and private work sites, from coffee shops to park benches. Ubiquitous wireless broadband, smart mobile devices, and location-aware social networks can activate almost any urban location as a potential worksite. New kinds of organizations, and a growing emphasis on cross-organizational and interdisciplinary collaborations is creating a greater demand for ad hoc face-to-face collaborative work in creative settings.

Recognizing these trends, and the deep historical relationship between work and the street that dominated before the 20th century’s office building boom, the authors developed a set of tools and processes to support knowledge workgroups in urban public spaces. These tools and processes were intended to serve as a an open source framework for exploring the new opportunities presented by mobile knowledge work for the utilization of urban space space. The goal was to develop a global conversation around these practices that could be appropriated and adapted in urban contexts around the world, treating the diversity of sites, cultures and urban contexts as a rich set of experimental variables. These tools were developed and tested during September and October 2009 in New York City with a variety of locations, groups, and collaborative processes.

The experience of Breakout suggests future research questions and hints about how urban design, architecture, and organizational theory could respond to and drive this re-integration of knowledge work and public space. We highlight three key areas of future exploration: catalyzing collaboration in the open source city, designing the mobile workplace, and rethinking the interface between office buildings and public space.

Funding for this project was provided by the Architecture League of New York’s Situated Technologies program.