Social design: uncovering micro-facts, adapting to macro-trends


Revolutionary changes are underway in the use of real estate, involving third places, slashers, hybrid spaces, ground floor grocery cooperatives, internal recycling facilities, food trucks, meal deliveries by bicycle, real-time visualisation of flows and space occupancy, and plenty more.

As teleworking expands, albeit somewhat under constraint, many are starting to question the future of company headquarters, large office floors and even whole business districts! Under these circumstances, how can we distinguish between micro-facts, i.e. practices employed only by a handful of pioneers, from practices that will evolve into fully fledged macro-trends in a few years’ time?

Social design provides an effective answer to this question by taking the user as the yardstick for analysing needs and expectations in order to predict what will be the important factors in setting up real estate projects. By closely tracking social trends, social design allows us to rethink habits and identify new alternatives. By fostering collaborative thinking and factoring in the impact of social requirements in order to jointly build tangible programmes, social design helps to decipher and test assumptions and leverage the involvement of future users.

Areas of application that go beyond the question of occupancy of real estate complexes

Social design provides answers to all types of question by highlighting social trends, and focusing on habits and practices.

How are urban districts shaped by citizens’ need to play a proactive role in their surroundings? How is office real estate affected by hybrid use of the same premises? How do changing needs and the value of face-to-face learning change the way we look at educational premises? These are all questions we can look at through the prism of use by taking user ecosystems into account.

Céline Varenne Souchon is the founder of Mengrov social design agency and co-founder of Urban Chrysalide, a Do Tank of companies, associations and organisations committed to improving life in cities.

Applied to all stages of a building project, from location and commercialisation through to occupancy, social design offers a host of solutions for reconnecting real estate to its fundamental value: adapting to the needs of its users, not the other way round.

Pinpointing paradoxes and resolving them through design

Imposed practices and real needs, constructive trends and spontaneous changes in use are among the many constraints, sometimes contradictory, that must be factored in from the design phase through to the way we use a building. While the trend is in favour of shared spaces, the health crisis is compelling us to partition premises and prioritise personal and static occupancy of workspaces. Meanwhile, optimised management of movements is hampered by factors such as small lifts unsuitable for social distancing and inadequate waiting areas, among the many paradoxes that are often revealed by actual use.

Design thinking observes ways of living and ways of acting, examines working conditions and ascertains expressed needs and expectations in order to foresee paradoxes, find solutions and eliminate or minimise contradictions.

Focusing on use means listening to people

Although we are convinced that design is an innovative methodological building block for organisations, people remain the focal point of our preoccupations in all aspects of life: personal, professional, social, urban, etc.

When we apply design thinking to real estate, it means looking at a real estate project within a broader framework. Location is no longer just a matter of geography but of participation in a living and moving ecosystem in which the building will have to be incorporated. This means discussing intercompany pooling of services, planning ground floor amenities together with district residents and imagining how to develop reciprocal ties between the building and its entire ecosystem.