For freelancers and remote workers, the ideal office doesn't yet exist. Conference calls don't work in coffee shops, coworking spaces are expensive and often lack privacy, and working from home tends to be distracting and isolating.
One designer has a new proposal: A pop-up personal office that you can carry in a backpack, and set up in a new type of urban park. The design was runner-up in the "Tomorrow's Workplace" competition from Metropolis magazine and Staples Business Advantage, which asked designers to imagine what offices might look like five years from now.
"I was working as a freelancer when I came up with the idea, so the proposal kind of captured some of my own frustrations," says architect Jie Zhang, co-founder of design firm OPT.
The portable office would inflate within seconds and have multiple layers. Zhang envisions that one layer could change from transparent to opaque to provide privacy, while another could collect solar power to provide backup electricity. Pockets of air between the layers would help insulate the office, and the bubble could connect to stationary pads in the park that provide heating and cooling. As material design improves, new types of plastic could keep the space warm enough that it doesn't require heat.
The bubbles would sit in parts of cities that Zhang thinks will start to become vacant in five years—parking lots and parking garages. As autonomous cars and ridesharing become standard, cities may have acres of extra space. "This is kind of leveraging that opportunity to readapt real estate into urban gardens," she says.
Parking lots would be redesigned with green space, and have basic amenities for workers like Wi-Fi, electricity, bathrooms, and drinking fountains. Using the outdoor space would have a second benefit of giving people who may spend most of their time staring at laptops the chance to be a little closer to closer.
"There is a certain kind of primary desire to connect with nature...that I think we haven't quite seen in coworking startups or any of the kind of 'third place' urban locations," says Zhang. "If the inflatable bubbles can really be a possibility, then these gardens could be realized at a low cost, easily converted from these parking structures, because the bubbles are already kind of taking care of a lot of the mechanical, technical expectations of a workplace."
"You can imagine on the one hand nature is kind of taking over these parking lots and parking garages, at the same time as very high-tech activities are going on within," she says.