Is there such a thing as work-life balance? And to what extent can work and life be integrated into a dignified and meaningful existence? Radha Mistry joins Sydney Allen-Ash and Lane founders, Clinton Robinson and Kofi Gyekye for a conversation about a future workplace called “The Substrate” – a membership network of interdependent support spaces.
About our guest, Radha Mistry
Radha Mistry has a background in architecture, narrative environments, and strategic foresight. As the Practice Leader for Foresight at Autodesk, Radha explores the impact of emerging technologies and how it will change the way we design and make things in the future. Prior to Autodesk, Radha focused on the Future of Work with the Steelcase Applied Research group. Her work sought out ways organizations could drive Innovation through design. Previous to Steelcase, Radha was part of the Arup Foresight + Innovation team in London and San Francisco, crafting speculative futures for global clients; she has also exhibited during the Lisbon Architecture Triennale and worked on design-led community engagement initiatives in cities across Europe. Radha is passionate about how we might transform visions of the future into tangible outcomes that drive people to positive action.”
Substrate w/ Radha Mistry
Syd: Welcome to Work/Place, a podcast on the futures of where and how we work brought to you by Lane. I'm your host Sydney Allen-Ash, currently recording in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. And I'm joined by the founders of Lane, Clint Robinson in Toronto and Kofi Gyekye in Brooklyn. Today, we are also joined by our extra special first guest Radha Mistry, currently recording in the most interesting location out of all of us, Wonder Valley, which is just outside of Joshua Tree in California.
Radha: Hi, thanks for having me.
Syd: Thanks for being here. So, Radha Mistry currently leads the foresight practice at Autodesk and is focused heavily on collaboratively building more equitable and inclusive futures, but enough of a formal introduction today, we are going to be talking about all things work-life balance or perhaps the fallacy of the work-life balance, is there even such a thing.
And to what extent work in life can actually be integrated. But before we do that, I am going to share a snippet from a future workplace, a little soundscape for all of us.
Voice: Sorry to interrupt. Your live-stream will continue following this paid, personalized, and targeted-to-you message from the Substrate.
Man: Do you wonder what you’re missing? Stuck in rush-hour traffic, life passing you by.
Woman: Dealing with insomnia, depression, fatigue?
Man: Dependent on caffeine and neuro-stims?
Woman: Still reaching for that elusive work-life balance?
Man: Guess you missed the memo.
Woman: Truth is this… work-life balance.. is a lie. You deserve... work-life integration.
Man: Join the Substrate. We’re growing a global network of support spaces — local communities tuned to the needs of our membership.
Woman: You’ll find The Substrate offers just the right conditions for living:
Man: Kinship, deep relations
Woman: and the chance to make a meaningful contribution to something far greater than yourself:
Man: An inspiring community of Gen Alpha pioneers.
Woman: We live in squares, organize in circles, and love in triangles.
Man: Let’s take a quick virtual tour shall we?
[ notification ding - as though you’ve responded - and sonic cues to take listener to the substrate space ]
Man: Welcome to the new Bloomsbury Substrate — you might know it as the old abandoned Bloomsbury Mall — where you hung out as a kid.
[ sounds of people working, construction ]
Man: We’re transforming it...
Woman: into a totally self-sufficient Substrate.
Man: Childcare centres, healthcare services, daydream venues and affinity stations, it’s all here.
Woman: Sorry about the noise, they’re erecting the vertical gardens.
Man: These old retail spaces are being converted into sleeping quarters... And don’t worry — we haven’t touched the old cinema. It’s been repurposed as our dev lot.
Woman: Our software engineers are busy updating the HFT algorithm.
Man: ... High-frequency trading — that’s the liquid hydrogen that powers this space ship!
Woman: But the substrate isn’t just for knowledge workers anymore. That’s why we reached out to you —
Man: we’re looking for HVAC technicians.
Woman: Along with plumbers, woodworkers, and landscapers to help us complete the Bloomsbury retrofit.
Man: All kinds of work….
Woman: And all ways of being are valued equally here.
Man: You control your time … for the most part.
Woman: Follow your curiosity and jump into one of our exciting projects:
Man: Like our apiary and cricket farms, peer learning centres, and holistic matchmaking services.
Woman: And if you ever get the travel bug, join our trades for trade program. And book an exchange to one our support spaces in Stockholm, Hanoi...
Man: Moscow, or Dubai. We’ve got hundreds mushrooming across the universal substrate.
Woman: You don’t need a new job. You need a new life.
Man: Take back your time and collectivize your livelihood. Say “yes” now to get started on drafting your personal charter of rights and responsibilities.
Together: Welcome to the Substrate.
Syd: So, welcome to the substrate. What we just listened to was a recruiting ad for a new kind of workplace in the future called the Substrate.
It was developed by the future thinkers of the Toronto-based foresight studio called From Later. So I want to start off this conversation before we go any further and just get some gut reactions. Maybe we'll start with our guests Radha, and then we'll go around the circle to Clint and then to Kofi. What was your impression of this place? What was your impression of this ad?
Radha: I mean, it definitely reminded me of like an advertisement that you'd hear for a new prescription drug that they're trying to peddle. And this feels like the antithesis of what I want right now, and kind of like what I hope a future might look like. So first gut reaction was like, I don't know if I want that for my future at least.
Syd: Mm. It always seems like in those scenarios, you're teetering on the edge of utopian and dystopian. Are they not synonyms of one another in certain situations?
Radha: Oh, a hundred percent. And I think part of this is also like, there's this tension between like scarcity and abundance, right?
It's like too much connection versus not enough connection, like too much work versus not enough work. We're constantly kind of having to balance between those two sides of the same coin. And to me, like these versions of the future, oftentimes really make you grapple with that tension.
Syd: That's super interesting.
The scarcity and abundance, the duality of that, but let's continue with our first impressions. Clint, what did you think?
Clint: It does sound dystopian and it feels dystopian when you hear it. Cause it doesn't seem like a place that I would want to go work from. But that's just taking it at the kind of advertisement face value level.
And that's, if everything they said is actually true in that advertisement and it actually is that cohesive and it does work that well and things are so seamless and set up for you, but it actually could be pretty awesome, but hearing it as like an advertisement really makes me skeptical that it's actually going to be that good.
So that could just be a by-product of so much marketing, especially being in, in tech where we're promised so much stuff and it doesn't quite turn out the way that it was promised, you know, in reality, it's not quite as amazing as it, it was originally advertised to be, you know, like the campuses that a lot of tech companies have where, you know, it's kind of advertised as this utopian place to work, where everything you have is right at your fingertips and you can get massages and there's like sleeping pods and there's exercise bikes that you can have meetings on and all this kind of stuff. But in reality, it's like, it's, it's actually quite cringy and, and it's really just designed to get you there and like keep you being productive. Yeah, so I'm kind of borderline on the whole cynical, dystopian, utopian feel of it.
But then at the same time, there's, there's a lot of nuance in that advertisement. And it's really interesting that they're like targeting, not just like thought workers, but they're targeting skilled trades people. And that's something interesting to think about in the future too, because like so much of the current modern co-working and co-living and all this, these kinds of new things that we've created for workers, they're all aimed at that kind of like thought worker class that are in tech, that are in design, that are in computer science.
But a lot of people have kind of not thought about everybody else. So, I like that it's got that angle to it. Those would be my first impressions right off the bat.
Syd: The inclusion of the different types of workers, or at least the suggestion of an inclusion is also just a really interesting thing to think about. Even just as a preliminary thought, you can think of things like WeWork, and there are no blue-collar people at WeWork that are using it as a product. There are people who are servicing it. You know, work for them, but not in it. Right. Kofi, what was your first impression?
Kofi: Personally, for myself, it's not what I'd be interested in, but I do think for majority of people that actually might be quite great.
Um, it is just a modern version of sort of what we're doing today. And there's some really nice things in there with recycling old, you know, built environments like a mall, like doing something with it and not throwing it away. That's something, you know, that's a very positive spin on it. I'd also say the inclusion of all sorts of working types of individuals, also really great. Vertical farming, so using space intelligently. Being able to go to different countries and like get new experiences with other individuals seems really great. Personally, would I want to be there now, because I'm always terrified about what happens to organizational structures. Once you've built that environment, that's what becomes a very dystopian thing. I do like the advertising. It's like a really old, vague American ad. I feel like I'm being sold and in parlor, you know, like something of that nature and I do kind of find that quite appealing. So, I would say for, for majority of the planet, I think this could actually be a really exciting thing for them.
Clint: You know, I worked at the Impala factory. For GM. I worked at the factory that made the Impalas, like the most generic car version of a car, basically just the box. Yeah. I don't know. I don't know if you can really fall in or out of love with them, but.
Kofi: Very neutral, very neutral, which is actually a really good point. It does make this Substrate really feel bland. It's exactly that, that, I'm not sure if it's going to work because it's so packaged. They've thought of too many nuances to actually have any diversity in it.
Syd: That's actually a really interesting point that the built environment is already so built that you have to insert yourself into a very specific area, as opposed to if it was a little bit more neutral of a playing ground, then maybe you would feel like you could make your mark on it, but right now it feels maybe a bit too contrived.
Radha: You know what’s kind of interesting about that though, is like architects have thought for centuries that they can change behavior and culture through built environment. And they will put things out there with very specific programmatic kind of capabilities or intentions.
But human beings will do with it what they want to at the end of the day, it's like, I can put something out there, call it a table. And someone else might think of it as a surface to take a nap on. And all of a sudden, it's like a bed. Right. And like, to me like that in this vision of a future world, like that's what's so interesting actually, and intriguing about this scenario to me.
Clint: Right. It's why, it's why we like restaurants in alleyways in the cities, and less on the like main streets. Well, there was a university, uh, where they didn't really know where to put all the walking paths on their common grounds. So they just didn't put any, and they let people just walk around for a year. And then they turned the most walked, like paths on the grass, into walking paths.
Cause it was kind of like admitting that too rigid of a scaffolding isn't the best for humans. Like we want to, the first thing you do when you give me a walking path is I'm going to leave it. It does feel a little like so contrived and so set up that there's no room for any creativity.
Kofi: I was an art school. We just reflecting what we've seen in our current environment. So looking at it from a university standpoint, the tech campus, the city with a fidei versus not. And really, they said to everybody, come in, let's do this together. Because that's really, he did say that they're like, let's build this together.
And we said, oh, that's impossible. There's no adding and put a bunch of rules, org structure's going to be here to suck. But like, they don't actually say that. They said, let's do this together. We want all of you to come in. Let's contribute to this place. And we've kind of got into a rough shell for it. Maybe we’re just so jaded.
Clint: Yeah. That's a good point.
Syd: No, that's it. That's a good point.
Radha: And the other piece too, is like, there is a particular like cohort of humans in this scenario who have the ability to opt in and folks who actually don't. Like where it's not a choice. And to me, you know what I'm saying?
The other piece, doesn't it feel like there's a little bit of a dissonance because we're talking about this, like seemingly farther out future where like everything has been curated for the individual, and we've like figured out the answer to humanity. And yet we're not really talking about automation and how it's affected the blue collar class of people.
Because if we're being really real about ourselves right now, like plumbing, HVAC, all of those things. Yeah. In architecture, like in AAC and media and entertainment space and product design and manufacturing, those are going to be automated within the next like 15 to 20 years. So those roles probably won't exist in the way that they do.
And actually, like, I don't think humans will be building those things. And so truly, like where is the place for the non-white collar worker in this vision.
Syd: Also, I think it speaks to what is the plan to sustain something like a substrate long-term? Because the idea is that this thing is progressing and it's evolving with time, not only socially and culturally, but technologically ostensibly, right?
And when new technologies are invented and old technologies go obsolete, what happens to the people in our little commune tech campus co-op thing when their skills are no longer needed. Like, how do you politely ask them to leave? Or how do you skill them up? You know, what, what happens to them? What do you guys think?
Kofi: The jobs, yes. They may not look like they are today, but I think we can actually scale people up. We've seen that over and over. We need to start, again, democratizing technology a little bit more. So that people can actually have the interfaces to go and create and code, like not all of us can go and create this amazing, magical page.
And I think same with plumbing, even if the machine itself is learning through ML, someone has to go in and like sort of put some parameters and barriers around it, so it can do that function. And that's probably what we should scale up to. So that plumber or individuals doing HVAC has a lot of knowledge, but we need to do is take that knowledge of historical.
And like apply it into things that are coming for like a better future. But I do hear others' point. I love the world is not at this place yet. Right. It's like billions, billions of people.
Radha: Yeah. In my perspective, like the question I'm constantly asking myself is like, who is this preferable for? And who are we leaving behind? And I think we need to be asking ourselves that question in this scenario.
Clint: Yeah. So many things have like rapidly modernized and then 80% of the rest of the world still feels like it's kind of like in the past. And, we're assuming like that ad for the substrate was for like a luxury product. Maybe it's not, maybe that's like the discount brand, like working co-working space.
Syd: So, I wonder if this were a, co-op like a workers-owned, everyone owns it together, builds it together, determines the future. Does that change the likeability of this for you guys?
Clint: If it's like a, what you put in is what you get out, kind of co-op. That totally changes the kind of look and feel, and adverse reaction to it, because it kind of reframes that commercial into like you're coming here to help work on something that you're going to be a part of and that you own. And you'd get to help sculpt.
My take on like co-living, co-working new services that are popping up. What I always wanted them for was to like, remove like all the things that I need to do every day to like stay alive and like be productive and like be healthy. I always thought that's what was supposed to be for. Like showing up at like, WeWork, I don't want to call the internet guy to set up my internet. I like just want to plug in and do it. I just needed a space where I can be highly productive. And it was like that idea of WeWork layering on community and it felt really forced and weird. And I never liked the WeWork community or really that there is one. Not, not even that it was genuine, like that there was a community at all.
And like, if the Substrate is like a co-living slash co-working. I actually may be into that. So, you can optimize for all those things and take away all the things that I don't really care about that much. Just like go do the thing I need to do. I think that would be helpful.
Radha: One of the things that I'm hoping we don't get to is like that scene in the film Wall-E where everyone is just sitting on these chairs and their bones have dissolved because they haven't moved. And like they're optimizing, they're optimizing for capitalism, but like they're not optimizing for anything else really right.
Kofi: I think the term integration is quite interesting in this though, something to hold onto.
So it's not, you know, it's like the work-life balance, but the work-life integration. So it's just integrating some of these things into our day. Again, for some reason I keep feeling like we've put a lot of whatever thoughts we have in the West and in our Western brains around this concept of the Substrate.
Like the terms, the words you're using, aren't actually like, it's bad. It's not that we're locked into it. That we have to have this kind of community when nothing's going on. You know, they said, we just want to integrate your, your working in your life. And you know, what did they say? Live in circles, work in squares.
And like, I don't know, love triangles. It's like, yeah, that sounds pretty great. Sounds really good. We were like, no, this is terrible. I don't want any of this.
Syd: We've been talking a lot about kind of the people and the behaviors and the culture of this potential workplace future, or any potential workplace future.
But I want to talk about what does this place look like to you? What types of integrations are there? What type of technology is there? What type of greenery is there, um, Radha with your background in architecture, how are you envisioning this place?
Radha: If we're rethinking it, it would be like wonderful to see, not maybe a vertical garden, but like a network of gardens that are connected to one another, because we now have this like planetary nervous system that we can like learn from, you know, what's happening in parts of the world and kind of like understand how things grow best and what crops are built for what part of the planet.
And then the rest of the built environment kind of like crops up around that. But we're building out, and we're not building up. There's maybe this like human desire to, in a spiritual sense, to kind of be closer to the skies in some way. And we continue to do that as we talk about future. And we talk about the evolution of humanity. But I'm wondering if there's an opportunity to kind of rethink what progress means in that way.
Syd: That's very beautiful.
Radha: Perhaps in more contemporary times, we look at things like plumbers and artisans and woodworkers as blue collar folks. But if you think about the history of these vocations, they are highly skilled, required a lot of training and apprenticeship, were incredibly coveted in their communities, in some really, really deep ways.
And I think maybe it's kind of like a rehashing of, you know, really placing tose folks in a space of greater value. And it's like automating the things that can be automated and don't take time. But the slow things, the things that require a lot of focus and a lot of attention, like maybe those folks now have been pushed back up the hierarchy of quote unquote value in this environment.
Syd: The life question. I want to flip that back on to all of you. We have still a little bit of time, push it a little bit.
What do the living quarters look like? What does the life look like? Kofi? What does the life look like?
Kofi: So many questions in that, you know, so, I mean, as it stands for single Kofi, you know, this place would be highly designed. So there's a lot of utility, less automated and so forth. In a sense, even the automation has to feel a bit more, um, utilitarian to some degree. And maybe I don't need VUI. Maybe I want something tactile. Like I want to scrape my hand on the, my, on the couch, and the volume goes up to my music. You know, like embedded tech in that way, I think would be quite interesting from a, from a living standpoint. That's what I would, I'd be thinking of in that way.
And it's almost this nostalgic thing, because this thing has existed from the past. That's refurbish reuse, how to embed the OS into everyday life things I'm using. So that's what I would hope when I'm thinking about that life perspective. Um, and at the moment, cause everything is really feeling gadgety, especially on this pandemic moment.
It's a bit much – so much tech I have to interact with. So I'd love to have an OS or something that's in the background. It's allowing myself to live more versus constantly yelling at some VUI for some reason.
Clint: Is that why we're so cynical of everything? It’s because we were promised, you know, Google home, Alexa home, or whatever they're supposed to be that seamless thing.
Radha: Ambiently, yeah.
Clint: But they're not. And everything’s is so disconnected. The experience is so janky, nothing works together. Even my hue lights, I just stopped using them because it just takes so long, but everything's so slow and so disconnected. It's really frustrating. So the Substrate could be like a dystopia in that sense where they tried to build this thing that's super connected, but it was built by like a hundred different vendors. Like nothing works together. And it’s this constant friction. It's like being rubbed with sandpaper every day, which is kind of like what it feels like right now to like, let you totally right, like to hop through gadgets and all this stuff.
Kofi: And people realizing what technologies do exist, that we've inherited, all the legacy stuff.
So to your point again, if I need to turn off the heat, it's so hard to like do that. Cause the HVACs is old. It will take five minutes for that as two things to talk. Because I'm in a building with central air, it take that.
Radha: I want a space that's like, it's not shiny and it's not hard and cold. It feels warm.
Like, you know, as we are flesh and blood, but has that technology, that's like ambient and can learn. And I don't have to tell Siri to shut up when she wasn't called, because she's heard something on my television or something, you know? But the other thing that was missing for me is you can't supplement outside through like vertical gardens and, you know, synthetic vegetation.
You just, there's something about being able to like look up and see the sky and breathe in unfiltered oxygen from the air that makes you feel human in ways that you just can't simulate. And I want that in my future living space, like I want outside. To be able to sit in a space that's like, not quite my home, but not quite public, where I can, like people watch, I'm sounding more and more like an auntie right now.
But like, you know, I want, but I want, like, I can like watch people, but I don't have to like interact, you know? Like I can just, I can choose how much I engage. You know what I'm saying? Um, there are thresholds of interactivity.
Kofi: Right, it's interesting because the more successful, at least I feel I become, the closer I want to be to outside.
Syd: Yeah, definitely. It reminds me of an artist in Toronto Tau Lewis. She had a show that was based around the central thesis that our access to nature is our greatest sign of wealth. And you can think about that on like an actual, like physical basis. Like the closer we are to nature, the lower our cortisol levels are, the less chronic illness we have.
But then also, look at it, look at that translated into an urban planning standpoint and the neighborhoods that are the closest to central park for example, are the most expensive, you know? So it, it, it translates on multiple levels, but Kofi, I totally feel you I'm like in the mountains in Vancouver right now. Like, all I want to do is look at plants.
Radha: But see, that's what it comes back to, like it comes back to just bare, like basic, simple ways of connecting and living. Cause at the end of the day, we can all try to live off Soylent, but our teeth are going to want to chew food. We can all try to like have virtual hugs with friends, but I still like hugging my friends, even though I can't hug everyone right now, you know, like we still connect in the same ways we…
Clint: You called it.
Like the Substrate is like the co-living and co-working, uh, that Soylent is to like food 100%. Like it's got all the things you need. But, you know, if you eat Soylent every day, like you're going to be a miserable, miserable person.
Radha: You don’t feel human.
Clint: You just don't feel human. So like, it sounds like we, we are kind of all on the dystopian bandwagon of what the Substrate is.
And like, we want technology to make things easier and remove a lot of friction and make things seamless, but not as a category of things. Because there's a whole bunch of like things that we’re super happy had been automated or made easier, or made more accessible through technology, but it's not like we want to live in this shiny, polished, safe environment that's super sterile with no spontaneity. That's like the logical stream that, that just seems to suck. But when we can make our lives easier and better, and like streamline all this stuff, like you know, the fact that you can go to the middle of the desert in California and still do your job. You can't do that without like a high-speed internet connection and a good laptop to like work every day.
We really don't want to lean into this whole like co-living plus co-working model. But this idea of, can we streamline things, can we remove friction. Can we make, you know, it's removing the things that we don't want to do. So, we have more time to actually go do the things we want to do.
Kofi: Yeah, I think adding the layer of technology and the one half for productivity on the other side, reduce anxiety, get rid of things that I don't need to be spending time on so I can actually live a life.
Yeah. That's yeah, more like outside. I still would love to know how everyone feels about the organizational hierarchy.
Syd: Okay. Yeah. Let that be our closing thoughts. What is our ideal governance structure of this?
Clint: It can't be run by the corporation. That was the problem was WeWork. You get into like forced community events.
So I think it's going to be kind of for the people by the people. Otherwise, it's just not going to work, or it's not going to work for me. Maybe there's a better way to put it. Uh, but then at the same time, it can't be so loose that anybody has to say in everything, you know, kind of like a meritocracy or like a technocracy is probably like an ideal situation.
But the way that it sounded, it definitely sounded like it is like a, it's run by a corporation, and like you really don't get a say in what's going on.
Kofi: Yeah. That's the fear I have, that there is an organization behind it with their own agenda. And you know, going back to whether it's a high frequency trading or whatever, the different cities they pick that seemed a bit random and sporadic.
So the fear is always having this elite group that is managing and governing these situations. So I think that's the one part that's so scary for me and why I keep believing it will become dystopian regards.
Syd: Hm. Radha who runs this thing?
Radha: I mean, I think it's the same. I think it's like, why would they be advertising if they weren't trying to turn value in some way, profit in some way. So it feels very much like it's private entity that maybe doesn't have to deal with the same public jurisdictions as like cities and other forms of governance. And I realize that's incredibly cynical, but yeah.
Syd: All right. We started cynical. We ended cynical, we’re millennials.
Radha: At least we’re consistent.
Syd: Okay. I think that that is a great place to end this. Thank you, Radha, for being our first guest.
Radha: Thank you. This was so fun. Oh, this was great.
Syd: Work/Place is brought to you by Lane and Toronto-based foresight studio From Later. My name is Sydney Allen-Ash, and I was joined today by Lane's founders, Kofi Gyekye and Clint Robinson, and our guest Radha Mistry.
This episode is produced by Robert Bolton and Macy Siu with Udit Vira and Valdis Silins. Audio Production by Jeremy Glenn. Sound Design by Dani Ramez, and voice acting by Patrick Crosby and Zaki Ibrahim.