In the 2011 film ‘In Time’, in the dystopian future, the currency humans will hold in high value won’t be money – it would be time. And humans would be able to determine how much of it they’ve got left by just looking at the digital time stamp embedded into their forearms. It occurred to me that in this fictional universe, we won’t be spending all our time being hurled into the middle of a fast-paced action scene. We’d most likely be spending a great deal of it in traffic, during our daily commute. Imagine living in this constant state of urgency – watching the countdown to your life, as you’re helplessly stuck at a signal. Several studies today have established that there is a connection between mental health, productivity at work and the time we spend commuting. All of this distress would be further amplified with a clock ticking away at you. It wouldn’t just impact the quantity of life lost, but also the quality of it. There is no amount of coffee and good lighting in the office that can make up for this loss.
Now, if this is the world of the future, the way we’d get to work would also be drastically different. That space-age commute we dreamt of in sci-fi novels isn’t too far into the future. As of today, with just a few swipes on a touchscreen, you can conjure a cab right at your doorstep. Unfortunately, ride-sharing apps don’t solve everything. During the recent Ola and Uber strikes, the roads suddenly opened up, allowing for quicker travelling. It wasn’t just because of a drop in the number of cars on the road. There was also a larger ratio of experienced, better-trained drivers, leading to improved traffic discipline. And that’s the kind of gettable future I picture – seamless movement with minimal scope for human error. If you remove the human element out of the equation, then traffic would just flow according to precise mathematical algorithms – a very valid possibility, considering Google’s driverless car project is already underway. Car makers like Ford, Volvo and Toyota have also been testing their own autonomous vehicle prototypes.
Some companies are even taking the next time in self-driving car technology – combining the convenience of ride-sharing apps with an intelligent autopilot system. For instance, NuTonomy, a software firm in Singapore, recently tested a fleet of autonomous taxis. These are kitted up with LiDAR sensors and dash-cams, to detect pedestrians and other road users out of its way. Besides safety, it eliminates another cause of distress – finding a parking spot. To paint you a clearer picture, the future is an electric-fuelled smart car, shuttling between offices – on a route optimised for the quickest commutes. Or even the air taxi, which Uber is already experimenting with in some markets.
Speed, however, will not be the only advantage of this new world. Since you’d be travelling on autopilot, your work could begin as soon as you get out of your driveway. You could already get started on your tablet, access WiFi from the car, or remotely carry out video conferences. You could even conduct a physical conference – a high possibility, since driverless cars would not need a steering wheel, eliminating the front seat/back seat configuration, in favour of a configuration that allows all passengers to face each other. Your ride to work could be your remote, mobile workspace. The quality of your day at work is bound to improve when you have already reduced the time you spend commuting and the stress levels involved.
The trends on the road will dictate the way we’d design our offices too. Some concepts which we consider indispensable right now, might become obsolete – the parking space, for instance. All office buildings in large cities are built over a basement parking. Some futuristic articles predict that the basement parking may be converted to an underground tunnel connecting all offices – for the shuttles to move more efficiently, without disrupting other commuters above ground. Another consideration that designers will have to take into account is the fuel of the future. We are slowly moving from carbon-based fuels to electric and hybrid energy. Charging stations for plug-in cars will become a mandate for most offices.
Data sharing tech has also spawned another possibility – the exit of the 9 to 5 work culture. That’s the basis of the rush-hour traffic. Since anyone with a security pass will be able to procure documents from any location, work can begin and end at one’s own convenience. This means that an office building would have to operate at all hours of the day too – since team members could be given access to the building in small batches. This would allow a company owner to expand the manpower without having to expand office space. Here, time would work as a dimension – where you literally make the most of the hours in a day, rather than just stretching the space. The number of resources needed to support a team that works in shifts would also reduce – leading to less investment on behalf of the company. This is an environment that would allow smaller businesses to thrive.
The leaps in technology are not just here to turn us into a sedentary species. Electric-assisted bicycles have made pedalling to work easy too. This aspect of technology would allow us to use our commute to get more active and adopt a healthier routine. Workspaces would, of course, have to change to accommodate this lifestyle as well. Some offices today have already started offering gym facilities in the building. This cycling trend would eliminate the need to allocate large areas to heavy fitness equipment. Instead, shower cubicles would suffice, for team members to freshen up in, before they head to their desk.
An overall raise in the standard of living is a dream that technology has made possible. But what I look at is an improved quality of one’s life. Better work-life balance, fitter and thus happier people, fewer hours in the office with each minute spent more productively – these are the factors that make me think that the future world may not be a dystopia. These sci-fi films have perhaps got it all wrong. While the machines carry out our everyday tasks, humans will still be doing human things – emoting, creating and surviving. But not just barely – we’d be able to unlock the full extent of our human potential, using the machines as just an aid, not a replacement for us. So even if my currency in the future is time – I’d spend less time staring at the countdown on my arm, and more time doing things.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in the years.”