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Data challenges the old rules

by Mark Cantrell
Gary Mcluskey from Greystar gives a keynote talk at PropTech Connect in London

We simplify things to better understand them, and this can bind us in restricted thinking, warns Greystar’s Gary Mcluskey, but a data-driven approach can set us on a more creative path

There’s a certain ‘dangerous’ irony in presenting a brief excursion into Gary Mcluskey’s thoughts on simplifying complexity: we might fall foul of the very same loss of nuance he talks about.

Mcluskey, global head of design at Greystar, was at the PropTech Connect event in London earlier this month, where he was one of the keynote speakers.

In the Future of Design, Construction and Operations, Mcluskey talked about how we simplify complex situation to help us grasp the problems, but there’s a danger we lose our awareness of the subtleties and nuances once these simplifications are coded into guidelines – that can fast become de facto rules.

However, all is not lost, he went on to explain: With the right approach, data can enable us to rethink the rules, and creatively refashion them.

“There’s a lot of new technology and new ideas, all showing what’s possible, and all showing where we’re heading,” he said.

With that, he turned his thoughts to the “underlying theme” of “this future that we’re thinking about”.

His theme was that notion of guidance hardening into rigid rule, and with it an unthinking compliance that brings with it a risk we shut out a fresh approach.


We simplify complex things, he explained; codify them into something simpler, so that we can understand it. We follow the rules, and maybe forget why those rules came about, and so end up applying yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems; if that is a fair summation of his talk.

“Our ability to simplify ideas into very simple concepts enables us to communicate those ideas through different generations, and it enables us to communicate ideas very clearly,” Mcluskey said.

“Simplicity is able to understand these complex problems, but sometimes it completely destroys the nuances of what the issues are. Sometimes we are using simplified systems to deal with complex issues without really understanding what the issue is.”

Rigid rules, he went on to argue, can “stifle” innovation, new ideas, creativity.

“This is not just a design issue,” he said. “I think every profession, every type of work has these rules in place.”

Later, he talked about the emergence of software with powerful facilities to help us design, and analyse to create our solution, “but” he goes on to say…

“The problem is they’re all parametrically driven,” he said. “They’re all driven by algorithms which we have designed. We have designed those codes that we have invented over the last few hundred years, and inputted them into the software. So maybe that’s not the solution.”

He continued: “We [Greystar] are a data driven business with two million residents: We regularly poll those residents to get their thoughts on what we think are the best ways of designing our buildings – none of what our residents want is listed in the GLA’s London Housing Design Guide. There’s no comparable; they’re two completely different things.

“So you think about all these codes for design, and how we should spatially plan housing, who are we doing it for? Are we doing it for the people who live there, or are we doing it for someone sitting in an office coming up with an idea of how we should design spaces?”

Listening to his talk, we might also ask, are we doing it to appease the rules and codes encapsulated in the software we made?

“So there is a difference between parametric algorithms and what AI could offer us,” he said. “AI has the ability to adapt the algorithm, which is the most exciting thing to have come along in probably the last 100 years.”

People business

Perhaps one salutary point in Mcluskey’s talk was the reminder that data is servant, not master; or should be. At the end of the day, the built environment exists as a place for human beings to conduct their lives, not as a variable in some equation.

“In the end it all comes down to people,” as Mcluskey added. “We can’t just forget the fact that we’re not just equations; we are individuals with individual tastes. We have nuances that go beyond the simplified understanding of how we should go about things.”

Despite all this, there is reason to be optimistic, he suggests: Change is what we make it, if we use the data to set ourselves free of old ways of thinking.

“What I am excited about is that change is happening right now,” he said. “That change could drive a better understanding of what we’re doing, and give us complex solutions to complex problems, rather than oversimplified ideas of how we should work, how we should live, how we should do that.”

Mcluskey added: “The idea that data can feed into a much more complex analysis system, and output more complex solutions, I think, is the most exciting thing that has happened in a long time.”

Image credit: Build in Digital

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