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The Office of the Future: A Portable, Inflatable Bubble?

A futuristic cubicle design would let you roll annoying co-workers down a hill.

Jie Zhang/Staples/Metropolis

Co-working spaces will always be a quandary in that their clientele could be working from the comfort of home—or heck, at a beach or bar—but choose an office environment with all its self-consciousness, distracting chatter, and weird microwave smells.

Kudos, then, to Cambridge designer Jie Zhang for dialing back the idea with a co-working “cubicle” that seals off all your co-workers. Zhang’s conceptual “FoAM” station, which just won runner-up in Staples Business Advantage’s and Metropolis magazine’s “Tomorrow’s Workplace” competition, looks like a translucent bubble blown by an enormous whale. Freelance workers lug it in a backpack to their favorite co-working space, which Zhang imagines in the future will be empty garages and parking lots. They unroll and inflate it, then crawl inside to access a cozy womb free from all the sounds (but not sights) of the office.

Zhang’s design is meant to reflect what work spaces might look like in 2021, and was judged on a combination of “collaboration, wellness and productivity, office culture, and sustainability.” Here’s the creator explaining more about the FoAM orb, which actually could accommodate multiple people if desired:

The proposal celebrates the rapidly growing freelancer economy, which makes up 35 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2016 and is predicted to grow to 40 percent by 2020.

Currently, digital nomads flow between homes, coffee shops and co-working spaces. In the near future, they will demand not only more space, but also mobile, personalized and responsive environments. The increasingly digitalized lifestyle will also create a desire to reconnect with the physical world and with other human beings. FoAM emerges out of such needs.

FoAM aims to improve overall efficiency for existing and new businesses and also unleashes the latent value in vacant city infrastructure. Inspired by inflatable architecture from the 1960s, FoAM is made of multiple active layers. The inflatables, collapsible but otherwise thermally and acoustically insulating, reimagine the workplace at the scale of the body.

Jie Zhang/Staples/Metropolis

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.