We’re sitting at a hip hotel restaurant in Chicago, and Hans Neubert has commandeered all of the creamer. In fact, he’s assembled a small china cabinet of coffee cups, saucers, and a sugar bowl at our table to make a point.
Our homes and workplaces are filled with all these gadgets. Nest thermostats. Philips Hue light bulbs. August smart locks. He gestures to the pile of porcelain. They’re piecemeal solutions, each capable of making our environments a bit more smarter, but each fundamentally incapable of solving the gigantic problems in healthcare, urban planning, or physical retail. None of them alone builds the experience of a place.
Then he gestures to the open table he’s cleared. That’s what he’s interested in. A blank slate to build something better from the ground up.
Last year, Neubert was hired at the world’s largest architecture firm, Gensler, to fill a role invented just for him. He’s the global creative lead of digital experiences, tasked with leading the company into its new era in which physical buildings are designed with the digital experiences they enable in mind. He’s like the software to Gensler’s hardware.
“There are two majority roles in our life right now. Half the world is digital. Half the world is physical,” Neubert explains. “So I said, ‘How can I bring these two things together, where can I find a place to do that?”
At the time, Neubert was the CCO of the digital agency Huge. Before that, he was the last CCO of the storied design consultancy Frog. What Neubert realized seems almost obvious in retrospect: If he wanted to spearhead a world in which digital and analog experiences were constructed with equal focus, he needed to step outside the land of agencies and design consultancies–and into the field of architecture.
“If you really want to change [the world], you need to be closer to the architects,” says Neubert. “Frankly, [at Frog], we did a form of experience strategy, then turned it over to architects!”
Neubert is referring to work like Disney Magicbands. In 2015, Frog assisted in developing the first major marriage of digital and analog worlds inside Disney’s own theme parks. Instead of constantly pulling out cash or stepping into a line, the Magicband was like a wireless key for visitors to the Magic Kingdom, capable of feats like “magically” bringing someone their lunch at a table, when they never even spoke to a waiter or a maître d’.
Many have pointed to the Magicband project as a talisman of the future connected world. Yet the problem is that while companies like Carnival have successfully duplicated the work within its microcosmic cruise ships, very few businesses have the resources to assemble the strategy and expertise to realize their own–because even if you have all of the components you need, to really pull it off you still need to build that infrastructure largely from the ground up. You can’t simply add a Nest thermostat to Disney World and call it a day. Businesses don’t have the resources to build their own systems, which is why Google has initiatives like Sidewalk Labs, promising to blanket the world’s cities in sensors baked right into newly built urban infrastructure.
“Clients demand immersive and branded environments, but also productivity tools, wellness, community–everyone rethinks everything,” says Neubert. “All of these conversations are happening literally right now across dozens of industries.”
The thing is, nobody really knows what the perfect manifestation of an analog-digital environment is just yet. To figure that out, Neubert will be doubling Gensler’s digital team to 100 people and spearheading a series of flagship projects–ranging from concepts to client projects that are currently confidential–that can serve as beacons for his vision of truly useful and engaging connected environments.
Gensler’s chief advantage is that it builds everything. The firm touched 8,000 distinct building projects last year, which represented over a billion square feet of construction. It’s currently working on half a dozen stadiums, and half a dozen airports. Indeed, the sheer number of large-scale projects is almost impossible to fathom. To Neubert and his colleagues, there are very few companies that can match Gensler’s magnitude of practical experience with, and research on, the built environment.
“Gensler doesn’t want to become the software firm developing the future of connected thermostats,” Neubert says. “But the reality is, we have a huge amount of insights and knowledge in how to improve on that experience because we look at [space] holistically.”
The real question is what Gensler’s lasting impact on the industry will be. “We want to make sure the work that we do is organically connected, rather than artificially connected,” Neubert muses. “So you feel like it’s part of the environment, and enhances the environment, and if you take it away, the environment would be lesser without it.”
“Harmonious is a word I keep coming back to,” he adds a beat later. “Less friction.”
Everything else is on the table. Neubert describes a spectrum of digital experiences inside Gensler’s purview. On the left, you have promotional novelty–the glitzy stuff of Times Square. On the right, you have quiet connectedness, like silent sensors that record how people use a space. Both have a lot of room to improve in this unprecedented age of AI, wireless data, and invisible, energy-sipping electronics. “There’s a very large range there,” says Neubert. “What’s interesting to me is, on one extreme I’m utilizing my brand brain. On the other end, I’m utilizing my product brain.”
As wild as these two extremes of digital design and branding may seem, projects like the new Amazon Go store represent how they come together. The UX of Amazon’s cashier-free store is revolutionary: You can just walk in and “shoplift” your purchases without checking out. It’s uniquely Amazon-branded through and through and it’s positioned almost like a nightclub crossed with a bodega, which has made it FOMO-inducing viral sensation on Instagram. Neubert points to it as an example of this new paradigm in spatial design.
“While we had nothing to do with that, that’s why I’m here,” says Neubert of Amazon Go, and the spaces and experiences–ranging from retail to healthcare–that he hopes to build at Gensler. “At this point, we’re just seeing the ice cube-tip of an iceberg the size of a stadium below.”