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RISE CultureSmart thoughts for the future

Raj Patel

Raj Patel is a Director at UK integrator Vanti.

You have won a wealth of accolades, being heralded as Future Face of Innovation by Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, an IT Future Leader by the Global IT Industry Trade Association, and recently you were recognised in the 40 Under 40 class of 2020 at the InAVation Awards. Tell us a bit about your career journey to date.

I trained as an electrical engineer with my grandad, who was in industrial automation. He taught me from a young age and passed his passion onto me.

There was no clear path into the AV industry, so I freelanced to learn the ropes and make contacts. My parents wanted me to go to university, so I studied electrical engineering at Birmingham University. I continued to freelance and employed a team. When I’d finished my degree, I had five people working with me.

Vanti initially did a lot of work in the public sector thanks to various contacts within schools and councils. The Library of Birmingham project was a turning point and we suddenly went from doing £5k projects to £1m projects.

Our springboard into smart buildings was Informa at 240 Blackfriars. Various consultants were struggling to realise how to stitch the systems together to realise the client vision. I knew we were the best placed to make this work, so I stuck my neck out and we were promoted to Master System Integrators. As a young team in our 20s, going from AV Integrator to MSI was a significant moment!

Vanti’s smart workspace for Informa at 240 Blackfriars resulted in significant economic benefits for the client thanks to energy saving and space optimisation. Do these considerations apply to all smart building projects?

Doing a smart building project to be trendy probably won’t result in great economic advantages. For commercial projects the significant cost savings come from two things:

  • Space optimisation can be hugely advantageous depending on where the building is based – prime real estate in London would be a good example of where this could result in big savings.
  • Productivity is where you start saving the big money; however, this is impossible to sell into an organisation as it’s so difficult to quantify. Smart technology can encourage a more agile approach to working making teams more efficient with their time. This also contributes to a better work/life balance and general wellbeing – a benefit that will also attract the best talent.

With the vaccination roll-out we can now start to think about going back to work. What impact will our new working behaviours have on the design of smart commercial buildings?

One train of thought is that business won’t invest in commercial property because work can be done from home. It’s not my view but it has led us to explore the residential market – we need to cover all avenues!

Another is that people are fed up of being at home and miss human interaction. Face-to-face interaction builds strong business relationships and contributes to job satisfaction. I don’t think people will go back to the office full-time, instead it will be for meaningful collaboration. Gone are the days of sitting in an office with headphones on! Design will focus on a flexible working approach, allowing people to connect and collaborate easily.

To support this, we have launched a new workplace platform called Kahu, a suite of smart technology features to support a modern flexible workplace.

You’ve been outspoken about why we should be extending the lifecycle of commercial buildings. How do you envisage our industry supporting a more sustainable approach?

The traditional owner/occupier model is going to struggle if we don’t consider a world where another company may at some point also need to use the space. The tenant idea lends itself to a more flexible working approach. We are getting more demand for creating flexible spaces – with companies reducing property portfolios, subletting floors, selling buildings and renting offices, which are easier to fit out. We’re going through this consolidation process with lots of clients to make their space work smarter for them. I think this is going to continue in the future with more clients opting for a more responsive workplace that can adapt to multiple possibilities.

Vanti is proactive in addressing diversity and recently signed up to the Tech Talent Charter. Last year, Vanti also launched the ‘Tackling Racism’ group following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. As an industry, what can we be doing to tackle prejudice both in the workplace and beyond?

Being an Asian kid growing up in London I’ve experienced racism, so this is something that is important to me. That said, we don’t take a top-down approach to cultural issues, it needs to be more authentic than that. Our governance team aren’t members of the ‘Tackling Racism’ group, we support it and make time for it, but this is about everybody in the business feeling like they have a safe space to share and talk openly. They meet regularly, share awareness sessions with the rest of the team, present areas we can make changes, call us out and challenge us to address complicated issues.

In the AV industry, the old world has been diluted by the more diverse IT industry, which has helped. When I started as a sound engineer, we were offered radio mics in a variety flesh tones, except they were all white flesh tones. I was told my flesh tone was a ‘special order item’ – which should never be the case. Inclusivity is a huge focus for us. We try to balance diversity in the team, listen and make changes. Even small changes – making our toilets non-binary, saying no to ‘stand girls’ at exhibitions – can have a big impact on changing the culture of our industry for the better.