The design of scarcity

The logic of growth had been defining XX century. Now the course’s changed so the scarcity is set to define the logic of XXI century.

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In the XXI century, people face limits: politics invoke the idea of planetary limits as a call to action, assumptions about perpetual economic growth are being questioned as we confront the diminishing of resources and the degradation of the environment. Scarcity is something that is designed through the creation of desire. In this essay published Strelka Press professor Jon Goodbun, architect Michael Klein, architect and researcher Andreas Rumpfhuber and writer Jeremy Till examine the other side of the coin. They state that scarcity is a very productive process.

Working within externally defined constraints is a fundamental part of the design process; scarcity is thus always a context for design. Design here is seen not as a noun, a set of objects, but as a verb, a set of processes that necessarily deal with surrounding systems and contexts, including scarcity. This engagement with the limits thrown up by scarcity can be productive. In the early 20th century one finds fascinating attempts not just to design in the context of financial and material shortages, but more to construct architectural and design values out of that very engagement, and so produce a collective language out of our societies' confrontation with scarcity. Thus urbanists worked with the politics of distribution, architects explored collective languages of minimal dwelling and designers explored a new functional objectivity in their designs.

Perhaps the most sophisticated attempt to construct an architectural value out of a sublimated engagement with scarcity is Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum “Less is More”. However, it also shows how complicated design’s engagement with scarcity could become in a capitalist society. Mies’s catchphrase for engaging design in a relationship of means and ends found itself turned into an economic imperative. It is a self-imposed aesthetic programme expanded into a general principle, employing the architect and designer as a servant of modern capitalism. The credo of reduction merged with the logic of efficiency: make more with less. Creativity has always been absorbed by capital: the creative professional was never outside accumulation, but an essential part of it. He and she were capital’s strongest workers, adapting to ever-new constraints, expanding the logics of the creation of value to ever-new margins: the creative designer became the epitome of the entrepreneurial self.

Mies’s dictum has been revived, dressed in a new coat. Following the excesses of the early 2000s, design, and in particular architecture, has become the agent of contemporary austerity, wrapping the exigencies of pared budgets in a thin veneer of reduced aesthetics, and meanwhile letting the market determine spatial conditions. Once again, design has shown what it is capable of: making more out of less, so creating surplus value. It might be easy therefore to just reject Hess is more”. But our argument is that it is necessary to fully engage with it, to consider design as a practice of means and ends, aware of its relation to the wider contexts of production. While it would not be appropriate or sufficient today just to return to the architectural and design experiments of the last century, there are real lessons to be learned from the modernist attempt to construct design values and cultural meaning out of our relationship to scarcity.

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Beyond the complex dimensions of aesthetic experience, design is often considered to be a process of solving problems in the most efficient manner. Design in this guise can easily be reduced to a measurable practice: for example, designing to reduce a building’s carbon emissions. Design, particularly when linked to technology, holds out the promise that the effects of scarcity can be perpetually held at bay on the back of innovative and ever-more efficient systems. The solving of problems and the pursuit of efficiency are often used to legitimate the designer’s role in society beyond simply the production of an experience. Designers present themselves as part of an overall societal effort to overcome scarcity, or at least to mitigate it through the optimal use of resources.

However, this problem-solving paradigm of design can leave the underlying conditions unconsidered, leading to the paradox that design, far from “solving” the problem of scarcity, may actually exacerbate it. This happens in a number of ways. The first, and most obvious, is the way that obsolescence is actually designed into objects, from buildings to consumer products. At a large design scale, commercially developed housing too often precludes future adaptation, shutting down the opportunity for change, thereby making people move rather than adapt, and so keeping the market in a state of permanent demand. At a smaller scale, today’s mobile phone has an average life span of 18 months, with software updates causing slowdowns in older devices. Domestic appliances use proprietary parts that cannot be replaced, and frequently the cost of repairs makes buying new goods more attractive than fixing old ones.

Without this intentional obsolescence, products would last longer, demand would be reduced and the market stifled. Designed obsolescence is a symptom of the market's need to constantly produce more scarcities as an engine for more consumption. Contemporary industrial production arose out of conditions of scarcity, and cannot exist outside of them. It projects an image of an abundant society, which can afford to create endless consumables. However, this apparently abundant production of stuff masks the underlying production of scarcity. Scarcities are thus designed into the system of consumption: they haven’t arisen by chance; they are the inevitable and predictable consequence of decisions and actions. In our current social and economic models scarcity must be maintained so that production can be maintained.

Design can also produce scarcity in the way that it changes its own context; the solving of one problem may lead to multiple others. Responding to specific scarcities by design and innovation therefore often causes new scarcities to arise. To give but one example, the invention of the kidney dialysis machine saved lives, but also created an immediate scarcity in dialysis machines. Under scarce conditions, the young physicist Willem Johann Kolff built the first prototype of an artificial kidney for dialysis from sausage casings, wooden drums and juice cans in 1938 at the University of Groningen. By 1945, his dialyser had its first success in saving the life of a patient suffering from kidney failure, which before would have caused death. Once the invention was refined and implemented in the post-war period, demand for it exceeded supply, and still does. The overcoming of one problem through design led to the emergence of a new form of demand, and a new form of scarcity. The same is the case in what are termed disruptive technologies, inventions such as mobile phones that transform the field into which they arrive, creating at the same time a context for new scarcities.

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Finally, design also contributes to the production of scarcity in the way that it is part of the desire-making machinery on which markets depend. Design increases the fetish nature of commodity and with it the associated desire. The stimulation of desire and the production of want through design thus becomes a key driver of the market, as consumers are led to follow their desires. One almost certainly does not need a new smartphone every year, but their ever-evolving aesthetic and technical design lead us to believe we do, while their proprietary software upgrades create real functional scarcities. The result is an increase in resource scarcity as rare materials, often extracted at huge social and ecological cost, are depleted to maintain the production of the new.

The problems that design frequently solves are primarily those set for the benefit of corporations and investors, rather than the user. The fresh surfaces and endless creation of newness presented by design obscure the social relations that constitute things. The Dutch critic Roemer van Toorn uses the term “Fresh Conservatism” to describe designers who are constantly creating images of freshness in a way that disguises the highly conservative nature of the constitutive processes and values.

The design of the new thus frequently generates scarcities without any social or ecological oversight. This is particularly the case with the built environment, where design is operated on the grandest scale. Prior to the financial crash of 2008, architects were caught up in, and complicit with, the general frenzy of growth and production. Empowered by new computer tools, they presented ever-fresher and shinier images of their clients' buildings, which in the presentation of a world of abundance allowed us to forget the scarcity-producing nature of these developments. As velvet gloves for the iron fist of the real estate market, buildings became desire-creating commodities at an extreme scale.