Emergence Vs. Emergency (Preview)

or Why Design Knowledge Must Follow Fashion

As catastrophe invades our living rooms in the form of televised Haiti and Chile, it becomes rather uncomfortable, if not preposterous, to advance theoretical recipes for catastrophe from the comfort of our advanced Western homes.

I guess I’m daring to take such an immodest step only because I come from a city that 250 years ago gained extraordinary and unexpected enlightenment from another devastating earthquake. I do it because I feel the feral urban destruction seen in the wake of natural disaster is only a gentle warning of what may be considered a much deeper, fully announced global catastrophe.

As it has been widely acknowledged, the greatest challenge of times to come is to deal with the growth of urban populations around the globe, and namely in the so called developing world. As recently stressed in very different contexts, this is the first time in history in which more than 50% of human populations lives in urban context. And it is also estimated that by 2050, no more than 40 years away, this number will have quickly risen to a staggering 75%.

Such numbers epitomize a state of emergency in the sense that this growth will occur in megalopolis whose major populations are endemically poor and face an evident lack of resources. The situation may unmistakably drive to human catastrophe in both local and global scale. Concerns should therefore be overall, and not of a local nature. And the challenge constitutes not only an ethical and political problem, but also an effective test to our ability to reinvent resources.

As I shall argue more deeply in a paper that will be published later this year,[i] such challenge should also be mainly taken on board in terms of production of knowledge resources in every conceivable domain. Merely in order to survive, never before in history so many people needed so much intelligence in so little time.  And this requires a new position towards the production and sharing of knowledge –and design knowledge– namely regarding the dislocation of its production centers, its transmission and effectiveness, and its use of emergence, informality, open-source, electronic networks and local knowledge as against the eminence of a global collapse.

© Brian Benson. Jellyfish theatre by Köbberling & Kaltwasser. Via Designboom.

There is an African proverb that says, “smooth seas do not make skilful sailors.” Shawn Frayne, a researcher at the MIT, quotes this saying to suggest that “harder problems make for better inventions,” and he moves on to state “the best technologies in the next century will be created in developing countries where people facing the toughest challenges will respond with breakthrough innovations.”(Frayne 2008)

Another version of the African saying has it that if you want to feed a hungry man you must not give him fish but a fish cane. This seems to be an obvious notion, but food aid policies directed towards the Third World, as well-intentioned as they may be, have tended to ignore this basic truth, rather promoting loitering, corruption and unfair competition for local farmers. Apparently only recently – and more precisely with Hillary Clinton’s announcement of Obama’s Global Food Security Wrap on September 25th 2009 (United Nations, 2009) – is such a motto starting to be taken into serious account in world policies regarding food resources that, ultimately, will affect everybody.

But what I want to contend here is that, indeed, it is the fish cane what we should be thinking about and not the fish. That is, what we should be concerned about is the construction and transmission of knowledge on how to produce a cheap, clean technology that makes fishing –or to take the analogy a step further, also water-farming, transporting, building, etc– accessible to a very considerable mass of people.

© By Visiondivision. Umbrella Children Hospital, Rwanda. Via Designboom.

Following some of the inescapable rules of today’s economy, the issue becomes one of allowing for a creativity that is accessible on a mass scale, and one that addresses emergency needs throughout the globe, rather than being solely devoted to superfluous consumption niches in advanced societies.

In this sense, I polemically propose that knowledge must follow fashion.

And I defend that it is within the logic of such an economic shift that the current and abundant knowledge resources of design and architecture professionals in the most advanced societies have to be driven to a more useful and encompassing social role.

Perhaps, as such, we may also overcome situations in which, paradoxically but effectively, these knowledge resources are seen as surplus in their own countries of origin and, through un- or under-employment, are actually the subject of scandalous economical under-use.

However, as obvious as this shift may sound, its implementation is easier said than done. As such, I picked five disparate aspects that somehow announce this paradigm shift, and that, while already taking place and originating important examples for practice, are still largely unrelated or otherwise playing on what one could call separate channels.

These aspects include the way knowledge exchanges between different cultural geographies are shifting after post-colonialism; how formal and informal modes of production are increasingly interchangeable; how the growing possibilities of open-(re)source allow for the low-tech expansion of design possibilities; how the circuit(s) of fashion provide a model of access to forms of knowledge that today remain exclusive, and, finally, how practices of cooperation need – and are indeed dealing with – new rules of attraction.

The thesis of my article is that the time is ripe for these disparate channels to be mixed and so to generate a new sort of tune to which knowledge producers should be humming, if, that is, the emergency of future mass urban conflict is to be faced and dealt with.

My longer pentagonal argument develops previous ideas on how conditions of emergency allow for emergent creative practices. It also suggests that the conjunction of highly specialized knowledge with lo-fi adaptive creative skills will be the one that provides solutions for a more balanced future; and that worst-case scenarios are indeed an interesting tool to tackle a “creativity of crisis,” one that challenges traditional forms of knowledge production, as I’m somehow explored in the ongoing Beyond, Short Stories on the Post Contemporary series.

In this sneak-preview, however, I just want to expand on how design and architecture cooperation agencies are deemed to be at the forefront of this knowledge exchanges and, thus, face a curious responsibility in tickling with the notions I’m presenting here. Engaging with global sustainability –as annoyingly commercial as the term has become– may imply readdressing the notions and circuits of resourcefulness in unexpected ways.

I have already critically touched upon this issue, but now I want to bring out the full argument: as unsound as it may seem at first sight, it has to become fashionable for people to direct their efforts of design knowledge production towards cooperation and humanitarian action.

As I said, this is already taking place, as recently seen in the initiatives by stars like Brad Pitt on behalf of their own organizations, but also through the public support given to Architecture for Humanity by the likes of Wyclef Jean and Shakira. This is certainly one way of benefiting from the effects of fashion and celebrity. But, here I want to address questions that go slightly deeper than this immediate, positive but populist effect.

Firstly, I want to address the dilemma of today’s knowledge producers. Somehow, it just became problematic to only employ one’s design intelligence at home. The impact of the current recession may well prove as an important means for people to reconsider where the professions of design and architecture should employ their creative energies.

A story carried in the New York Times about one year ago –and even more so the immediate reactions to its publication– signaled an important shift regarding what could be considered, up until then, the profitable vision of the world of architecture. Architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff pointed out that, for the celebrated star-system of architecture, “it was fun until the money ran out,” and then he asked if “a lot of first-rate architectural talent” should not be enlisting “in designing the projects that matter most.” Architecture for Humanity immediately replied by stating that this was already the case, ironically adding, “we regret we missed the party, but we were too busy working.”

The NGO thus pinpointed to a wider audience the gulf that separated the brutal investment in “commodity” architectures dedicated to celebrate a capitalist model that was revealing its cracks, and, on the other hand, the response to effective everyday needs of the majority, thus simply facing the sustainability issues posed by the future of every urban built environment.

As Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr put it in their Letter to the New York Times”:

Thousands of building professionals—a cross section of architects, engineers, planners, builders, suppliers and many others working together, most at small-to-mid-size firms—are already hard at work transforming the fabric of our communities. They are greening roofs, building with reclaimed materials, installing solar-heated water systems, and working alongside owners to cost-effectively put more sustainable building alternatives into practice. These professionals are quietly addressing the real issues faced by the built environment with pragmatism, innovation and creativity in equal measure. …………… Moreover, many of these professionals remain busy despite ………………… an economy that has slid into reverse.

This is only the beginning of a certain kind of awareness. It also announces that more and more architects and designers are willing to contribute their knowledge to humanitarian causes rather that to sit through inactivity back at home. However, we cannot count only on the economical recession to make this kind of action more appealing to practitioners, which, currently, are being evicted by the same societies that gave them an education and the prospects of illusive careers that were not to be met by the market.

It is also a responsibility of the profession to now send out the signs that symbolic profit may be at hand for one’s dedication to the “the projects that matter most.” If the individual practitioner indeed looks essentially for its own benefit, gratification has to be necessarily available, if not by means of material and economic return, at least through what Pierre Bourdieu classically called symbolical capital.

This is the key-moment in which, together with an investment in the quality and the advanced qualities of the designs themselves, the psychological rewards of fashion must be brought into the discussion and one must explain the ways in which knowledge must follow fashion.

The first reason I’ve identified for which knowledge must follow fashion is not really concerned with symbolic rewards, but rather consists in appropriating the logic of fashion’s economic circuit and its ability to provide for the mass-production and circulation of accessible goods in massive scale.

Very briefly, the argument suggests that technology and design intelligence should infiltrate the emerging locations of mass-production for mass-consumption, and thus take advantage of the logic by which high fashion was decentralized and endlessly made counterfeit. Only the very cheap, the mass-produced, the readily accessible at immensurable scales can accommodate such level of consumption as that which will be created by the quickly growing cities of the developing world.

Even if knowledge production is ultimately motivated by selfish interest, it is time to understand that only cheaper technologies and a more ephemeral mode of production –like that of Zara– will provide for a quick turnover of design and architectural solutions for immediate necessities. And, as the dissemination of fashion and computing technology have shown, rather than gaining a lot from a few exclusive products, profit may be gained by the accumulation of small margins over products that are massively distributed.

The second aspect of this reasoning, and the one that is more central to the present argument, resides in engaging into the psychological circuit by which fashion induces a specific form of reception in its social subjects, and directing such a mechanism towards a more humane distribution of design knowledge.

When a recent article on Dutch practice Superuse started with the question of “Who says recycling isn’t sexy?,” this might be no other than journalistic rhetoric intended to call the reader’s attention, but it certainly points to the fact that answers to basic needs today have to be made appealing both to the producers and to the much larger spectrum of potential users of a certain technology, of essential day-to-day products, or even of shelter and city conceptions.

Besides the potential lure of architectural and design services for their users, then, the development of such projects has to be made attractive to designers themselves. If it becomes “fashionable” to design for endeavors related to emergency contexts, this certainly will facilitate the redirecting of design intelligence to other, emergent forms of need.

Even disregarding that any product that cheaply supplies for the needs of millions is bound to offer economical turnover, it is thus imperative that the fields of knowledge production themselves ascertain symbolic value and research capability to the employment of intelligence in solving the problems of underprivileged majorities in developing urban contexts.

Fortunately, this is already happening. As condemnations of the modus operandi of the architectural star-system succeed in the public arena, the conditions are also created for professionals to recognize the symbolical outcome and the merit of addressing other forms of practice that carry evident social value.

Prizes like the Venice Biennale’s Silver Lion for Promising Young Architect Practice being attributed to Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental –so as “to encourage further development” of an ethic described as showing a “renewed interest in direct engagement with current real-world problems such as the environment, poverty and political strife”(La Biennale di Venezia)– represent, precisely, the kind of symbolic return that, in the eyes of the profession, compensate for the potential hardships carried by the dedication to a previously invisible and unrewarded cause.

Furthermore, the symbolic return is established not only through the prize in itself –something to which only a few can aspire– but also through the fact that this practitioner’s innovative take on social housing within the context of South American growing megalopolises got projected onto the covers and pages of magazines world-wide.

The effect of this mass-media reproduction will then be to provide its typical amplification capacity so as to legitimate this sort of symbolical return and, therefore, to induce the workings of fashion’s influence in making such endeavors attractive to more and more knowledge producers within the field of architecture or design.

On the other hand, architecture’s response to emergency in projects such as Nader Khalili’s sandbag shelters now plays the role of the other side in regards to the architectural field’s recent evolution into a star-system. This is where ideas and concepts are to be cherished for their critical boldness – and developed onto new formal and material achievements.

After all, such models represent one of the platforms through which, as I expand on my longer text, post-colonial trans-geographical knowledge exchanges become available and effective in the face of “real-world” global problems.

Rather than exporting knowledge – and a way of life – to other cultures (as it happened as imposition during colonialism); rather than importing knowledge – and survival techniques – from other cultures (as it sometimes happens as extortion in neo-colonialism); rather than just trading knowledge, we now must find new, effective ways to share and cross-breed different forms of knowledge.

Which is what happens when researchers from developing countries bring their awareness of need to advanced centres of knowledge production. The combination of forms of intelligence originating in different cultural and geographical settings may then produce the better of two worlds.

The work of Teddy Cruz represents a good instance of such sensibility. As Ouroussoff has pointed out in another NYT article, “where others saw poverty and decay, he saw the seeds of a vibrant social and architectural model.” The echoes of his work in the media signal the growing interest in the techniques of the informal as more intuitive and efficient models for adaptive architecture. And it thus suggests themes of research that may prove increasingly and positively more fashionable.

Elsewhere, another example of such knowledge exchanges is provided by Design Indaba, a design organization in a country that stands at the crossroads of the post-colonial process, South Africa.

Not only does Design Indaba regularly reunites design intelligence from across the globe so as to trigger new discussions, but it fosters as well for the permanent research of local informal techniques as an important fodder for thought and actual provider of object and building production.

The attribution of the first Curry Stone design prize –in itself one of a new breed of international prizes devoted to emergent creativity directed towards emergency – to their “10×10 Low Cost Housing Project,” is another sign of recognition at a new way of looking at geographically dislocated and more concerned ways of knowledge production, while at the same time rewarding the input of informal traits in formal design.

Together with the aforementioned examples of practice, there are also new open-source collaborative practices; there is the internet and the global networks; there is cheap tech and lo-fi; there is mass-production, cheaper costs of technology and smart design; but there are also learnings to be taken from the economical circuit(s) of fashion and the amplifying attributes of the media.

As design intelligence and its ambition for innovation is to be challenged to respond within this upcoming arena, all of the aforementioned means and examples are already available to be used and combined in the pursue of a stronger engagement towards the increasing needs of the planet’s incredibly growing urban populations.

Pedro Gadanho, Lisbon, February 2010


[i] This text is an edited preview of a paper accepted for publication later this year in the “Tickle your Catadstrophe!” conference proceedings publication, through Ghent University, Belgium.

3 responses to “Emergence Vs. Emergency (Preview)

  1. Pingback: Archives of Re-incidence # 04 | shrapnel contemporary

  2. Pingback: Venice (Archives of Re-Incidence #05) | shrapnel contemporary

  3. Pingback: Tickle Your Imagination | shrapnel contemporary

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