Emergency Vs. Emergency, or How Knowledge Must Follow Fashion

First published in Tickle Your Catastrophe, 2011, edited by Frederik Le Roy, Nele Wynants, Dominiek Hoens, Robrecht Vanderbeeken, Studies in Performing Arts & Media # 9, Ghent: Academia Press.


In 2008, the world reached an invisible but momentous milestone: for the first time in history, more than half its human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas. By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost five billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.                                                   (Schlein and altri, City Mayors Society)

As it has been widely acknowledged, the challenge for the times to come resides in dealing effectively with the growth of urban populations around the globe and, especially, in the so called developing world. In different moments in 2008, it was noted that for the first time in history more than 50% of human populations now live in an urban context. It is also estimated that by 2050, no more than 40 years away, this number will have quickly risen to a staggering 75%. These numbers may well represent an actual emergency, as these shifts will occur in megalopolis whose populations are endemically poor. The situation may unmistakably drive to human catastrophe at a global scale. In this sense, the challenge is not only local, but also overall. And this is not only an ethical and political problem, but also a test to our capacity to reinvent resources. As I shall argue in this paper, the challenge resides indeed in the 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 knowledge production, namely regarding the dislocation of its production centres, 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.

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,” stating that “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 claims that to feed a hungry man you must not give him fish but a fish cane instead. This would seem obvious, but food aid policies for the Third World have tended to ignore this basic truth, with offerings that have rather promoted loitering, corruption and unfair competition for local farmers. Only very recently, 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. What I want to contend here is precisely that we should be rather thinking about the fish cane, instead of just providing the fish. We should be concerned about 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. 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 will polemically propose that knowledge must follow fashion. Additionally I will defend that this economic shift allows that the knowledge resources of designers and architects in most advanced societies may be driven to a more useful social role, as opposed to their current dissipation on un- or under-employment. I will suggest that there are five very different and complementary aspects announcing this paradigm shift, based on practices already in place and bringing forward examples of existing knowledge exchanges, albeit in what one could still call separate channels:

1. Knowledge exchanges after the post-colonial

2. Formal vs. informal and the use of emergence

3. The growing possibilities of open-(re)source

4. Exploring the circuit(s) of fashion

5. The new rules of attraction for cooperation

The speculative thesis of this paper is that the time is now ripe for these five disparate channels to be mixed into a new tune to which knowledge producers should soon be humming, if future mass urban conflict is to be avoided. However, being that my propositions combine different areas of knowledge on which I couldn’t possibly carry exhaustive scientific research, these possibilities will be presented as none but succinct points of departure for further investigation. In this sense, these are but entrance gates to a wider reconsideration of the production and transmission of knowledge in the fields of design and architecture.

This being said, this paper also develops previous ideas on how states and conditions of emergency allow for new creative emergent practices. As I have suggested, worst-case scenarios are suggested as a way to tackle a “creativity of crisis” that clearly challenges traditional forms of knowledge production. Deliberately playing on the double meaning of emergenc(i)es, the phenomena of emergence as collective intelligence – as earlier popularized by Steven Johnson (Johnson 2001) – could be conflated with emergency as a state of urgency, allowing for an out-of-the-box outlook on how the production of knowledge and culture might change its geography. The pressure of environmental change – like global warm-up and desertification – and the tension of changing global social conditions – like the North/South divide and the expansion of slum cities –, if put together with the new alliances of informal and formal creativity, suggest that in the near future there might be a post-colonial displacement of the centres of cultural and technological production onto quite unexpected sites. And assuming this scenario entails that answers to critical problems must be sought in new ways. Engaging with sustainability, for instance, may simply mean readdressing notions of resourcefulness in unanticipated ways and unforeseen places. I will try to demonstrate this, focussing on the fields of design, architecture and urban design.

1. Knowledge exchanges after the post-colonial

In a recent essay called “The South Will Rise Again?” (Gadanho 2007, 114-116) I hypothesized that a future lack of resources could favour those cultures that are traditionally characterized by resourcefulness in the face of absolute disadvantage. My premise was that, in a situation of global warm-up, cultures that have dealt with desertification would be in a position of advantage in regards to the development of new creative and environment adaptation skills. But, when it comes to effective creation of wealth, this reasoning could be flawed – creative adaptation and problem solving, just as economical and cultural development, involve much more than just a direct response to environmental issues. Even so, the seed was there to tackle the issue of balance between South and North through new perspectives. This divide plays an important role in our geo-political and economical future, and one should be careful to consider how knowledge exchanges across this divide can evolve to produce a fairer distribution of wealth. 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 must find new, effective ways to share and cross-breed different forms of knowledge. Rather than the ultimate depletion of existing natural resources, it may be deemed that only such form of exchange will provide for a sustainable satisfaction of needs of the growing urban populations in developing countries.

Besides its territorial occupation and enforced domination, colonization was itself based on the exploration of natural resources. It depended on imposing techniques of knowledge that would allow for such exploration, while exerting cultural control through education and planning. Wealth was utterly extorted, greatly contributing to today’s North and South divide.  Neo-colonialism, as it today exists, pursues the very same logic, albeit authorized by the logic of the multinational economy and the blessing of frequently corrupt governments. It engages in the very same resource depletion, while generating wealth for only a small local elite. It uses knowledge to further economical and global social unbalance. Similarly, a more discrete kind of neo-colonialism originates in cultural areas such as architecture and urbanism. Under the guise of understanding the informal growth of developing urban settlements, for instance, knowledge is imported to nourish Western research on alternative solutions to classical urban planning. Rather than solving local problems, solutions are traded in to substitute for previous rationalising design tools or rising feral urban phenomena within Western metropolises. However, as opposed to these still prevailing models, I will suggest that other knowledge exchange models are already in place and they announce how valuable and balanced development can be generated in the near future.

For instance, India is enjoying economical growth by means of a software revolution that basically depends on a generation of Indian engineers educated and established in Silicon Valley. Similar wealth can be obtained in areas that provide solutions for everyday needs if only the production of knowledge is also connected to the mobility of both local and external human resources. As portrayed by Arjun Appadurai, the nature of emigration and human mobility has assumed new forms on the wake of instant, cheap communication and media phenomena (Appadurai 1996).  Mobility now allows for the virtual return of knowledge into the emigrant’s countries.  Those who, for a change, come to Western countries to further their education and knowledge resources, are the first ones to provide for the knowledge exchanges that I’m describing here. They are, most probably, the first responsible for those inventions, that, as referred to earlier, will produce global innovation and wealth while addressing local problems of emergent megalopolis. Indeed, emigrant researchers make it possible that knowledge production may be inversely delocalized. Research is thus located where advanced technological resources are available, but out of personal interest it may still focus on problems that belong to particular circumstances of a developing country. And the host country will actually subsidize this research (1) because, although research interests may ultimately lie elsewhere, the researcher is based there, and (2) because, even if research purposes are egoistical, developing logical products and adequate innovation for global needs means that the host country will guarantee the patents and the economical return of potentially successful solutions.

One must not forget – and this is one of the key arguments of this paper – that any product that may cheaply supply for the needs of millions, like computers have managed in recent history, will offer massive economical turnover, even if at very minimal profit margins. As Bill Gates’ fortune seems to prove, and as I will develop later, this is also where the economical circuit(s) of fashion reveals itself as a potential model for knowledge production. In fact, in the situation I’m addressing the gain of the traditional centres of knowledge production is similar to what Raymond Williams predicted concerning the exchanges between forms of high and popular cultures. When the notion of the exclusive validity of high culture was still dominant, Raymond Williams anticipated that the interaction of high culture and popular culture was the only way to provide for the survival of high-culture itself (Williams 1983). Similarly, the notion that more advanced cultures may learn from a “resourcefulness in the face of permanent crisis” that is characteristic of the so-called Third World, is already in place now.

The second insight offered by the example of the emigrant researcher stresses how the encounter of different mentalities and backgrounds also increases the potential for innovative knowledge generation.  As I argued in The South will rise again?,  they who know intimately the problems of necessity and resourcefulness are more likely to bring such issues to the attention of advanced research centres. And when they do, they can enjoy the atmosphere of open creativity of the laboratory where many minds contribute towards one solution. In such instance, the combination of characteristics and forms of intelligence from both geographies produce the better of two worlds. Even if places like the MIT Media Lab look messy, it is precisely in such mixed, immersive atmospheres that the fuzzy logic of emergence may help produce innovative knowledge.

These examples, as other more locally recognisable, not only suggest new, post-colonial modes of dislocation, but also a change in forms by which knowledge is proposed, appropriated and exchanged in what is now called a network culture.

The production of knowledge, in this context, is no longer only about the interdisciplinary and the cross-fertilization of different sources of knowledge, but rather about what I will come to describe as post-colonial trans-geographical knowledge exchanges.

2. Formal vs. informal and the use of emergence

Teddy Cruz is a San Diego based architect who, over the last years, researched Tijuana’s informal settlements as potential models for suburban development in North America. “Where others saw poverty and decay, he saw the seeds of a vibrant social and architectural model” the New York Times stated about his practice (Ouroussoff 2008a). The work of Teddy Cruz represents another good example of the aforementioned trans-geographical knowledge exchanges. But it also signals the growing interest in the techniques of the informal as providing more intuitive and efficient models for adaptive architecture. Instead of “learning from Las Vegas,” like it was proposed in the Seventies in regard to popular culture (Venturi ed altri, 1972), the architectural milieu is now rather “learning from Tijuana.” The knowledge of the informal settlement is being used as model for the reintegration of immigrant communities in depleted American inner city areas. As the shift goes, it is only typical that in the face of economic crisis architects again want to understand the cost-efficiency with which informality responds to social and territorial organizational problems.

In informality we find the remnants of a self-organization model that was been systematically subdued under the imperative of Western rationalization. Informality thus speaks of the forms of emergence – of collective intelligence – that we have steadily sacrificed to the notion of top-down planning. It speaks of a bottom-up approach that in the architectural and urban fields only recently has started to deserve critical attention and consequential research. Noticeably, it was only when the rationalistic model of architectural Modernism disclosed its darker social shades and its incapacity to generate sustainable community models that informality and organic growth were again looked upon. However, with research being at its first stage, investigation still depends on creating awareness for an issue that only in moments of crisis is taken up by the media and major political decision-makers.

A film project I am currently developing, Emergent Megalopolis (Gadanho 2009), addresses precisely the need for such awareness, exploring how we can learn from the survival tools of those who today face already the utmost urban adversity. Through the personal perspective of artists and film-makers supported by previous urban research, Emergent Megalopolis thus portraits how growing megacities are producing new modes of thought and creation born out of the collective informal everyday life endeavour. The project investigates informal creativity versus formal creation in hard-edged urban contexts with the underlying notion that new creative tools are developed out of both cultural shock and lack of resources. While inquiring into how advanced technologies are appropriated and combined with varied everyday resources, the project thus dwells on the teachings of the late Michel de Certeau. In works such as The Practice of Everyday Life, (de Certeau 1984, xii), the French anthropologist was, together with Henri Lefebvre, one of the first theoreticians to contrast a “rationalized, expansionist and at the same time centralized, clamorous and spectacular production,” which is usually praised in proper urban space, with “another production” that emerges as a truly informal creativity expressed in terms of quite unexpected objects, inventions, and uses of public space. However, if the analysis of this “another”, emergent knowledge production was already being deemed relevant in the Seventies, it still remains largely unexplored in terms of academic investigation.

This is not to say that the combination of emergent knowledge with formal technologies has not been increasingly noticed. South Africa is an interesting example of a country that, standing at the crossroads of colonialism and post-colonialism, has welcomed different experiments that reveal the encounter of formal design investigation and non-aligned creativity. In this regard, the foreground South African cultural organization Design Indaba regularly reunites design intelligence from across the globe to actively promote knowledge exchange. And while it does this, it also fosters 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 one of a new breed of emergent creativity international prizes, the Curry Stone design prize, to their project “10×10 Low Cost Housing Project” is in itself a recognition of a concerned and geographically dislocated knowledge production, while at the same time it rewards the input of informal traits in formal design.

Again it must be stressed that, be it in the most advanced societies or in the developing countries,  the urban context is the privileged stage where the exchanges between formal knowledge and emergent creativity are bound to happen. Be it as a result of migrations or as the effect of pure need, in the city environment the response of different genetic intelligences vis-à-vis problem solving are permanently remixed and originating new ideas. New kinds of knowledge, new techniques, new expressions and new tools, even new technologies, are thus being developed at the level of the street as emergent phenomena. As Peter Drahos has suggested in Cities of Planning and Cities of Non-Planning, A Geography of Intellectual Property:

Those who need to resort to informal techniques –and in this case the urban poor– are always being pushed closer to another edge. But then they do what they have always done. They innovate. Whether it is in the form of music that has emerged from the ghettos and slavery of the centuries or in the diverse seeds of life that indigenous farmers have bequeathed us from living in the harshest climates, they innovate. (Drahos 2006)

Within the upcoming knowledge economy being traced here, if informality is able to assume a new leading role, this is also because the new paradigm of open-source truly represents the new frontier in all realms of knowledge exchange.

3. The growing possibilities of open-(re)source

When the images of a hand-made helicopter made it to the internet circuits a couple of years ago, they seemed almost a caricature of the possibilities of today’s technological feats. However, the story behind the images is worth telling. When the 24-old physics student Mubarak Muhammad Abdullahi presented his homemade helicopter to the world in October 2007, he did so with touching candour: “It took me eight months to make this one.” (Mypenmypaper 2007) He accomplished his awkward-looking yellow chopper from scrap aluminum, pieces of dismantled old cars, a second-hand motor engine and even pieces from a plane that had crashed in the vicinity of his hometown in Northern Nigeria. In order to assemble (and fly) it he simply used manuals that are actually available in the internet, in a revealing example of today’s practical combination of “tacit” and “explicit” knowledge (Callins 2001). However, the story also illustrates how under a regime of free circulation of information, open-source is becoming determinant in building-up resources in locations that are deprived of a facilitating economic affluence.

Of course it is not only through the recourse to open-source that the slums will suddenly present us with miraculous technological discoveries. One should not fall prey to a sort of ideology of the exotic or a tendency to bow to the wonders of amateur, hacker and DIY practices. The fact is, however, that by now the access to information and cheap technology has been made easier to the point that certain aspects of dystopian visions are already feasible. The political and urban setting portrayed in White Fungus by science-fiction writer and techno-design guru Bruce Sterling (Sterling 2009) is a direct consequence of technologies increasingly made available for personal survival – including electronically supported urban farming. In the case of such scenarios (see also Scarponi 2009), the informal uses of a knowledge made openly accessible by electronic networks are proposed as substituting for the demise of the State-as-we-know-it in providing for the essential everyday services, not only in the near future but also in cities that are already today classified as “feral”(Norton 2003).

Ultimately, open-source and -resources now appear as a solution for basic everyday problems, by associating available knowledge, cheap technologies and computing components to an extensive recycling of anything available. Similarly, this may also be the case for more basic building technologies that must respond to a deprived context, like it has been thoroughly demonstrated by the well-known practice of Rural Studio. Established in 1993 by Samuel Mockbee e D. K. Ruth, the Rural Studio is an architectural unit at the Auburn University, Alabama, which has developed a consistent research on how to deploy recycled materials in the design of new structures (Rural Studio 2008). They could be called early representatives of what I’m calling here open-resource. Their “specificity” was that, while they’ve accumulated actual research on the qualities of discarded materials like tires, carpet leftovers or car glass shields, the aesthetic standards by which they made this integration was that of a progressive architecture school, thus legitimizing the language of recycling as an acceptable and actually appealing architectural style. Eventually, they have achieved cult status and have today younger practices following on their footsteps. In fact, groups like the Dutch 2012 Architecten even updated their philosophy to include an internet-based electronic data base that locates recyclable resources in the vicinity of a given building project (Superuse.org).

The fact that Rural Studio are based in Alabama, the most deprived area of the United States, near instantly-gone-feral New Orleans, just serves to underline that it is within scenarios of emergence and emergency that we must look upon for new ways of combining and sharing knowledge and renewing the way technology may affect the life of the planet’s majorities. But this does not only entail new prescriptive strategies for the practical ventures of architecture. It stresses the human collaborative nature that emerges in conditions of need, but also naturally resides in the practice of open-source. Indeed, open-source affirms collaborative creation over isolated authorship. As Lawrence Liang, an Indian legal researcher based in Bangalore, puts it in Pirate Aesthetics:

The global movement towards adopting collaborative models of production of culture and knowledge is slowly gaining ground. Starting with the free software movement, and moving towards the domain of art and music, it promises a radical revolution in the ways that we think of authorship and creation. (Liang 2006)

Within this setting, the collaborative conjunction of highly specialized knowledge with lo-fi adaptive creative skills will be the one that provides solutions for a better, post-catastrophic future. And as once the impact of the fax or the cellphone produced its effects in remote Third-World villages, today the relevant impact is that of the long-range, trans-geographical collaboration in which cheap-tech meets lo-fi meets smart, socially responsible design.

As Alice Rawsthorn recently suggested on “Creative Solutions in Tough Times,” to produce innovative technologies in collaboration with its end-users – and technologies that are specially useful for the urgent needs of “the poorest 90 percent of the world’s population whom designers have traditionally ignored” – featured among the top qualities required for the recognition of ‘good design’ in 2009 (Rawsthorn 2008). On this occasion, Rawsthorn praised the Lifelight, a LED based light charged by solar power and wind-up technology developed by an ONG to serve 100,000 orphaned electricity-deprived households in Rwanda. And if open-resource could thus make its bright appearance in the world of cooperation, that was only possible because the Lifelight is based on new economical possibilities guaranteed by the cheap mass-production of LED technology. Ultimately, the availability of cheaply mass-produced technology – allied to the collaborative production of knowledge and access to countless materials ready to be recycled – paves the way for innovative situations in which open-resource and open-source are endlessly recombined.

Within this condition, the practice of architect Santiago Cirugeda somehow responds to local contemporary needs, while hinting at what the future may bring at a global scale. By offering what he calls “urban recipes” (Recetas Urbanas) this architect based in southern Spain prescribes precise and detailed instructions to perform urban interventions that may entail prosthesis for occupation, creation of shelter with available materials or the subversive reclaiming of public space. While Cirugeda presents his prescriptions as belonging to the “public domain” – so that they “may be used in all its strategic and juridical proceedings by the citizens” – he also adverts that “any physical or intellectual risk produced by such interventions will be on each citizen account.” Although his practice may be taken by some as an “artistic” one – which somehow would devoid it of its political weight– it not only questions the role of the architect with regard to the notion of urban intervention, it also opens the knowledge of these professionals to the community by making it effectively available on an open-source basis.

As seen against Cirugeda’s tactics, it may be argued that, in terms of building and object design, local traditions have always functioned as open-source knowledge, namely through apprenticeship and generational transmission. However, these “urban prescriptions” ring another bell: that of cultures that no longer wish to rely exclusively on local values for their creativity, but are instead electronically mediated and globally referenced in distant practices and forms of knowledge. In due course, this will be another reason why knowledge construction and transmission in the fields of urban dwelling today must follow the circuit(s) of fashion.

4. Exploring the circuit(s) of fashion

Core 77, one of the design world referential websites, has recently carried a story by Tad Toulis, who advances the notion that our conception of design may be changing because of what he calls ‘ugly thinking’. The author comes up with this classification to situate the “high design’s recent fascination with the aesthetics of the unorthodox.” But he also uses it to tackle and valorise the influence that previously discarded informal styles of DIY and amateur cultures are having on the professional, high-end conception of consumer products:

DIY/Hack Culture is (…) significant because it starts to break down the neat partitions between consumer and fabricator upon which contemporary product design has found its present place as arbitrator. Regardless of your position on amateur culture, it is clear that formal design will need to revaluate its positioning if it is to continue to act as mediator between these converging groups. Failure to do so is to risk having professional design become as irrelevant to the contemporary landscape. (Toulis 2008)

The recognition of this notion implies that formal creativity somehow must adapt to the impacts of changing trends and the alteration of consumption models. From the “shift from a ‘read-only’ model of consumption to a ‘read-write’ model of consumption,” we move on to the new “degree to which consumers can now modulate the performance of products once thought too complex to be modifiable.” However, most importantly, global changes in taste are seen as influential on practices that have previously argued for aesthetic autonomy as a core value of their knowledge production. The permanently changing features of aesthetic consumption become key in design disciplines. “Consumability” and the emerging aspects of “prosumer” culture become a defining issue of how products, environments and technologies can reach for their destined users.

By analyzing the emergence of ‘ugly’, Toulis calls attention to design or architecture’s new permeability to popular culture and to the wider phenomena of fashion as essential factors in the contemporary construction of their respective formal identities. And this new permeability advises that fashion must be a subject of deeper analysis, overcoming an ineffable tendency to deem it as superficial and ephemeral. Furthermore, it suggests that the circuit(s) of fashion can offer models and strategies leading to an increased relevancy of design and architecture in everyday life within both global and emergent contexts.

In this sense, I don’t want to go here into the specifics of the fashion’s influence on the production of design knowledge, but I want to underline two ways in which the diffusion of such knowledge may follow some of the well-known circuit(s) of fashion. The first consists in appropriating the logic of the economic circuit of fashion – taking advantage on how this provides for the production and circulation of accessible goods in a mass-scale. The second resides in engaging with the psychological circuit by which fashion induces a specific form of reception in its social subjects – taking advantage on how such mechanism can be directed towards a more humanitarian distribution of design knowledge.

The first aspect of this equation has to do with understanding how economical circuits in the world of fashion have profited from globalization and the reduction of technological costs – although a problematic exploration of cheap labor is also frequently involved. After high fashion has been decentralized and endlessly made counterfeit, perhaps it is time that technology and design intelligence themselves infiltrate the emerging locations of mass-production for mass-consumption. After the fashion logic has been made accessible and democratic by successful global brands like Zara – just by accelerating the cycle of necessity and reducing the scandalous profit margins of luxury brands – perhaps it is time to understand how the use of cheaper technologies and a more ephemeral mode of production may provide a solution for the quick turnover of design and architectural solutions for immediate necessities.

Both the dissemination of fashion and the fast spread of computing technology have shown that, rather than gaining a lot from a few exclusive products, profit may be much more effectively be gained by the accumulation of small margins over products that are massively distributed. That is the reason why two of the three current biggest fortunes in the United States were raised out of software, while Google clarifies how the economical potential of internet business relies in reaching a previously inconceivable number of consumer “clicks” – being that this is also true for niche and peripheral productions. Because the production and application of knowledge is driven by the very same economical instincts, it should follow the same logic. That is, if knowledge production is ultimately motivated by the same selfish sense of individual economical self-achievement that regulates every field of production – at least as the champions of the free-market have it – then its mass-production will be the only one that can aptly respond to the needs of growing urban populations. And in such instance, the economic circuits of the global fashion system have something to teach to the producers of design knowledge.

Accordingly, product design is already following on the footsteps of the decentralization and dissemination of knowledge that firstly characterized fashion design. While it is closer to the circuit(s) of fashion, product design is certainly a more mobile category than architecture or urbanism, making it easy to adopt a model of mass-production. And while also the circuit of product design has to follow through the inevitable steps of counterfeiting, this may be seen as a sort of necessary evil towards a higher goal, an acceptable means to a better end. Being a consequence of the transference of design knowledge from advanced production centres to developing locations, counterfeiting exists only because there exists also a “legal” possibility to take benefit from underpaid labour. I would polemically state that, within the wider scheme of a necessary global balance, the economical cost of counterfeiting is nothing but a “social tax” that, albeit “illegally,” allows for the redistribution of profit between North and South.  However, more importantly, this may also allow for a better distribution of knowledge.

The “social tax” of counterfeiting may be deemed considerably low if, indeed, its return is, on the long run, that of avoiding a major social, economical and ecological catastrophe. Considering the changing scenario towards open-source that I have briefly described, perhaps the counterfeiting of technology and design intelligence should start being considered in a more light-hearted and positive way. When world-famous designer Konstantin Grcic ironically presented the cheap counterfeits of his technologically complex chairs during a recent conference at ExperimentaDesign,  he just assumed it as an inevitable reflex of his success and visibility as a designer.

In this sense, counterfeiting emerges as a fundamental response to the psychological needs that fashion itself instils in consumers. While counterfeiting ultimately reinforces branding, it provides a curious bridge onto the second aspect of what I’ve been referring to as the necessity for knowledge to follow in the footsteps of the circuit(s) of fashion.

Although it is known that brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci suffer minor economical losses derived from a massive production of counterfeits of its products, it is also true that their brand recognition and influence is partially made up of the circulation of those same counterfeits. Brand desire is infused by the product’s circulation in social strata, and while the rich go for the “real thing,” the poor feel happy to enjoy an illusion of status by displaying the fake. Consequently, contrary to being affected by global crisis, luxury companies are recognised to thrive in periods of recession (Fellowes 2008). Indifferent to economical cycles, the circuit(s) of fashion feed social distinction and influence behaviours and patterns of consumption across the globe, thus providing a powerful model for the desirability of design knowledge within wider circuits of need.

Thus, as initially pointed out, the second aspect of the necessary move of knowledge towards fashion relates to what I would call the “creation of psychological necessity” as an unexpected way to respond to effective emergency needs. It is in this sense that a recent review of an innovative recycling project started with the exclamation of “Who says recycling isn’t sexy?” (Sholtus 2007). Put in such terms, the question might not be much more than a journalistic device intended to call attention. However, more essentially, this exclamation may suggest that the answers to basic needs today have to be made appealing both to 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. If one thinks of the rejection of bicycles in China, while in other contexts their use is becoming “fashionable,” one is immediately reminded of consumers’ aspirations in emergent contexts. In this sense, the reappraisal of ‘ugly’ – or sustainable, or cheap – is relevant because it creates the conditions for the consumers to appreciate the aesthetics of recycling – or of doing more with less – in a new way.  And this may provide an answer in offering alternative solutions to peoples that still legitimately aspire to the models and images of Western life-styles promoted in global media.

The psychological and sociological traits with which fashion contributes to contemporary urban life and urban needs – as characterized by an early sociologist such as Georg Simmel (Simmel 1906) – must underlie a redeployment of knowledge resources towards effective global problems. Following Zara’s model for economic success (Badía 2009), advantage is to be taken from dropping technological production costs. Advantage must be gained from employing a resourceful design knowledge that rapidly tackles the evolution of needs. In the case of knowledge production, however, instead of fashion consumers it is the emergency contexts requiring immediate design intelligence that need to be addressed. Thus, the aforementioned LifeLight project is successful because it managed to cheaply combine advanced technologies like LEDs and solar energy capturing devices so as to respond efficiently to mass needs locally identified. When, on the other hand, such project is greeted with the legitimating appraisal of the design discipline, it acquires an important symbolic return. Furthermore, it fits an important criterion in following the circuit(s) of fashion: it makes the development of such projects attractive to designers themselves. And if it becomes “fashionable” to design for endeavours related to emergency contexts, this certainly will facilitate the redirecting of design intelligence to other forms of need.

5. The new rules of attraction for cooperation

In a way, as unsound as this may seem at first sight, it has to become fashionable for people to direct their efforts of knowledge production towards cooperation and humanitarian action. And while it is still relatively easy to employ one’s design intelligence at home, the current Western recession in the fields of architecture and design may prove an important impulse for people to reconsider where such professions should employ their creative energies. A story carried in the New York Times and some of its immediate reactions signalled 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 proceeded to ask if “a lot of first-rate architectural talent” should not be enlisting “in designing the projects that matter most”(Ouroussoff 2008b).  The Architecture for Humanity, a non-governmental organization, immediately replied that this was already the case, ironically adding, “We regret we missed the party, but we were too busy working.” The NGO thus pinpointed the gulf that separated the brutal investment in “commodity” architectures dedicated to celebrate an imploding capitalist model, and, on the other hand, the everyday response of those who preferred to face the problems posed by the sustainability of future urban environments (Sinclair and Stohr 2008).

This was the start of a process of awareness that unveiled architects and designers’ willingness to contribute their knowledge to humanitarian causes, rather than to sit through unemployment and the prospects of illusive careers. However, economical recession does not make this cause more appealing. The profession itself is responsible for signalling that symbolic profit is at hand for one’s dedication to “the projects that matter most.” If also the individual practitioner looks essentially for its own benefit, gratification has to be necessarily available. And if this is not translated into an immediate material and economic return, at least it has to show through what Pierre Bourdieu classically called symbolical capital (Bourdieu 1986).

The fields of design knowledge production must ascertain symbolic value to the employment of intelligence in solving the problems of underprivileged majorities in developing urban contexts. And this became already a reality in the architectural field.

As condemnations of the architectural star-system’s modus operandi succeeded in the public arena, new legitimating tools gained relevance in asserting the symbolical merits of practices that carried evident social value. The Venice Biennale’s Silver Lion for Promising Young Architect Practice, for instance, was attributed to Alejandro Aravena’s Elemental “to encourage further development” of an ethic that exposed a “renewed interest in direct engagement with current real-world problems such as the environment, poverty and political strife”(La Biennale di Venezia). The reward offered the kind of symbolic return that, in the eyes of the profession, compensated for the potential hardships carried by the dedication to a previously invisible and unrewarded cause. Furthermore, though, the prize prompted a massive media diffusion of Aravena’s innovative take on social housing within the context of South American growing megalopolises.

When the mass media provide their typical amplification power to such legitimating tools, however, they tend to also trigger the mechanisms of fashion’s influence. The diffusion of the symbolic rewards make the rewarded practice a fashionable model for many who seek symbolical return for their activities. The endeavours of this sort of social practice are made attractive to increasing numbers of knowledge producers within the field of architecture. In this sense, architecture’s response to emergency in projects such as Nader Khalili’s sandbag shelters (Cal-Earth) now plays the critical role of the other side in regards to the architectural field’s evolution into a star-system. And therefore this activity – and its sphere of attraction – represents another platform by which post-colonial trans-geographical knowledge exchanges become available and effective in the face of “real-world” global problems.


As succinctly described above, the tools and the channels are now available in numerous combinations for the most advanced producers of knowledge to share their capabilities with those who are in desperate need of them, so as to collectively avoid the eminence of catastrophe as abundantly described in the warnings of many prophets of doom (see, for example, Powerhouse Company 2009). Open-source collaborative practices, internet and global networks, cheap tech and lo-fi, informal and formal creativity, mass-production and cheaper costs of technology, smart design and humanitarian architecture, even the lessons to be taken from the circuit(s) of fashion and the amplifying capacities of the media are all there to be combined in the pursue of a stronger engagement and cooperation towards the increasing needs of the planet’s growing urban populations.

As revealed by Architecture for Humanity in their letter to the New York Times, only between 2007 and 2008 “some 14,000 designers have registered onto http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org to share their plans and drawings” since the site was launched to enable for what the organization calls “knowledge-sharing.” (Sinclair and Stohr 2008) As they claim, “this is the new architectural revolution, filled with pragmatic optimism and an understanding that designing for the other 98% is much more rewarding than responding to the desires of the few.”

However, and as suggested in this paper, this situation should not be read only as a sign of an architectural revolution. As prizes for sustainable creativity and prizes for technologies that address the largest possible number of end-users mushroom around us, we should rather see these changes as a hint at the new economy of knowledge that is needed to prevent a repeatedly announced global catastrophe.


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One response to “Emergency Vs. Emergency, or How Knowledge Must Follow Fashion

  1. Pingback: Futuro Desigual, Destino Equivalente | shrapnel contemporary

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