Scarcity is the mother of invention. The urban planning projects, buildings, interior objects and consumer goods in Designing Scarcity show that shortages don’t have to constrain creativity: quite the contrary. Curated by Jan Boelen of Z33 (Hasselt, Belgium), the exhibition showcases a panoply of strategies used by designers and users to find novel solutions in the face of limitation.
The strategy of extendability has been tested mainly in architecture and has established itself as an effective means of keeping up with the ever-changing nature of the city. Living requirements are evolving; the city and nature are merging; economic changes are altering mobility. Integrating adaptability into the design of systems, environments and products ensures they will last longer.
Putting together existing elements and components in new configurations, and perhaps adding new ingredients, gives rise to products and environments never seen before. These, in turn, introduce new images into material culture.
Materials previously used in finished products are reclaimed from waste and processed into raw materials suitable for use in new applications. In times of scarcity, it makes more sense to reuse existing things than to keep starting over from scratch. The early 21st century slogan “Waste=Food”, introduced by the founders of the Cradle to Cradle design philosophy, summarises this ambition.
When materials, objects or spaces can be used in more than one way, their versatility will lead to more intensive use. Whereas during the industrial boom the aim was ever-greater specialisation – buildings erected for a unique purpose, products designed for one-time use – the multiuse strategy brings about products and environments that adapt to different needs and uses without requiring redesign. They therefore reduce pressure on scarce resources.
As a fitting response to the throwaway society that arose out of the increased affluence of the 1960s and beyond, reuse is a strategy designers and users can agree on. Aesthetics plays a role – think of the use of reclaimed wood and metal – but so does simple common sense. Why tear down a building when a few alterations could render it suitable for occupancy or use? Why destroy perfectly good building materials? The UK department store Marks & Spencer marks its plastic bags 30 percent recycled but encourages shoppers to use them again and again.
The maximum exploitation of a material’s qualities, a product’s characteristics or a location’s conditions can substantially contribute to the health of the environment. In every sphere of design, production and use, superuse enables a more sustainable treatment of scarce resources. For example, the kitchen of the renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma uses the natural surrounds of the Danish capital as its primary source of fresh ingredients, while architectural offices like Rotterdam’s Superuse Studios strive to make full use of available raw materials, goods streams and energy flows, uniting them in urban ecosystems.
Particularly in times of sudden shortages of raw materials and products, searching for replacements can be a productive strategy. In conflicts and wars, for example, a lack of particular foodstuffs often cannot be solved through bringing in more supplies. In such cases, substitute products and materials are the only option. When plastics were introduced in the early 20th century, they were seen primarily as surrogate materials. Only later were their unique properties discovered, whereupon they gradually ceased to be seen as replacements.
Substitution and imitation are related strategies that in practice often go hand in hand. Imitation is all but mandatory in making a replacement ingredient or surrogate product acceptable in the market. The first acrylic products were made to resemble wood and other natural materials. Meat alternatives sold in supermarkets are shaped like hamburgers. Imitation is a highly effective way of helping substitutes to gain acceptance.
For decades, repairability played a negligible part in our dealings with products, buildings and environments. It seemed better and cheaper to raze and completely rebuild outdated urban neighbourhoods than to restore them through careful renovation. Electrical appliances are increasingly designed and manufactured so that they cannot be repaired. Replacement has become the industrial norm; mending things is too expensive. Designing repairable objects and environments considerably strengthens the bond between user and object and between resident and neighbourhood.
Scarcity is an important motivator for protecting things that already exist. Tried and tested preservation techniques such as herring curing were invented for the purpose of stretching the brief availability period of certain foods. Pickling, smoking and conserving ensure they remain edible months after the harvest or catch. Tanning leather, staining wood and similar treatments protect materials from decay, lengthening the lifespan of objects and buildings.
Since scarcity is not an absolute phenomenon but in fact a cultural construction, artists, architects and designers often deploy a counterstrategy. If market mechanisms create scarcity, the underlying idea goes, then you can escape it by removing yourself from the market and becoming self-sufficient. Alternative models of self-sufficiency are usually accompanied by critical commentaries on the prevailing morality of society and market – sometimes radical, sometimes playful.
Cut down, reduce
Design is traditionally associated with the encouragement of consumption. The idea of scarcity, influenced in part by the increasing clout of the design industries, no longer springs solely from genuine shortages but has also become identified with a feeling of never having enough. To combat this permanent dissatisfaction, designers are employing an antidote strategy, creating designs that reduce consumption and thereby limiting the use of ingredients, materials and space. The same approach inspired architects of the past, like Rietveld and Van den Broek en Bakema, for whom it constituted an explicit statement about how society should be.
Scarcity often gives rise to two opposing tendencies: profiteering and sharing. The profiteer exploits a shortage of goods, food, raw materials or property to get rich quick. The sharer tries to spread the burden as evenly as possible around the community. Influenced by digitisation, those in the design world are exploring the sharing of time and knowledge, not because of looming shortages but in order to break monopolies that have long kept certain spheres of knowledge and markets accessible only to a few, who have shamelessly cashed in on their privileged position.
Makers and users have more access than ever to information about products, technologies and ways to use them. And they are able to share that information through a range of media. But this apparently unlimited supply also creates confusion. It’s up to designers and architects to create clarity around the true qualities of their production and working practices. This will help users to make informed choices, and even to directly access the source code of designs. Information enables us to understand the quality of scarcity.
In the long-ago age of the craft guilds, collaboration was seen as an important way to enhance the value of one’s work and social position. Since then, architects and designers have come up with numerous new forms of collaboration to develop and disseminate their ideas. Magazines like Forum constitute one such strategy. Another is Droog Design’s cooperative umbrella brand, which brings together individual design practices. In response to contemporary ideas of scarcity, more and more designers are setting up collectives where people with different specialities can work together, and consciously designing new collaborative models.