Kipple Field Notes is a work of independent research by Hillary Predko. This work is a self directed exploration of the question: "How might we use design to reframe systems of production, products, and methods of consumption to create a paradigm of resource stewardship which could protect the biosphere and build more resilient human communities?" This work explores the concept of kipple, or useless objects, in the context of maker culture, gentrification and mass production.
The following five essays explore this question in a few different ways. I’ve tried my best to collect all the sources I used, but feel free to email me for clarification. Related work will be posted soon.
Contact me at hpredko [at] gmail [dot] com.
I lived with a man once, and after several years we felt it was best to extract our lives from one another. In the end, he packed up my things while I was at work. I was working sixteen hour days, and stressed out by everything that was going on in my life. The separation of our belongings was largely uncomplicated, and since he was keeping the apartment, everything I owned began to wane from the shelves and surfaces. He kept the bed, I kept the couch, and so on.
The thing that gave me pause was the jars full of flowers, dried and displayed in the front hall. For years, this man had brought me flowers on unexpected occasions. Never birthdays, or anniversaries, but on my walk to work, stopping by my school. Keeping these artefacts of affection seemed the wrong choice, but leaving them or throwing them out wasn’t appropriate either. Intangible history and emotion imbued them with a meaning larger than the sum of their parts. “Because our brains link ideas together in memory, we are particularly well-suited to the act of suffusing an object with emotional value (Turkle).” The things we surround ourselves with become linked in a complex network of meaning and narrative.
That summer, my relationship to objects began to come unhinged in a way that shook me more than my personal relationships. I was finishing production on a cycling light I had launched on kickstarter with friends. We raised thousands of dollars to make several hundred units, and I spent months buying materials, emailing suppliers, and taking on large chunks of the fabrication myself. It turned out to be a task none of us were prepared for, but we ended up with a functional product that we shipped out on time. As we dropped off the packages at the post office, I couldn’t shake the guilt that all the things I had just made would one day end up in a landfill somewhere. Once their novelty had worn off, once the batteries failed, these lights were all out of my hands, destined to leach lithium into the water table somewhere.
I’ve always made things, and as I began to develop a career as a product designer I couldn’t stop paying attention to all of the crap objects that pile up in junk drawers and boxes in the back of closets. As I moved all of my belongings out of that apartment, I payed attention to the small things I had no place for-- the never ending pile that gets relegated to drawers, never to truly get sorted. I obsessed over the broken chairs left at the side of the road, trying to imagine a different life for them. It started to feel as though all the broken and useless objects were closing in on me, as though they will fill the curbs with their numbers until they cover the sidewalk and street, swallowing everything. And I was just adding to that pile with my own work.
Explaining this anxiety to a friend, she looked at me simply and said, “Oh, you mean kipple.” Which, upon further research I suppose I did. Kipple is one of those perfect concepts from speculative fiction that captures some fundamental aspect of your own time. Philip K. Dick coined the term in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Isadore, the chicken-headed philosopher of kipple, tell us that kipple is “...useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday's homeopape. When nobody's around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up the next morning there's twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.” Kipple is the process of entropy wearing down the material world, leaving evidence everywhere. Dick’s idea of kipple describes the way useless objects seem inescapable, how they reproduce and surround us.
"There's the First Law of Kipple…'Kipple drives out nonkipple'." In the novel, Earth has been mostly abandoned by settlers moving to Mars, and the planet is overrun by kipple. Looking at the way our civilization builds objects, sometimes I fear this is where we are headed. We have designed both obsolescence and permanence into the objects we create, and are thus drowning in kipple.
Bruce Sterling cautions against viewing our current paradigm as progressive because we are consuming irreplaceable resources, and, in doing so, “erasing many future possibilities; ...restricting the range of future experience.” That summer, as I left my apartment, unsure of what to do with all those dried flowers and having shipped my first real product, making new things felt like a fundamentally futile act. But my whole life, all of my skills and all of my interests are concentrated around objects, making them, and my relationship to them.
I believe that material culture is central to human life and society, even the evolution of our species. Our use of tools has made us into a species that shapes the world around us. But the question of how to relate to it, how to hold onto what is meaningful, and properly dispose of what has lost meaning or functionality, is an endlessly challenging one. Our relationship to the things we own, the cities that shape us, and the global system of production, intersect and weave together in complex ways, based in legacy assumptions about our relationship to the planet and the biosphere. Sterling points out that “we humans are what tools made of us. The human body, human perception, human intelligence, they are all the outcomes of two million years of hominids interacting with hardware.” Our coevolution with material culture may be one of the most important factors that have led to building societies, cities, history that sprawls out behind us, with artefacts stored tidily in museums.
I love to make things, and I generally know the world through my hands first. I sew or paint or cut-and-paste my way to some level of understanding about a topic, and my hands have shaped my livelihood. I often think about the tools I use, the things I make, and how I am just the latest incarnation in a long line of human makers. Our ancestors were onto something when they first sharpened a rock. “The hand axes record the first moment that we understood that the world was malleable – that things can change and move, and we can initiate those transformations ourselves. To be human is to tinker, to envision a better condition, and decide to work toward it by shaping the world around us (Chimero).” My making has led me to a point where I want to shape the world around me and this is a story about that too.
The human species is transforming materials for which we have a commercial use at a “speed far beyond the natural self-renewing rate of the biosphere. Consequently, reserves of useful matter are running low and many will soon have vanished (Chapman).” For any reasonable sustained industrial activity to benefit future generations, the use of resources needs to be re-thought. A major component in the problem of resource stewardship is waste. “Over 90 per cent of the resources taken out of the ground today become waste within only three months: waste consisting of plastics, metals and other synthetic compounds no longer recognizable to the microbial decomposers that degrade substances back to their basic nutritional building blocks (Chapman).” Every mine, every forestry operation, every factory, every shipping yard produces excess materials that are dumped into the ground and into the oceans, never to be reclaimed. The consumer waste we see only represents a small amount of the overall resource use in production, “ [the bulk of consumer products] contains on average only 5 percent of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering it (McDonough)” Human industry is a vast, planetary Rube Goldberg machine producing kipple in all shapes and sizes.
I decided that if I were to continue on the path of product design, I needed to understand my relationship to the things I own, the places I live, and the systems that produce products and endeavour to create positive change to stop the kipplization of the universe. “Effective intervention takes place not in the human, not in the object, but in the realm of the technosocial (Sterling).” The space between people and objects is culture, and culture is more malleable than we think.
To understand the genesis of my obsession with objects, my lifelong dedication to taking them apart and building them, I can’t escape the influence of my aunt and uncle. Their home is a place unlike most others. Their decades of collecting art from friends have transformed their living space into a cacophony of shape and colour, with paintings and sculptures running from floors to ceiling. Through a child’s eyes, it seemed endless. Every nook and cranny was filled with new wonders, each of them bearing a story. There is a small diorama of my aunt and uncle, standing beside heavy laden bicycles in matching touring gear on a bridge. Encased in plastic, a photograph stands behind the tiny figures, every detail reproduced fastidiously. Commissioned by a master model builder at Ottawa’s War Museum, it’s an artefact of such love, both in creation and subject matter.
Here, I learned to love and cherish objects both large and small. I learned that art is more than something distance and monetized in a museum or gallery. Art is a conversation with the people you love, the world around you. I joined the conversation too, presenting sculptures and drawings when I would visit, delighting in having them displayed alongside everything else.
Paintings by friends who have won commercial success as artists share space with objects who only have value through their stories, the meaning that has been made for them. My uncle’s basketball jersey is framed in his study, and he keeps a hunk of concrete, a piece of the Berlin wall that his friend brought back to Czechoslovakia - back when that was its name - where he was living when the Soviet Union fell, when it was called Czechoslovakia.
Leaving my old apartment marked the beginning of a journey to understand and contextualize the world around me through objects and artefacts. My anxieties about the world led me to seek out the history of how Toronto was built, explore the manufacturing ecosystem of the Pearl River Delta and Yiwu, and read a wealth of material on the current state of sustainable design. The journey began with taking those flowers, so full of meaning, and setting them on fire.
The city is a landscape that shapes our perception, drawing architectural boundaries around what we believe to be possible. Toronto, the city where I live, is in a state of flux, with old brick architecture being razed to make way for shimmering glass condo buildings that stick up like ice stalagmites from the ground. The raised freeway, snaking down by the lake, brings you eye level with little boxes in the sky. The city, as it had been is reduced to rubble, kipple. There is obsolescence in architecture too, which often implies that the people who had lived there are obsolete in the city that is being built. The clay that was dredged from the Don Valley was shaped into countless red bricks, and shaped the city that had been. In my lifetime, they are being torn apart and the city is changing shape again.
After I finished my kickstarter project, ended my relationship and moved out, I began a fellowship program in a shiny glass building downtown. We were encouraged to think about the underlying systems that shape the world around us, and we were carted around the city learning about different approaches to policy and entrepreneurship that have been sanctioned as “social innovation”. While my current work owes a huge debt to that fellowship, I remain ambivalent to the word “innovation” which is so often applied to neoliberal approaches to undermining social institutions.
On one of our field trips to Toronto’s many cultural spaces, the shifting housing landscape in the city was drawn into sharp perspective for me. Years ago, when I first met the man I later moved in with, he lived on Shaw Street, in Toronto’s west end. He lived in a house with seven other men, all bike couriers save for the doe eyed middle aged landlord who lived in the basement and smoked a lot of pot. Chain grease stained the walls, and spray painted plywood served for decoration. The facade was painted an acrid shade of blue, bordering on green. The kind of colour you could argue about what exactly to call, if you found yourself with too much time on your hands.
When he lived there, an elementary school down the street sat abandoned along with a boarded up house across the corner, but already the main street to the west was full of oyster bars and cocktail lounges. The stoned landlord mismanaged the mortgage, and the gaggle of bike couriers was evicted, scattering across the city and leaving the blue house on Shaw Street.
Years later, the abandoned school had been redeveloped and turned into an art centre. I came by with my innovation fellowship, strolling through the well appointed halls and learning about the endless institutions that lived within the walls. On my way to the art centre, I walked by the house on Shaw that had once been blue. There is a sparse, easily maintainable garden now, in place of weeds and bike parts, and a buzzer box for the three apartments the house has been divided into. The paint has been long since stripped away, exposing yellow and red bricks. The unassuming facade fades into the street.
One of the groups we visited in the art centre is a charity that provides creative resources for street involved and homeless youth. I really love this place, and I’ve accessed facilitator training there, and friends have been employed by them or accessed their resources. But I was left deeply frustrated that this neighbourhood had once been somewhere that impoverished youth could be housed, and it no longer was. The renovated school full of not-for-profits and charities no doubt provides so many positive things, but where are the innovative approaches to keeping people housed in the first place? Innovation favours disruption, a romantic idea, but disruption in the lives of vulnerable people can be violence.
There will be no more punk houses on Shaw, but bike couriers still need affordable housing. I had been in university in those days, and in the intervening years, I’ve had many opportunities open up for me, something that often happens if one is privileged enough to get a higher education. Visiting the art centre in the Shaw Street school, I felt like my older self had killed my younger self, stealing everything that was good to buy a better future. What have I destroyed to get where I am, and who has been left behind? To be back there, years later, to say I wanted to make the city better felt like an empty promise. Spaces for social innovation, while admirable, seem to fall into the comfortable pattern of blanding and gentrification. A “general store”, an overpriced convenience store, opened across the street in a home that had been abandoned, where the drinks are five dollars and strollers clutter the front steps. How do we create an innovative approach to letting people stay put?
These patterns frustrate me, so I try to understand Toronto through the built history. I think of the city through the bricks that built it. Years ago, I started driving to the Evergreen Brickworks late at night, in Toronto’s Don Valley. It’s another project in renovation and innovation: a brick quarry turned multi use event space and offices. The Don Valley Brick Works opened in 1889 and quarried and dried millions of bricks for nearly 100 years. Mountains of architecture rose out, while the valley became deeper and deeper. Factory after factory was built next to the ever descending chasm in the earth. Toronto had a great fire in 1904, and most of the downtown was rebuilt with bricks from the valley. During the depression, men would sleep in the kilns during the winter months at night, when the fires were out. Long before I was born, the valley was torn apart to the build the city, reconfigured through the euclidian logic of right angles and grids.
Heavy industry is disappearing from sight in cities like Toronto, wealthy cities with service economies. The renovated factories house social enterprises and bike repair shops, sprinkled with large scale sculpture, much like the Distillery District in Toronto, or the Highline in NYC. The Brooklyn Navy Yards, or Pier 9 in San Francisco reclaim military infrastructure that has become valuable real estate. The detritus from shuttered industry is repurposed into a playground for the creative class. The Don Valley has been restored to meadows and wetlands. These spaces that had once been the ceaselessly clanging, living epicentres of industry have been transformed by the forces present in the information economies that eclipsed to take the place of heavy industry in Eastern North America.
I’ve always loved these post-industrial spaces that are so demonstrative of the dream of green, sustainable cities. But there is a lurking ambivalence. While we mend the scars of industry that are visible to a wealthy urban populace, our growing hunger and greed are outsourced. The mines and the factories are positioned further away, out of sight, across oceans traversed by tankers spewing smoke. For every garden planted with local species intended to reintroduce butterflies, there is a tonne of e-waste floating across the Pacific to have capacitors torn off by hand, lead and cadmium seeping into groundwater.
The brickworks is closed, and any industrial production is moving further and further out of Toronto. It seems that we want production and industry out of sight, so the illusion of our modern lives can continue on unbroken. We fill in the quarries we can see, and rip apart the landscape further north, and across oceans. Meanwhile, Canadian mining companies destroy livelihoods in South America. Of course, creating these spaces to support further development into green cities is important. But it’s important to remember there is much work to be done, and our lifestyle is propped up by a complex system of production that crisscrosses the globe in fractured supply chains with little transparency. From heavy industry to urban oasis, the brickworks is just one part of the story. But it built the houses I always wished I could live in.
Eight months later, my fellowship ended, and I began preparing to cross the sea to trace some of those supply chains that had become an obsession. For the month before I left, I sublet an apartment in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, the kind of apartment I had always wished I could inhabit. It was a friend’s bachelor apartment in an old brick mansion, complete with heritage plaque affixed to the front. The rambling structure seemed a feat of imaginary architecture, I could never figure out where all the doors and windows went, puzzle together where the other 12 units were in the house. The plaster work had been painted with a sponge at some point, an effect out of a Martha Stewart magazine in the 90s.
The neighbourhood is populated by Victorian red brick homes, both massive and semi-detached, lining verdant streets with confusing one way traffic routing patterns. I wandered these streets as a teenager, skipping class and day dreamed of living behind their masonry. I went to house parties hosted at the homes of friends whose parents were authors and professors. This neighbourhood, chosen by Jane Jacobs when she made her exit from the United States, seems to be emblematic of so many of her ideas around urban planning. Shops and restaurants blend together on walkable blocks.
The dream of living here was, of course, aspirational. The neighbourhood is old and affluent, next to the older ivy-covered university, and speckled with fraternity houses with big greek letters looming overhead. The Annex is full of the upper middle class intellectual type that buys organic food and petitions for better funding for the CBC. But the allure of independent cinemas, tiny venues, zine libraries, art spaces, and other mainstays of alternative culture draws me in like a moth to a flame. And the neighbourhood is becoming prohibitively expensive, with old architecture being renovated or demolished. I lived there for the last month before the friend who I was subletting from had to move because she was being evicted.
“Escalating real estate prices can inhibit innovation. Many forms of innovation and creative activity--whether they are new high-tech businesses, art galleries, or musical groups--require the same thing: cheap space. That’s what Jane Jacobs was getting at when she famously wrote: ‘New ideas require old buildings.’” points out Richard Florida, who writes extensively on the importance of place. Cheap space in Jacob’s old stomping ground in now impossible to come by. He says, “when housing prices rise and buildings are converted into expensive condos or high-end retail shops, venues for fostering creativity disappear.” I fear Toronto is trapped in this cycle, and for all the hope of innovative futures based in artistic practice, the city is becoming increasingly homogeneous and bland.
“For every young person who moves into an urban mosaic or a hipster haven, it is likely that a lower-income family, or part of that family, has been driven out. For every young professional who finds him or herself living the good life in a designer digs community, many more lower- and working-class household struggle to find affordable rental housing that will allow them to raise their families and make ends meet (Florida).” It’s hard to know how to interact with a city when your choices make you complicit in these forces greater than yourself. I began to feel like a swarm of locust, devouring everything in my path. Or a werewolf, awaking to the chilling knowledge that I had created destruction. I get so afraid, because I am so complicit, the driving force of gentrification.
All across the city, older brick buildings are demolished to make way for condo buildings, turning infrastructure into kipple. Richard Florida has a concept he calls the gay bohemian index. He has found that one of the best indicators of rising property values is when queer folks and artists begin to move into a neighbourhood. This sets into motion years of social changes that will eventually displace the artists and queer people along with the low income families who were the first to be displaced. As a middle class cis white bisexual woman working in the arts, where ever I choose to establish a home it seems I will displace those more vulnerable than me, and ultimately contribute to the creation of a neighbourhood that is economically out of my reach.
Someone once said to me that privilege can be a tool or a weapon. I remember sitting in a talk at a conference about art and social change in Ottawa one fall. A couple of women from Edmonton talked about the community art initiatives they had created in their neighbourhood. The neighbourhood had sex workers and gang members as part of the community, but this woman made it clear that she did not consider them community members. Her work was only intended for the white middle class families who were moving in, drawing a line in the sand. After she brushed off my questions after the talk, I stormed out, and sat by the river. I sang folk songs to myself under my breath, and threw rocks at the ice forming already at the edges of the flowing water. That woman is everything I fear I could become.
I left Toronto to try to better understand the impact of my work as a designer, and because I didn’t know how or where I could live in this city without destroying the things that have made it my home. Trying to understand how to use privilege as a tool rather than a weapon. I took the money from my fellowship and left to travel through Asia, to go to China and find where everything came from.
I visited Ottawa before I left, to say goodbye to my family there. As a parting gift, my uncle gave me a tiny silver box, oval and gleaming. Inside there is a dried bean seed, and a slip of paper curled tight. The paper reads, “This is a seed from Virginia Woolf’s garden. Always remember that anything is possible.”
I’ve never read Virginia Woolf, to be honest. I’ve always read more sci fi and nonfiction than classics, in my voracious appetite for words. But the seed makes me think of lush English gardens, far off, and worlds contained in tiny containers. A seed holds the potential to create so much, immense possibility condensed but knowable somehow. These questions I carried with myself were like seeds. How can we create the commodities we need to live prosperously without destroying the planet? How can I contribute to the city I live in without creating a culture of unchecked gentrification? As I set out, I carried the silver box, the seed, and those questions with me.
In my years of designing and making in Toronto, I came to identify strongly with a series of practices, communities and approaches to learning that are referred to broadly as “The Maker Movement.” “Like the Arts and Crafts movement—a mélange of back-to-the-land simplifiers, socialists, anarchists, and tweedy art connoisseurs—the makers are a diverse bunch. They include 3-D-printing enthusiasts who like making their own toys, instruments, and weapons; tinkerers and mechanics who like to customize household objects by outfitting them with sensors and Internet connectivity; and appreciators of craft who prefer to design their own objects and then have them manufactured on demand (Morozov).” In Toronto, the community is loosely arranged around shared workshops, art schools and tech art galleries and over the years I have embedded myself in this world.
I was drawn to this movement because it offered an alternative to mass consumption with its DIY ethos and I was never far removed from someone who had the answers to esoteric fabrication questions. I believed a “culture of conscious makers could recognize and promote alternative solutions and new perspectives for everyday problems, valuing distributed and collaborative approaches and seeking the common good (Fonseca)”. I met radicals who challenged Canada’s security apparatus during Toronto’s G20, and artists who build new interfaces for technology enhanced theatre. I wanted this work to create open distributed forms of production, where small groups of people could produce what they need to live well. At its best, the maker movement represents the free software movement being applied to the physical world.
Eventually, it became clear to me that the work I was making, and the work of those around me was not moving in that direction. Commercialization and entrepreneurship crept into the discourse as the ultimate goal of “maker” projects, and corporate sponsors started popping up at makerspace parties. Producing a prototype and launching a kickstarter became a very aspirational maker activity, and a career path I pursued. While I’m certainly proud of that work, my ambivalence about creating more products is ever present. At the same time, as I began to interface with systems of production, even the small aspects that are available to independent designers, the naivety of the whole maker premise began to emerge in my mind. Maker culture does not provide a critique of industrial production that holds up when examined against the reality of full scale industrial production, and the complexity of emerging manufacturing-based markets like China.
I spent a lot of time learning about the work of people who were manufacturing at a slightly larger scale than I was; thousands or tens of thousands of units, and the ways they were producing these products in China. So I decided to travel to China to attempt to understand some of the factors that were shaping global production, and how North American maker culture was interfacing with the larger machine of industrial production. I was looking for the root of kipple. I can’t claim I ever came to understand China as a nation much at all. I mostly spent time with foreign nationals who were working overseas, or Chinese nationals who spoke beautiful English and had studied abroad. My impressions are entirely coloured by those experiences, and I cannot speak to the experience of the millions of migrant workers who produce the products that get made.
I found that decades after the inception of planned obsolescence, products designed for disposability, the biggest driving factor in manufactured waste is no longer massive corporations engineering parts to fail. Instead, the rate of technological change, along with globe-spanning disaggregated supply chains, and automation, have led to a moment where millions of products are produced globally that become waste almost immediately. Shenzhen is the epicentre of maker culture in China, and the epicentre of throw away electronics, and where my journey began. “It’s where all the electrical crap we buy comes from, the cheap toys, that box of chargers and adapters that you have, that you’ve no idea what they’re for anymore, the cemetery of old phones in your kitchen drawer (Davies).” Shenzhen is one of the busiest ports in the world and it houses most of the world's smartphone factories. Linking Hong Kong to mainland China, Shenzhen is a vast and vibrant city filled with LED-illuminated skyscrapers, modern architecture, and a city rail line that reaches far out into the swaths of suburbs and anonymous factory buildings that surround the core. The city was “China’s pioneering Special Economic Zone (SEZ)... the experiment that gave the nation its first economic miracle. It proved that foreign investment and outsourced manufacturing could be attracted on vast scales if the taxes and labor costs were low enough, that an undemocratic Communist state could contain and control zones of hyper-capitalism within its own borders, and that whole cities could be built from scratch to fill a gap in the global manufacturing market (Maughan).” It’s one of the fastest growing cities in the world, adding more megatowers in 2016 than all of the United States.
Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, has been a champion of innovation in Shenzhen, noting that “ the low cost of labor was the driving force to pull most of the world sophisticated manufacturing here, but it was the ecosystem that developed the network of factories and the tradecraft that allows this ecosystem to produce just about anything at any scale.” Chinese entrepreneurs often engage in shanzhai production, an approach to intellectual property that Silvia Lindtner and David Li say is “rooted in a network of small- to mid-size factories that partner and openly share knowledge.” Board designs, bills of materials, and other design files, will be openly shared between networks. These agile systems of production produce vast volumes of commodities quickly, and ship them all over the world. And this accelerated production has created immense wealth, transforming nations in decades. Shenzhen has grown from a small city of 300,000 to a megacity of upwards of 10 million in three decades. “Recent research from Harvard and MIT by Ricardo Hausmann and César Hidalgo provides a compelling case that manufacturing does indeed matter [for the economic development of nations]. Using export trade data for only manufactured goods from 128 countries over the past 60 years, they can explain a significant portion (over 70%) of the income variations in countries (Deloitte).” However, while globalized supply chains and shifting sites of production are creating better economic outcomes for developing nations, the cost to the planet and communities who bear the brunt of environmental externalities is incredibly high.
Alongside shanzhai producers, and foreign multinationals, Shenzhen is increasingly the home to North American makers and hackers producing products for sale in the West. Startups out of the MIT Media Lab, such as Little Bits, produce their products there. Accelerators for hardware startups pepper the landscape, with huge cash injections backing bizarre internet-connected tchotkes. A Make: Magazine-branded maker faire happens there every October, attracting thousands of people from around the world. A Chinese company, Seeed Studio, has effectively built bridges to the North American maker market. They’re an electronics company who create open hardware toolkits, and support maker businesses to manufacture electronics projects. Over 50 over their 260 employees work in research and development, working on helping companies redesign their circuit boards, lower the costs of their bill of materials, and ship their products around the world. Many hardware companies consult in this way, but Seeed is working with clients who may only make 100 or 200 units for niche hobbyist markets.
When I arrived in the city, I met up with a loosely connected group of hackers, makers and business people who convened over Wechat, who I had been introduced to by a mutual friend. With them, I explored Shenzhen’s massive network of markets and the factories where their products are made.
The dizzying scale of the electronics market is a good introduction to the manufacturing ecosystem. City blocks are full of immense buildings, selling everything from bulk components to consumer electronics. Every conceivable part of a cell phone can be bought and sold, and young guys fix smart phones, with another phone nestled on their shoulder, chatting with friends. There is a lot of life in Shenzhen’s markets, with children playing in the aisles while their parents sell parts and drink tea. The end of the day in Huaqiangbei, the market district, is announced by a chorus of tape ripping from rolls, before packages are carted off to the shipping alley on dollies. Secondary businesses permeate the market, from the shippers, to the lunch stalls, to the mechanics that will replace the wheels on carts. Older cell phones are broken down on the street, valuable parts stacked up to be sold.
On the streets leading out from the markets, where the buildings dropped down to five or ten stories, elderly men sat on pieces of cardboard pulling the valuable components off the circuit boards of old cell phones. The plastic casings went in one pile, metals and ceramic in another. Old phones are sold by weight, passing through an informal removal chain. Walking up any public stairway in Shenzhen, you will find a ramp in the middle of the steps. These are used to haul packages up and down, carting components to their next destination. In a pedestrian walkway beneath the street, on the way to Huaqiangbei, there is a LCD screens that shows off the latest machines for laminating smartphone screens. Whenever I walked by, there was always a crowd drawn to this incredibly niche display of technology.
I visited factories as well, suppliers who worked with the North American maker crowd. Shenzhen’s vast subway system reaches out into the far off suburbs, where I was deposited near a small PCBA factory, printed circuit board assembly. The street was lined with apartment buildings and stalls selling noodles and spare batteries. An anonymous gate led to an anonymous building, which housed several factories. I met a man named Mike, who led me through the maze of identical buildings by sending me landmarks on WeChat. His father founded the factory, and he runs it now. He is a Chinese national, but his English is perfect. He studied economics somewhere out West. Now he interfaces with the maker community, producing small runs. The boards around the shop were for a robotics company in Texas. His staff work six days a week, running pick and place machines, furnaces, test rigs and hand soldering. It’s not easy work.
Not far from Mike’s factory is Dafen Oil Painting Village, where massive volume and quick turnover are applied to the world of art. Reproductions of impressionists and Renaissance masters hang to dry over railings in the sun, alongside massive portraits of Mao Zedong. Thousands of people are trained as oil painters to create reproductions and commissions for export. The main street is lined with commercial galleries, but wandering into the alleys leads to workshops filled with easels where people sit and smoke and paint for long periods of time.
One morning, I met the people I knew to go along on a factory visit, to see where their flexible PCBs were being made. On a street corner in the morning, we pile into an unmarked van, and drive out to the suburbs. Shenzhen seemingly goes on forever, highrises stretching way out into the distance, slowly giving way to green rolling hills. Two of the founders chat about their business logistics, comparing customer service strategies and recruiting. They talk about where to get Pantone colour matching for PCBs, and the best battery chemistry. The complexity of hardware leads to strange, detailed conversations. It’s a complexity that no one person can hold together all on their own, and communities of practice emerge, sharing resources.
“It’s never a factory tour without a u-turn,” one of the men laughs while the van swings around, back and forth through traffic. We find the spot eventually, another crumbling anonymous building, and the boss is outside to shake our hands. We put polyester booties over our shoes to enter the factory, to be transfixed by the mesmerizing syncopation of hundreds of people and machines working in harmony. Stress tests and stamping machines, computer-operated robot arms and huge, churning etching machines. People attend to an unimaginable ecosystem of machines created to perform the most specific of minutia.
I think about the simplicity with which the phrase “Made in China” is often viewed in North America, a small stamp emblazoned on a product with no further interrogation. Even in the world of product design, manufacturing in China is sometimes viewed as an opaque process where designs go into a black box, and a product emerges. But all of these objects, everything we have ever owned, gets made through navigating complex social networks. The small-scale producers I spent time with all said that working with a company where you could meet the boss was the most important thing. And equally important was getting drunk with the boss. In some ways, the immense complexity of the global supply chain is resting on Tsing Tao and karaoke with blinking laser lights.
It amazes me that the things that end up on Walmart shelves pass through so many hands. Disaggregated supply chains weave out of one factory into another, suppliers hiring each other as subcontractors as their workload expands and contracts. Workers in the factories often have fair wages, some semblance of bargaining power, but the manufacturing ecosystem spills out of the factory doors into the streets where couriers, shippers, parts suppliers, and countless other secondary and tertiary professions intersect and collide with the more formal work. These people have little security or labour protection.
The entrepreneurs I met in Shenzhen are often hacking at an industrial scale. The same curious, cheeky attitude I recognize from makerspace folks back home pervades their work. Two men convinced a capacitor factory to allow them to intervene in the line, getting the caps anodized bright colours. Electric pink capacitors, made in the thousands because they can. Another man, when getting small, surface mount electronic components put on reels for a project, realized he could get the factory to put any small object onto reels for a pick and place machine. He brought them breath mints. Their curiosity is taken to scale, creating bizarre remixes using industrial equipment. “An unlimited supply of quality control failed toy cars await encasement in soft, floppy silicone,” with a ridiculous side project Expressway to Pleasure. You can cast cast-off toys into dildos, because it is technically a thing that is possible.
While these bizarre projects are entertaining, and expand the scope of what is possible, I’m reminded that this supposed social upheaval brought on by the maker movement isn’t particularly forthcoming. “Our hackers aren’t smashing the system; they’re fiddling with it so that they can get more work done. In this vision, it’s up to individuals to accommodate themselves to the system rather than to try to reform it. The shrinking of political imagination that accompanies such attempts at doing more with less usually goes unremarked (Morozov).” The hardware entrepreneurs are simply that, and while they delight in weaving subversive elements into their work, there is no larger political scheme underway.
Even if there was an earnest effort to use maker culture as a tool to disrupt global production, the toolkit is poorly stocked. Key parts of the knowledge ecosystem to produce the commodities that keep our society functioning currently exist only in Shenzhen and other parts of China. David Li, one of the theorists who studies shanzhai production, said to me that shanzhai producers view maker projects like an adult regarding kindergarten art. They admire the effort, but there is no real sophistication, no deep understanding of the tools in use. The whole community I’ve built my professional identity around look tiny and ineffective when viewed in the context of the true scale of global production. There is something humbling in being so tiny.
The domestic market for consumer goods in China is massive, and the export markets for other developing nations are huge as well. There is this seeming idea in the West that we outsource things to Asia in this unidirectional exploitation. But if we were out of the equation, this system would continue. People in markets are fixing smartphones while talking on smart phones, working on assembly lines wearing the same clothes they are making.
Americans were so taken by Mike Daisey’s story about exploitation in Apple Factories, no one initially fact checked his claims and his story was syndicated across the world through the PRX show This American Life. He told a tragic tale of labour exploitation, and hexane exposure that ended up being largely fabricated. Labour conditions are an ongoing concern at Foxconn, the facility that produces Iphones, but Daisey’s story was an exaggeration targeted to pull Western heart strings. We are so quick to assign autonomy to the North American consumer that we believe changing our consumption habits would change the world. The “maker” ideology seems to purport that if we all learned to turn wood on a lathe, mass consumption and exploitation would end. These are naive standpoints, that ascribe too much power to the choices made by those in the West.
Before I left China I spent time in the land-locked city of Yiwu. Here there is the “largest and cheapest wholesale market on earth. Yiwu's 4-million-square-metre bazaar consists of some 62,000 outlets that sell an estimated 1.7 million different products, largely produced in factories across south and southeast China (Philips).” These small commodities, from hardware to socks, stock discount and dollar stores internationally. Throughout the massive market, signs proclaim: “Yiwu Commodity City, A Sea Of Commodities, A Paradise for Shopper.” As I walked through the seemingly endless aisles of products, it did not feel like paradise.
All of these objects are on display, waiting for buyers to make orders that start in the tens of thousands. Everything is lying in wait to become kipple. The sale of all these trinkets props up so much in our global economy: jobs both in China and abroad, the shipping industry, retail. There is an imperative to keep production high, and to sell all of these commodities in massive volumes.
“Continuous improvements in technology mean that more output can be produced for any given input of labor. But, crucially, this also means that fewer people are needed to produce the same goods from one year to the next. As long as the economy expands fast enough to offset labor productivity, there isn’t a problem. But if the economy doesn’t grow, there is a downward pressure on employment. People lose their jobs. With less money in the economy, output falls, public spending is curtailed, and the ability to service public debt is diminished. A spiral of recession looms. Economic growth is necessary within this system just to prevent collapse (Jackson).”
In order to maintain an equilibrium in our current system, cities like Shenzhen and Yiwu need to grow, and consumers need to buy more and more each year. But, the depletion of resources underscores the system of production, so the growth imperative is fundamentally unrealistic.
Even when engaging in supposedly subversive “making” in North America, the raw materials still come from here. The screws, twine, glitter, and plywood are manufactured and shipped out from places like Yiwu and integrated into artisanal birdhouses sold on Etsy. The designer Thomas Thwaites attempted to make a toaster entirely from scratch as a thesis project at the Royal College of Art. He was inspired by Arthur Dent, the hero of Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Dent “finds himself alone on a strange planet populated only by a technologically primitive people. And he kind of assumes that, yes, he'll become -- these villagers -- he'll become their emperor and transform their society with his wonderful command of technology and science and the elements, but, of course, realizes that without the rest of human society, he can barely make a sandwich, let alone a toaster (Thwaites).” He chose to reverse engineer the cheapest toaster he could find, bought for less than four pounds, and found it had over 400 pieces made of over 100 materials. He chose five materials to reproduce, gathering minerals from mines across England, and in nine months managed to make a hideous object for a couple thousand pounds that barely functioned. The plastic was made of starch, and looked particularly gooey. Rather than a sleek and functional appliance, the toaster was a bizarre hunk of materials that turned on briefly and immediately burned itself out. The shaping and creating of commodities is a complex process, that requires an ecosystem larger than any one person. It’s absolutely impossible to extract oneself from this system in the modern world.
While I wandered the stalls of Yiwu, world leaders were gathered in Paris to discuss the future of fossil fuel use. I find it frustrating that the conversation never seems to tread into questions of what to do with the immense mountain of stuff human produce that moves across the globe everyday. The market in Yiwu is the physical manifestation of the global trade in small commodities, but it more and more lives online. The tens of millions of products on Alibaba dwarf the two million here around me. Every stall represents a factory, a supply chain, a connection to mines and chemical producers, with a sprawling network wraps its tendrils deep into the earth.
I’m worried about extraction, climate change, waste, and entropy. But leaving Yiwu, feeling convinced that the maker ideology that had inspired my work for years was politically ineffective, and feeling convinced that the designing and manufacturing of products and commodities is legitimately a bad business that has negative impact on the planet, I still wanted to work designing and producing objects. Our societies, and our daily lives are entirely shaped by material culture. Despite all my frustrations, sitting down to create something from scratch is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. “The quest for a sustainable world may succeed, or it may fail. If it fails, the world will become unthinkable. If it works, the world will become unimaginable (Sterling).” I don’t know how to create a sustainable paradigm for material culture, and all of my previous strategies have been entirely naive, but it is work that is entirely worth doing. To ignore it, to leave the problem unchecked, is to see the kipplization of the planet, the transformation of ecosystems into shopping malls, and to see the oceans filled with ever-growing gyres of plastic.
I believe it is the responsibility of designers to create strategies that renew and heal and the planet, and that meanwhile keep us all fed and clothed.
The places we care about are often indifferent to our transit. I returned to Toronto in a mild, slushy winter and took up residence in my parent’s home. They had moved to a condo downtown, where my few possessions imposed lightly on the landscape of their lives. Like many condos in Toronto, this building is built where an older building stood, contributing it’s facade and little else. The shell is gutted, and a new building grows out from the ground, shiny glass contrasting against red brick.
The building is down by Lake Ontario, where some of the oldest buildings in a relatively young city are located. There is a piece of art nestled in an alcove where the historic architecture and new building interface, a concrete topographic map of the shoreline of Lake Ontario alongside a glowing glass sculpture. Sandblasted into the brick wall of the older building, text reads, “For 10,000 years this was the location of Lake Ontario’s shoreline. This brick wall stands where water and land met, with a vista horizon.”
I became obsessed with these words, imagining water lapping at the sand in the spot where I sat, staring at that brick wall that obscured the view to the current shoreline, along with the parking lots, freeways, warehouses and hotels that have filled the Southernmost kilometre of Toronto’s downtown. An unaltered shoreline from a time when the Huron-Wendat and other bands were stewards of this land, before colonization and treaties. The room where I slept was South of that wall, and I laid in bed at night floating in the lake in my mind. And I started to learn, bit by bit, why it was I wasn’t floating in the lake after all.
Toronto, like many cities, did not let geography rein in the ambition of development. “Large portions of New York City, Boston, Seattle, Hong Kong and Marseilles were built on top of fill. What is now Mumbai, India, was transformed by the British from a seven-island archipelago to one contiguous strip of land. The most extraordinary example of land reclamation and manufacture may be the Netherlands. As early as the 9th century A.D., the Dutch began building dykes and pumping systems to create new land in places that were actually below sea level (99pi).” Toronto’s shoreline was built out on industrial garbage and broken infrastructure, a city built on kipple.
When the stadium downtown, now called the Rogers Centre, was under construction in 1987, fifteen hundred artifacts were unearthed including a French cannon, over 200 years old. While building the streetcar tracks on the Queen’s Quay, whale bones were excavated, abandoned by a private zoo that went bankrupt on Front St. “There are stories that when construction occurs on the waterfront, that people find all sorts of things, like the hulks of old vessels and bottles. At one point the central waterfront was the city’s dumping ground — if you had a dead horse, you’d take it out there in the winter and leave it on the ice for the spring to come (Moire).”
The geography of the city was crafted by industry, ambition and greed. The Polish engineer, Sir Casimir Gzowski, worked with Grand Trunk Railway in the 1850s to build the first straight edge at the shoreline, what is now known as The Esplanade (Alamenciak). The Esplanade is less than 100 meters South of my parent’s new home, which must have been among the first to be constructed on the new ground. For decades the land that industrialists were building was swampy and emaciated. Puddles and cess pools surrounded the railyards. Grand Trunk Railway set up what they needed, and essentially stopped financing the project. Adam Wilson was elected mayor of Toronto in 1859 riding a wave of indignation from citizens who wanted access to the lake (McIlwraith).
It’s bizarre to think of the city growing outward, year after year, with sand and soil being thrown over whatever people had abandoned in the ports. Docks and quarries grew out from The Esplanade, until the Toronto Harbour Commission introduced the Waterfront Plan of 1912 which sought to create a modern port. “It called for dredging the harbour to a depth of 24 feet, and using this dredged fill to create land for industrial, commercial, and recreational uses (Plummer).” And so dirt rained down over the Harbour, and the city I know today began to take shape out of the bottom of the lake. Industries thrived and dwindled over time, highways were constructed. By the nineteen nineties, when my mind began to open to the world, the land by the lake seemed as eternal and immovable as mountains.
“Human activity has effectively created a new layer on the surface of the planet, made up of old bricks, cement and rusting metal. Geologists and archaeologists have started calling this layer the archaeosphere (99pi).” We tear apart and reshape everything in our path, no doubt leaving a complex legacy behind for anyone who cares to look through the layers. “The archaeosphere covers most of the humanly populated areas on earth. Generally: the older the area, the bigger it is in that area. In the center of London, it reaches ten meters below the surface (99pi).” We create, destroy, and rebuild, the very infrastructure of our lives and cities is a testament to the boundlessness we wish nature could sustain.
There is a place in Toronto where we are still making new ground. In the east end, the Leslie Street Spit was built as a breakwater to keep silt out of the harbour, built out of infill in the 1950’s. Early pictures show a barren slice of land, jutting out into the lake. The slender piece of land grew in fits and starts over the decades, the last place for fill to accumulate in Lake Ontario. Time and wind and sun and rain created an urban oasis, with local plants and birds moving in. An emergent ecosystem taking root in the rubble. Now the spit is home to Tommy Thompson park, part time nature preserve, part time dump site. Endless trucks drive out, dumping bricks and concrete off the end day after day. The bricks tumble into the lake, eroding slowly over time, rounding out like beach glass.
The spit extends out into the lake for five kilometers, and I like to go there and stare back at the city, made diminutive. I sit by the lighthouse and read, or talk to friends. All the buildings that get demolished to make way for condos end there, with wildflowers taking root and migratory birds nesting. Sometimes, I go and stack bricks. It’s a simple meditative task; I find it calming. To be among the remains of architecture pulled down, with songbirds singing. It feels like you’ve reached the end of the world, and we get to start again.
I biked out to the end of the spit with friends, and we called ourselves the Renegade Bricklayers Brigade. It was a clear, sunny day, and we lived for the joy of making. Lifting bricks one by one, stacking them, painting them. We searched for beautiful things in the rubble, a cracked faux Roman column and a cluster of tree roots. We were living like renegades, forgetting that the city wants to eat us alive, and loving the city for all of the strangeness and wonder it provides. So far from shore, it feels like we can build something new, build something together.
I come back to the question of how to live in this city as a young person working in creative industries. To build something so frequently feels the same as destroying it with art spaces and art centres become magnets for rising prices. Sisyphus was cursed to push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down for eternity. I come back to this place to move discarded bricks back and forth, pondering the absurdity of living in Toronto. Futility feels like the only certainty.
We made a circle of bricks, and laid another on top. We did it again, and again, building it higher like a giant chimney, with a space left for a door. The walls weren’t even, the ground wasn’t even. It didn’t make sense, and we ran up and down the piles of stone, singing songs, free from the constraints of rent and jobs, if only in our minds.
Everything felt like it made sense, and maybe Sisyphus is happy because while I moved bricks things were okay. But of course I am not Sisyphus, and I need to live in the city, whether the land was put there by eons of geologic movement or by humans on top of horse bones or bloated ships. It’s easier for me to leave the real city behind and languish in the ruinous architecture of the edges. “A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped. ...An urban ruin is a place that has fallen outside the economic life of the city, and it is in some way an ideal home for the art that also falls outside the ordinary production and consumption of the city (Solnit).” Here at the apocalyptic fringe, escapism and exploration converge. The unknown wilderness allows us a glimpse at the possible, ignoring the intricacies of reality.
An anonymous poet also roams the Leslie Street Spit, writing on discarded slabs of marble. I find their words strewn through the rubble, sharpie on stone. That day in the sun with my friends, I found some of their words.
“Creative spirit and instinct mingle here. I’ve not seen it
so clearly anywhere else before. I love you for this
And for all you draw from the natural world, from
The human world, from me and the pen.
You are indeed a temenos, a holy place, in the best
Thank you for the slim edge that you are where the
Natural and the deconstructed built worlds dance”
The poem was signed, “With profound appreciation, The pen and the camera and me.”
I take pleasure in these times of escape, even though I have no choice but to devise a strategy to navigate adult life in Toronto. Rebecca Solnit warns against the coming era where the neoliberal accumulation of wealth has come to consume everything left fallow in the urban landscape. She adds, “In the 1980s we imagined apocalypse because it was easier than the strange complicated futures that money, power and technology would impose, intricate futures hard to exist. In the same way, teenagers imagine dying young because death is more imaginable that the person that all the decisions and burdens of adulthood may make of you.” Starting a new life among the flowers and garbage feels like an easier choice than making a plan for where I might live, long term, and how the mechanics of that life will be supported. Student housing years out of school, or a spare room in my parent’s house, are perhaps not strategies I can rely on forever.
In my own life, I am coming to terms with the decisions and burdens of adulthood, trying to understand what work to do and where to live, but the intricate future of the city is hard to fathom. Money and power and technology are creating a city where it is hard to young people to live, where no one I know can begin to raise a family or to own a home. “A third of 18-34 year olds live in households headed by a parent or other family member according to a Pew Research survey from July. A smaller portion, 14 percent, own their own home, many of whom received help from their parents with the down payment. For the plurality there’s renting, and paying half their income is normal, especially in high-cost cities where young adults are concentrated (Harris).” The question of where to live, and how to stay housed is ongoing, and a challenging problem for anyone without high income.
Tiny houses in shipping containers, and renting your apartment on AirBnB for half the month are approaches friends have taken to housing. Couch surfing for months at a time, or taking up residence in living rooms with no doors, people find ways to get by in expensive cities. “There’s nothing wrong with young people wanting to live well and independently, not at the expense of their parents, low-income longtime residents, or the environment. That’s what the fantasy of the model millennial living in a box is about, and that’s what makes parts of it very appealing (Harris).” Toronto’s densification strategy seems less planned than a cash grab, with tiny apartments selling for half a million dollars, and rental units being demolished to make way for more condos. I would love to see informal networks of co-operative housing, rent control, and more rental units being built in this city. The coming decades will need realistic affordable housing solutions provided for low-income families, especially the influx of immigrants who move into Toronto. If we can transform the very geography of this land, we can find a way to establish viable living options within its topography.
At a party, one of my friends I had built with on the spit met people who had pictures on facebook playing in our structure. The eventual ruins of it were photographed and included in a photo essay in the Atlantic, about the spit. Who knows how many hundreds of people wandered to the edge of the city, and sat with our chimney built of bricks? It’s likely the most viewed piece of art I’ve ever contributed to. Maybe escaping the city as it is is the first step to building something new. Hundred of builders in concert, labouring out of sight, waiting to unveil a vision of a more livable city.
I settled down in a tiny apartment downtown and found work making bespoke eyewear in a small firm. Alongside that, I taught people how to make wearable electronics at a design university. After asking all of these questions about cities and mass production for so many years, it felt like a good fit. I try not to make too many things; I try not to take up too much space. I have tried to carve out a quiet space for continuing to research the questions that vex me. It seems to me that the world of mass production simply cannot continue on as it has been, we need a global response and shift in material production. It is imperative if our society hopes to transform the lives of people living in poverty, and to avoid catastrophic climate change.
All I can hope is that as a designer and maker, I’m able in my lifetime to make a meaningful contribution to change in these space. There is a massive amount of inertia within the global production of goods, and making recommendations is easier said than done. But it is worth keeping in mind that the systems in place today were deliberately designed to meet certain ends. William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle, points out that the Industrial Revolution was essentially “an economic revolution, driven by the desire for the acquisition of capital.” Our current system, complete with wasteful resources management, is still based on the legacy assumptions that drove the industrial revolution. Creating larger profit margins over rationing resource usage has been an ongoing design consideration when it comes to creating products and systems of production. “Planned obsolescence is the catch-all phrase used to describe the assortment of techniques used to artificially limit the durability of a manufactured good in order to stimulate repetitive consumption (Slade).” For nearly 90 years, disposability has been an important design consideration for many producers of manufactured goods. “To achieve shorter product lives and sell more goods, manufacturers in the 1930s began to base their choice of materials on scientific tests by newly formed research and development departments. These tests determined when each of the product’s specific components would fail (Slade).”
The desire to encourage serial consumption certainly makes sense from a business standpoint. If manufacturers created products that were entirely durable, there would be no need for them to produce more once the market reached saturation. Paul Mazur, an early champion of engineering obsolescence, wrote: “If what had filled the consumer market yesterday could only be made obsolete today, that whole market would be available again tomorrow.” His words seem wistful, as though he were looking out over a great expanse, waiting to conquer it. But the paradigm of disposability emerged recently, and it is within the power of those living today to put research and development departments to work exploring ways to reassemble products and build profitable business models outside of disposable consumption.
There are immense opportunities to use design to reframe and reimagine how we use resources to protect the biosphere and build resilient human communities. “Design is interconnected—to engineering, management, production, customer experiences, and to the planet. Discussing and comprehending the relationship between design and sustainability requires a systems perspective to see these relationships clearly (Shedroff).” If we view design outside of discreet professional titles, such as graphic designer or industrial designer, we can see how the discipline is interwoven into the system of production fundamentally. Designers specialize and master specific skill sets, but ultimately “design is a field of transformations concerned with the steps we take to mold our situations (Chimero).” It is a field of testing possibilities, and because products and systems of production and distribution are designed, there is room to test and iterate new ways of serving our material needs that result in less waste. Sterling sees designers acting as “gatekeepers between status quo objects and objects from the time to come.” First we must find a way to frame decay as inherent to an object (Lovett-Baron), and find a way to “enable a graceful ecosystem of creation, decay, and rebirth in a software-infested and thing-saturated world (Lovett-Baron).” By reframing the objective of design and production, there is space for a new conversation to emerge.
How might we use design to reframe systems of production, products, and methods of consumption to create a paradigm of resource stewardship which could protect the biosphere and build more resilient human communities? Using design as a process for intervention to make systems level change is a growing trend. Often touted as “design thinking” or “strategic design,” design has been extrapolated to a series of processes, and is being used to reimagine “cultures of decision-making at the individual and institutional levels, and particularly as applied to what we can think of as the primary problems of the 21st century -- healthcare, education, social services, the broader notion of the welfare state, climate change, sustainability and resilience, steady state economic development, fiscal policy, income equality and poverty, social mobility and equality, immigration and diversity, democratic representation and so on (Hill).” These are lofty goals, and the work is complex and often hard to quantify. I believe more of this work, work that is mired in complexity and undertaken by passionate people over many years, needs to focus on the built world, product design and systems of production. The world of industrial design needs to celebrate systems solutions that tackle waste and environmental impact rather than kickstarter projects that look like they are from a near-future Skymall catalogue. Designers need to make processes and supply chains visible, and invite critique and collaboration. We need to commit to better, more critical educational outcomes, and design social protocols for sharing commodities and resources to keep them out of landfills longer.
Dan Hill calls for shifting systems through designing with the use of a McGuffin, a design project that uses a product or idea at the surface to drive larger change. An example of this is the Fairphone, which on the surface looks like any other smart phone. But the project has larger goals, and is “a social enterprise that is building a movement for fairer electronics (Fairphone).” The creators document where resources are procured from, and the people who assemble them. “[W]e’re opening up the supply chain and creating new relationships between people and their products. We’re making a positive impact across the value chain in mining, design, manufacturing and life cycle, while expanding the market for products that put ethical values first.” The phone is ultimately a small detail in a larger plan to change the way products are made through increased transparency in sourcing and life cycle management. Apple has developed a robot, Liam, for disassembling iPhones, another project that could signal for larger change in ways things are produced. Although the robot can only disassemble a few million units per year, a major producer throwing their weight behind designing for disassembly could increase public awareness around waste in production. These design focused companies are reframing how their production functions, intervening in different parts of the electronics value chain.
We need to accept “[t]he status quo uses archaic forms of energy and materials which are finite and toxic. They wreck the climate, poison the populace and foment resource wars. They have no future (Sterling).” Further, changing the status quo of how resources are used can be framed as a major area of interest for designers working today. Designers need to become explorers, storytellers, detectives, and quiltmakers, reaching down every stretch of the supply chain and reconsider how it all fits together. We need external support structures for designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs who want to create subversive approaches to material culture. Current funding structures value the status quo when it comes to production methods, and this needs to change. Perhaps this is government funded, or private sector looking to extend and outsource R&D to passionate outsiders. These are considerations I intend to research further to uncover possible support structures. “The only way forward is through something we’ve never done, so we run full speed into the great imagined unknown to make this world for one another (Chimero).” The possibility of a future where resources are used in a way that support human communities and protects the biosphere is not possible if things continue on the current trajectory, but our current industrial system is young, and reconfiguring the constituent parts is far from impossible. To continue on, it is inevitable.
There is no reason the believe massive change isn’t possible. We live in a world where myriad everyday realities would have been unimaginable in the past, disposable commodities included. “When radical shifts become the status quo, most forget how and why it happened and come to see that status quo as inevitable and even eternal, though many of its best aspects were the fruit of activism and change (Solnit).” Pushing back against the existing paradigm is the job of the citizen, and I believe designers and makers have a responsibility to shepherd the production of objects into a sustainable future.
We also need to find ways to keep commodities in circulation longer, a practice that I believe can happen by fostering communities rather than focusing on individual consumption. There are several initiatives in Toronto that encourage this kind of behavior that are growing and testing different business models. Bunz Trading Zone originated as a Facebook group for swapping unwanted items, where no currency is allowed to change hands. The group achieved viral success, with tens of thousands of members exchanging objects around the city. The organization received venture capital to develop an app, and is expanding to other cities, while exploring how to create a sustainable business with an idea that excludes the use of money.
The Toronto based Institute for a Resource Based Economy founded the Toronto Tool Library, and recently raised $30 000 to open the Sharing Depot, which they tout as Canada’s first Library Of Things. The organization collects donations of all kinds of material good, children’s toys, sports equipment, party supplies, and houses them to be signed out by community members and borrowed like a library book. As the Sharing Depot's Indiegogo campaign puts it, "Rather than mining virgin raw materials, we must mine the enormous assets that we have lying around our own homes and cities." In the 21st century, waste "should be designed out of the system altogether."
These organizations look to design waste out of the system by connecting people and the material assets they have, rather than turning to stores to buy more goods. In a North American context, “we’re so used to it that for everything that we come to think of as modern, civilized, what every American deserves…all of those things are made possible by creating lots of waste. And if we’re going to have those values, have those beliefs in the home, and the two cars and the perfect commodities, then we have to acknowledge that is a waste-making form of life (Reno).” By working to design communities that are based on different value structures, we can intercept waste and how it relates to our lives. We can then design a social process that helps other people recreate these structures, maintain them, and make them their own.
We can never escape entropy, but we can live in a closer harmony to it, keeping objects until they have truly outlived their use rather than trading up according to fashion or desire. “More than anything else, however, products that are meaningful (that resonate with our values, emotions, and meanings) are often the most satisfying and durable of all (Shedroff).” Until we can live in a world where product lifecycles are circular, and the end of life for a product doesn’t mean the end of useful resource use, the best we can do is form long lasting, meaningful relationships to the things we do own and use.
Not long after I moved into my new apartment, I found a typeset drawer at the side of the road. It’s wide and shallow, made of hardwood with little partitions where letter forms would have been stored. I scraped, sanded and oiled it until some of it’s former glory returned, and built a tiny table with antique legs I’d bought years before. It sits in my kitchen, with tiny treasures tucked away in the partitions. Reminders from friends and jobs, connections to stories larger than the miniature artefacts stowed away. I kept the silver box my uncle gave me, with a seed from Virginia Woolf’s garden, and it lives in the table. I’ve tried my best to remember anything is possible, that the world I live in will not always be the same.
When I returned from China, I brought him back tiny pieces of the world I saw in Shenzhen. A chip from a phone being disassembled on the street, dry oil paint from a pallette in Dafen Oil Painting Village, and a bright pink capacitor made by some of the hackers. I tried to condense all of the stories and all of the places into a few small things and give them meaning. Meaning and functionality can help us hold back the ever encroaching tide of kipple. “[We] can take kipple and distinguish it from itself, endlessly, through categorisation and classification. Far from using things until they run down, humans build new relations, new meanings, carefully and slowly from the mush. New categories produce new things, produce newness (Rourke).” We need to advocate for a new paradigm of material culture, and find meaning in the things we own if we hope to avoid the complete kipplization of the planet.