Hovering modellers, dogged Don Quichotes and a room filled with white privilege
On April 22, Arne van Oosterom and I visited a session in Pakhuis De Zwijger with Kate Raworth (author of the Doughnut Economy) and Marleen Stikker (Director Waag) among others. “Revisiting Ownership” was the topic for an evening with Economists, social activists, digital thinkers, architects, designers and other predominantly (white) leftish, elitist, well-educated, privileged intellectuals. To be honest, I mainly joined because Arne van Oosterom asked me to come and because Kate Raworth would be one of the panelists.
I enjoyed her Doughgnut Economy book mostly because I share her aversion of the neoclassical economic school of thought dominating western business and policymaking practice to this day — even though I’m not an economist and just another privileged, white, elitist, salon-lefty with a big mouth (on paper that is). Kate Raworth points an accusing finger to the persistent flaws in common economic thinking, being the culprit for the mounting social and environmental crises we are facing. Time and time again, the neoclassic models failed to predict devastating crises and appear only to work in hindsight. The neoclassic models fail to acknowledge externalities such as costs to society and the environment.
However true, it’s not easy to replace old models with new ones, simply because models tend to skew our thinking fundamentally towards simplicity and harmony. The beauty of a model lies in its capacity to simplify complexity, and herein lies the problem. The real world we live in is messy, viscous, dynamic, networked, layered etc…
Models tend to skew our thinking fundamentally towards simplicity and harmony. The beauty of a model lies in its capacity to simplify complexity, and herein lies the problem.
The very origin of neoclassical economic thinking is — as I understood it from Mariana Mazzucato — related to 19th century scholars, envious of the elegant clarity of Newtonian models. The Marginalists as they came to be known presented an almost inevitable model of the economy determined by ‘natural’ forces. The economic equilibrium is determined by perfect competition for scarce resources, just like the universe is held together by gravity. This autonomous system should not be interfered with by non-productive bodies such as government except removing barriers to help it run its course: a much more peaceful, rational and predictable model than the subjective, emotional and confrontational model presented by Marx and his more labour-oriented colleagues. The more mathematical and scientifically predictable model allowed for a more distanced and rational discourse about fairness, exploitation and poverty as merely consequences of natural market forces of which no one could be blamed except the ones being poor and exploited for being too lazy to better present their market value.
The neoclassical model allowed for a more rational discourse about fairness, exploitation and poverty. These are consequences of natural market forces for which no one could be blamed except the ones being poor; too lazy to better present their market value.
Rest assured: I won’t bore you with a history class about economics, I’m merely curious how ideology and a fundamental drive for aesthetics can have far reaching consequences for the way we make sense of and shape our thinking models.
Because I’m a designer, I recognise the the difficulty to switch between shaping and debating the content of a design. How the aesthetic presentation of a piece of information — a logo, a text, infographic or a model, can cloud our judgement for wether its shape serves the aesthetic experience or the most effective information transfer towards the audience… While being in the design process; it’s really hard to switch between the functional and aesthetic mode of thinking. Somehow the two have a hard time collaborating.
I used to think these types of thinking flaws were exclusive for designers, but I now realise that most of us suffer in one way or another to switch adequately between thinking modes. For example; we feel much more comfortable zooming out of a particular problem than zooming in on the underlying complexity without trying to filter it. We rather squint and look through our eyelashes to suppress a big portion of the mess we are looking at, and suddenly we find a pattern. (we are great at finding patterns, even if there are none). The simplified pattern of reality can easily be translated to a model or map to describe our interpretation of a phenomenon, a process or system.
While being in the design process; it’s really hard to switch between a functional and aesthetic mode of thinking. Somehow the two have a hard time collaborating.
Of course; we will stress that the model or map is just a representation of reality, but over time this model will start to replace it and become a caricature that hardly resembles anything of the real world. Just like the Homo Economicus cannot be found in the real world or GDP growth will not tell you anything about health and happiness of the people living in a nation. Unfortunately, those caricatures tend to stick around, or as Psychologist Robert Frank put it: “Our beliefs about human nature help shape human nature itself”. Caricatures of reality stick around out of convenience; they give us a shorthand, reference or number and those numbers suffer from a heritage- and coordination problem: Who dares to take the responsibility to say: from now on we will not measure/nor publish our GDP growth…? We fear the nakedness and punishment of peers, who will certainly do anything to keep us in the spell of the model.
Caricatures of reality stick around out of convenience; they give us a shorthand.
Back to the event in Amsterdam: I noticed my brain went elsewhere as soon as these sweeping issues about the economy, citizenship and ownership in both the physical as well as the digital society took hold of the discussion. Interesting indeed, but whenever the panel discussion would take-off in a theoretical air balloon; a feeling of vertigo creeps up on me. The world — and especially The Netherlands — looks extraordinary neat and tidy from above, but also implausible and unreal. On average we are one of the richest countries with outrageous citizen happiness scores. Unfortunately, nobody is ‘average’; you wouldn’t want to be a delivery courier, a seasonal labourer or (North African) refugee for that matter.
Whenever the panel discussion would take off in a theoretical air balloon; a feeling of vertigo creeps up on me. The world — and especially The Netherlands — looks extraordinary neat and tidy from above, but also implausible and unreal.
I returned from mind-wandering only when two incredibly powerful ladies, took the stage: Noortje van Kleef (president of ecostroom.nu) and Anne Stijkel (founder Groene Hub and Donut Deals). Their speeches not as eloquent, their blunt reality-riven presentations sharply contrasting the comfortably modelled discourse, but a well-timed trigger to wake the audience from it’s aesthetic slumber. The two ladies made me realise that we can zoom out or squint at the complex problems laying in front of us all we want, but nothing really will be done or solved just by looking at it, talking about it, or designing harmonious models for that matter.
Their speeches not as eloquent, their blunt reality-riven presentations sharply contrasting the comfortably modelled discourse, but a well-timed trigger to wake the audience from it’s aesthetic slumber.
Only when we open our eyes, strap on our rubber boots and go down the ladder, into the uncomfortable jungle of conflicting interests, incumbent ownerships, competing needs, scarce resources, ignorance and bureaucracies, we may be able to get something done. Only by relentlessly pounding the status quo and establishing one piece of tangible and local change at a time. By helping people in social housing to own a solar panel, infrared heating to reduce soaring energy prices in spite of complaining real estate agents, indifferent bureaucracies and distrustful capital providers who are more interested in the usual upper/middle class suspects. The people in the room.
Let’s maintain a healthy suspicion towards designers (such as myself), theorists and scholars and remind ourselves that the models we design and present are persuasive illustrations of our beliefs, hopes and dreams. Even if they carry certain truth, they are remote from the messy reality and can only make any difference if materialised (by people like Noortje and Anne) into practical instruments for those who really need it.
I wish you rubber boots and sledge hammers.
Enjoy the summer