The Commodification of Everything

Space Caviar, the Genoese design research collective headed by long-time collaborator Joseph Grima, plus Tamar Shafrir and Andrea Bagnato (and building into a very interesting wider group, incl. SImone Niquille) had asked me to write a piece for a Lars Muller-published collection about domestic space, aka the home.

The book is SQM: The Quantified Home’, Space Caviar (ed.), Lars Muller Publishers (2014) (More at Space Caviar)

The way we live is rapidly changing under pressure from multiple forces — financial, environmental, technological, geopolitical. What we used to call home may not even exist anymore, having transmuted into a financial commodity measured in square meters, or sqm. Yet, domesticity ceased long ago to be central in the architectural agenda; this project aims to launch a new discussion on the present and the future of the home. ‘SQM: The Quantified Home’, produced for the 2014 Biennale Interieur, charts the scale of this change using data, fiction, and a critical selection of homes and their interiors — from Osama bin Laden’s compound to apartment living in the age of Airbnb.

My piece addressed the latter few words there, and sat alongside others by the likes of Aristide Antonas, Keller Easterling, Sam Jacob, Alexandra Lange, Justin McGuirk, Joanne McNeil, Alessandro Mendini, Bruce Sterling et al. Do pick the book up — it’s a wonderful collection.

Also, huge congratulations to Studio Folder (good friends Marco Ferrari and Elisa Pasqual) for winning Gold in the European Design Awards for their design for SQM’. It’s a beautiful, beautiful bit of editorial design, inside and out.

My working title for this was ‘Fractal domestic’ — you’ll see why if you read on — but when published it became ‘The commodification of everything’, which is also about right, exploring the different understanding of domestic environment that Airbnb prompts. As usual, there are positive implications of this to flush out, as well as negative ones.

The commodification of everything

Kalle Freese knew how to make a cup of coffee. Indeed, he was the Finnish barista champion. But he still needed somewhere to learn how to sell a cup of coffee, to craft an environment he wanted to sell coffee within, to try running a service business in a particular space.

However, like many in Helsinki working at the more innovative margins of food culture, Freese faced a mountain of regulations almost implicitly designed to keep him out. These were a manifestation of Helsinki’s apparently exemplary bureaucracy, not least their particularly stringent food hygiene regulations, but also one of the most highly-regarded urban planning outfits in the world, which exerts a tight grip on the designated use of urban space.

Many younger, mobile Helsinki residents, like Freese, were aware that cities elsewhere were benefiting from a more diverse, innovative food culture, from the small coffee shops Freese wanted to start up, to the street food scene, to organic and locavore food cultures, to people hosting dinners which hovered between private and public events, in spaces that were also indeterminately domestic and commercial. Yet the tight grip of regulations on both spaces for food and on spaces for innovation prevented much in the way of real change in Helsinki.

In response to this, Ravintolapäivä, or Pop-up Restaurant Day, emerged as a grassroots citizen-led movement, hovering in the indeterminate space between legal and illegal, domestic and commercial. Initially it was little more than an agreement among participants to make and serve street food, or small café food, on a particular day, working from domestic spaces such as first or second floor apartments (with food lowered to the street via baskets in the case of the latter), or vacant commercial spaces, or street-side, or in parks; wherever, in fact, people felt was a good, convivial place to make and serve food, rather than the spaces that authorities had designated as appropriate. This ended up being a ground-floor apartment with a handy window to serve from, as much as anything else.

Ravintolapäivä turned out to be a huge success. Helsinki’s streets on Ravintolapäivä days are full of a rich diversity of food experiences, created and served by the city’s increasingly diverse population, from a diverse set of hastily repurposed spaces. None of the spaces are formally cafés or restaurants. None have licenses for preparing and selling food. Most have leasing arrangements described in years rather than hours. Most are zoned as residential rather than commercial. Most of them are, in fact, apartments. Ravintolapäivä found a way of temporarily re-zoning these spaces on-the-fly, at the whims of its residents. The tools by which Ravintolapäivä happens are — it almost goes without saying — social media-based web services, accessed primarily on location-aware smartphones.

Freese himself opened up a trial coffeeshop on Ravintolapäivä, in a humble vacant ground- floor space in downtown Helsinki, and to huge acclaim. He now has his own gourmet coffeeshop business on the aptly-named Freesenkatu elsewhere in the city, yet Ravintolapäivä offered a space for experimentation, almost a form of training wheels. The space he set-up in was an at- tractive part of town; yet market dynamics meant it was temporarily vacant — like most Western cities, the inefficiency of market-led dynamics mean huge chunks of the city’s commercial spaces are frequently temporarily vacant. Ravintolapäivä provided an opportunity for the owner of the space to open it up to Freese gratis, for a day at least.

The formal processes of zoning and planning, and other legislation regarding access and use of space, work at a very high level, focusing on major strategic planning initiatives to engineer change while blanketing all other activity in a prescriptive ‘dark matter’ of legislation. Ravintolapäivä works because it ‘flies under the radar’ of such bureaucratic cultures. It remains semi-legal — at best — for similar reasons. Yet such activities work perfectly at the scale of streets and neighbourhoods, which is the scale that people primarily live, work and play, of course. The tools citizens use to make decisions are advanced and sophisticated but off-the-shelf, accessible and often well-designed to be highly accessible and usable. They may only enable a highly localised form of decision-making — decisions at an urban scale may prove problematic — but existing legislation can rarely scale down to this level effectively.

There is now a radical disjunction between the formal decision-making processes of the city council and the informal decision-making processes of the city itself. While it remains to be seen whether the latter can deliver the slow-release permanence of formal urban planning, they are at least able to move fluidly into urban spaces below the radar of the former, accessing and re-configuring the fine-grain of the city in a way that urban planning never could.

In a similar way, contemporary services like Airbnb wheedle a form of hotel accommodation out of existing urban fabric. Commercial zoning at the district level, or designation of space for commercial activity at the building level — in this case whether a room can be a hotel room or not — does not appear to match the fine-grained and fluid way that some people perceive what space can be.

Airbnb, over a few years, has unlocked hundreds of thousands of pseudo-hotel rooms from existing urban fabric, in the form of spare rooms and vacant apartments. They now offer the equivalent amount of accommodation as the entire Hilton hotel chain. It took Hilton a century to construct all their hotels, brick-by-brick, and Airbnb have come along, armed only with software, and created more, in six years, without laying a brick.

Software has enabled an entirely different approach to managing space, providing an agile, highly transient and flexible conception of urban fabric. Why shouldn’t a spare room be made available for hire? A few clicks make it happen. In comparison, the processes of bureaucratic approval seem lumbering, intractable and monolithic, and are apparently largely unable to prevent it happening anyway. It is another example of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreesen’s choice phrase, “software is eating the world.”

As an example of the so-called sharing economy, Airbnb possesses similar dynamics to urban mobility services like Uber and Lyft, which exploit a redundancy or inefficiency of space or resource use, supposedly a product of a twentieth-century approach to managing such things: through designation, planning, licensing. Just as Ravintolapäivä found ways of using urban space in the grey areas left over by high-level approvals, services like Uber and Airbnb offer entirely new urban services by thriving in similar gaps. Is this apartment a hotel? Is this private car a taxi? The software supporting all these activities trans- forms inefficiencies — the ‘redundancy’ of unused parked cars or unoccupied rooms — into the raw material for new services. In doing so, it changes our perception of the city’s fabric. This is as big a challenge for the business of urban planning as it is for the Hiltons’ business.

However, underpinning such approaches, at least in commercial services like Airbnb, is a clear ideology. This could be described as the capitalistic ideal of maximising resource utilisation, a ‘commodification of everything’ applied to domestic space. It can manifest itself in the skirting of as much local regulation and taxation as possible, for the sake of better user interfaces for urban space. ‘Sharing economy,’ then, is a complete misnomer.

Almost twenty years ago, these dynamics were foreseen and described by Andy Cameron and Richard Barbrook as the “Californian Ideology.” They arguably represent a form of civic failure rather than market failure. In circumventing taxation and regulation, and operating in the high-value pockets of town where the pickings are easy, Airbnb or Uber give little sense that they might enable more equitable services, or that they see the city as a public good. (Uber is perhaps easier to criticise on this basis, yet Airbnb could be creating upwards pressure on rents, which is not exactly helpful.)

While strategic urban planning may seem untenably slow and opaque in comparison, there is at least a chance it has public interest at its core. Several strong critiques of the idea of sharing economy are now emerging, suggesting significant issues with stretching such dynamics over the city, particularly over domestic space.

At first glance, it’s odd to see manifestations of this culture, such as disruptive pop-ups, emerging in Helsinki in particular, which is as far away from California as one could get — in its solid social democratic backdrop as much as its climate. However, in recent years Helsinki has positioned itself as a centre for start-ups in Europe, trying on an entrepreneurial culture in much the same way Finns holidaying in Spain try on espadrilles; at first awkwardly, and then with gusto. The same kind of people that create the Ravintolapäiväs of this world also inhabit Aaltoes, the local start-up support network and first European partner of Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program. Much of this is positive, if it could be reframed through a Nordic lens. Yet that is a big ‘if’. We might wonder how far Californian businesses like Airbnb can travel outside of California; yet the ideology of the same name may have been preparing the ground more widely than we think. While Helsinki can consider itself to be a very well-run city by almost any twentieth-century measure, it is not immune to the ‘radical disruption’ of Ravintolapäivä/Airbnb twenty-first-century dynamics, to the extent that people now expect systems to simply behave in a certain way.

However, there is something intriguing in that malleability and fluidity of domestic urban space that Ravintolapäivä and Airbnb enable, whether in Helsinki or San Jose. Could it suggest a more fractal organisation of space within the city, perhaps more in tune with many twenty-first-century conditions, in which an apartment can shift mode from residential to commercial to industrial over the course of an afternoon, at the behest of network logics?

In fractal planning, zoning is something that occurs at the level of the room, within the home, rather than at the neighbourhood level. Where zoning previously applied to broad sweeps of urban fabric, we now apparently have the tools to rezone a bedroom or living room as commercial property within a residential container, at least for a period of time. Again, the tools enable an apparent fluidity of space, at least in terms of fractal subdivisions of domestic fabric, rather than larger, more permanent schemes. Ravintolapaiva and Airbnb magic up restaurants and hotels out of our interiors. Will we begin to actively design residential space within this in mind? Might we see Airbnb-ready apartments emerging from architects’ drawing boards soon? How will this shift our notion of the home, as a retreat from the public? The inside from the outside?

Or, as municipalities now struggle with the over-supply of retail space in cities — given the preponderance of internet-based retail — could such fractal approaches open up such spaces to much-needed new housing, or spaces for the new light industry of fabrication? The formerly commercial would now host the residential, or the industrial? Or both? Could fractal approaches planning enable a more human-centred, localised designation of space, determined by communities themselves?

While services like Airbnb have been characterised as ‘disruptive in a bad way’, skirting regulation and taxation, there is no reason why they should. If municipalities decide to apply such rules, they can — just as many are now trying to regulate, reject or replace Uber. Given the the traces left by digital transactions, such services are arguably easier to identify and manage than previous processes (as long as municipalities are literate in such ‘big data’ approaches.) Authorities could easily ensure that taxes are paid, and that activities are safe; yet this requires a shift in stance, from inhibiting activity via the hefty blocking moves of regulation, to instead observing point-clouds of transactions and managing accordingly, knowing when to innovate through regulation, and knowing when to innovate through creating better public services themselves, taking advantage of many of the same dynamics.

For municipal governance, and for those that attempt to manage urban spaces, attempt- ing to wrangle these radically disruptive dynamics could be playing with fire. It simply may not be possible to disengage the services from the ideologies that underpin them. Yet what are the alternatives? This is why the fact that ‘software is eating the world’ presents such challenges; it is eating the world, and it is only just booting up. Our response to that, as citizens and cities, will determine whether it does so for public good or for private gain, whether our ability to shape and use our domestic spaces is enhanced or inhibited.

In deep winter, the sea around Helsinki freezes over, effectively doubling the size of the city. For as long as people can remember, this temporary extension of the city has been used for public fairs and feasts. In much the same way, Ravintolapäivä has found new places for food experiences within the existing fabric of the city, un-zoning, unlocking and extending the city’s potential via domestic space. Equally, Airbnb has illustrated that peoples’ perception of what residential space can be is far more fine-grained — more fractal — than the city’s approach to regulation can possibly handle.

While it is easy for some of us to characterise Ravintolapäivä as intrinsically ‘good,’ and Airbnb as a more equivocal entrant, in reality both present disruption to local governments. Both entail a radical re-drawing of domestic spaces in the context of the city. The question is whether the city can absorb the force of the disruption and redirect it, enabling a different conception of space while retaining civic and public value.

Here is a possibility to dissolve previously calcified boundaries between residential, commercial and industrial, between individual and collective space in the city, between bottom-up and top-down. Whether it does so beneficially will depend on how much we care about the idea of the city as a public good, and how adept we are at absorbing and redirecting disruptive forces for civic returns.

An edited version of this essay was published as: