Is the recession an opportunity?

I’ve been wondering if the growing downturn could be an opportunity for new technologies and viewpoints to emerge. One direct effect is that energy consumption (“oil use down 6% in 2008“) and carbon emissions will drop, along with other pollution. Alex Pang has a great post on “design and the downturn” about the other creative possibilities:

Michael Cannell’s piece “Design Loves a Depression” has some interesting suggestions about the future of design: that the flourishing of expensive, celebrity designers will come to an end, allowing the field to get serious about solving real problems and being more constructive by having to work within constraints.

[D]uring the Great Depression… an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.

“American designers took the Depression as a call to arms,” said Kristina Wilson, author of “Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression” and an assistant professor of art history at Clark University. “It was a chance to make good on the Modernist promise to make affordable, intelligent design for a broad audience.”…

Design tends to thrive in hard times. In the scarcity of the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture and other products of enduring appeal from cheap materials like plastic, resin and plywood, and Italian design flowered in the aftermath of World War II….

There is a reason she and others are optimistic: however dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems, and if President-elect Barack Obama delivers anything like a W.P.A, we could be “standing on the brink of one of the most productive periods of design ever,” said Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art….

One way or another, design will focus less on styling consumer objects with laser-cut patterns and colored resin and more on the intelligent reworking of current conditions. Expect to hear a lot more about open-source design, and cradle-to-cradle, a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart that calls for cars, packaging and other everyday objects to be designed specifically for recycling so that their parts and materials are used and reused without waste.

This reminds me somewhat of the argument made by Brian Arthur and others (most notably Arthur, I think) that tech bubbles don’t create what’s really valuable: they create a lot of potentially valuable wreckage and infrastructure that the next round of innovators use to do really serious stuff.


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