Regarding your extensive research, in what way are you specifically interested in the emergence of a new sense of the collective?
My main interest lies in the fact that we have to find some alternative to the dominant neo-liberal orthodoxy. This is clearly a political position, but more to the point is also a deeply pragmatic one. The model of continuing growth on which global capitalism is reliant is simply not sustainable in term of the capacity of the planet to survive. It is also apparent that the extraction of endless profit and growth from current economies is getting increasingly difficult, if not impossible: the financial crisis of 2008 was to some extent brought about by the invention of new, and very risky, financial instruments which invented new, virtual, forms of surplus. And when these were found to be fictive, the whole system collapsed.
So in the face of ecological crisis and the incapacity of capitalism to find other ways of working, we have to look for alternatives. Austerity is not one: this is simply an imposition of the economic state — always legitimized on the grounds that cuts now are necessary to reestablish economic equilibrium, always founded on the promise of future growth. Austerity is just the perpetuation of the same systems, but in reverse, and it brings with it a highly unequal distribution of pain.
One alternative model is that of the economist Tim Jackson, who argues for prosperity without growth, but his definition of prosperity exceeds the mere economic value of wealth. It is one redistribution of what we have already — which is probably enough anyway for those who live in the “developed” world. Such a model brings with it new forms of organization, central to which are new systems based around the collective. It is clear that the existing economic order, and its accompanying political agents, is dependent on a hierarchy of privilege (and hence inequality). This needs to be countered by the notion of the collective — which will never be completely equal or consensual (because such perfection does not exist) but abandons notions of pure power and imposed control.
Interestingly such a sense of collective is already emerging in the most economically stressed locations in Europe — Spain, Italy, Portugal — whilst in the UK and Germany the old order still holds sway. The important thing now is to open up the cracks that are emerging in the neo-liberal system and so be able to propose deeply pragmatic and highly visionary alternatives. It is up to the public to do this, because it is clear that the neo-liberals have neither the imagination nor will to even begin to consider alternative. Their stock response when challenged is to say, we can’t go to communism — which just shows the pathetically limited way that they are able to see the world.
In the context of the crisis of the global development model, what are the current possibilities of active, social and popular intervention in the contemporary city?
You are asking me this at a bad time. In the week of the burial of Margaret Thatcher, the high deity of neoliberal politics, with full endorsement by the state (they are even turning off the chimes of Big Ben), this country is gripped by a fervour of statehood and conservative values. My Twitter feed may be give me solace that there is anger, but the reality is that the established order has strengthened its grip, and with it the real voice of democracy has been suppressed. As my brother wrote recently about the funeral: ?No less than marxism in the old communist countries, neo-liberal capitalism is the box outside which we are no longer permitted to think. Its official apotheosis will take place as another box containing its chief ideologue is paraded triumphantly through the capital next Wednesday, when the values of justice and fairness will, it seems, finally be buried with her.?
Intervention is thus limited to protest, and this is not a productive way of finding new ways forward. But there are moments of hope. The Occupy movements of 2012 showed extraordinary courage in showing the world how alternative forms of spatial and social organisation might evolve — and if they refused to name specific solutions that was because it would have pandered to a specifically instrumental view of the world. And elsewhere, one senses many other movements bubbling up from under and around the edges: the transition town initiatives, time banking, co-operative working, cohousing, and multiple forms of sharing that transcend the hopeless idea of the UK Conservative’s “Big Society”. These alternative arise despite rather than because of the prevailing order; they are not binary opposites (because that accepts the norms that the conservatives establish) but rather start ab initio.
Regarding the changes in contemporary societies, what is the role of the architect in the configuration of new communities?
My project on spatial agency with Tatjana Schneider and Nishat Awan (see www.spatialagency.net) attempted to gather inspirational examples of how architects and designers had contributed to the formation of new spatial and social futures. The lesson that comes through is that this is only possible if one moves beyond the building as object, and engages with the whole spectrum of spatial production, and does so in a manner that is genuinely collaborative. My optimism lies in the fact that architects are, when pointing in the right direction, extraordinarily adept at understanding how space affects social relations, and so have a major part to play in the co-design of new communities. But to do so they have to give up pretensions of authorship and refinement on which so much design is still based.
My present work on scarcity done with a group of colleagues across Europe (see www.scibe.eu) is focusing on the way that scarcity might be become a defining feature of life in the future. This is not so much the actual scarcities of diminishing resources, but the way that scarcity is constructed and engineered by the market. Our argument is that designers and architects are in a good position to unpick those constructions and intervene in a creative way that concentrates on economic and environmental flows, and their spatial (social) manifestation. It presents an alternative to the current regimes of austerity (which simply do less with less) and instead posits scarcity as a set of givens that need to be dealt with in a projective, and not reactive, manner.