Reflections on Alternative Exchange: how does design create alternative economies in contemporary culture?

Within the cool interior of the Angewandte Innovation Laboratory in Vienna (26 January 2017), this Salon unfolded in multilayered ways. This reflects the multiple sites, publics and processes through which alternative exchange systems take place, making them often allusive but always challenging to behold.

Bitcoin and blockchain. Localised hard-currencies. Timebanks. Informal systems of non-currency based reciprocality. Grey economies. Local Exchange Trading Systems. These are just some of the alternative exchange systems that have come to greater prominence in the West.

But beyond the West, it must be remembered that economies that exist outside the mainstream, registered and tax-paying systems occupy their major part. They represent around one-third of GDP in Latin America, the Caribbean, Sub-Saharan Africa, Europe and Central Asia. They account for two-thirds of employment in South and South East Asia and half in Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa. And it is here that we find various versions of entrepreneuralism that includes tinkering and hacking, and the use of informal social networks. In Brazil this is called gambiarra, in China its zizhu chuangxin, Kenya’s version is jua kali and francophone Africa calls it système D. All of these involve conscious design or design-like decisions. (There’s more on this in my book Economies of Design.)

Whether in these latter practices or among more self-consciously designed systems, other forms of ownership, knowledge circulation and expressions of value are at play.

l. to r.: Guy Julier, Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (hidden)

l. to r.: Guy Julier, Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (hidden). Photo: Leah Armstrong

Alison Clarke began by briefly referring to her past research on second-hand clothing and how it circulated with alternative economies to produce other forms of value. She reminded us that design had always been closely aligned with attempts to think about the world in terms of non-monetary value. Die Angewandte (Vienna University of Applied Arts) itself was founded 150 years ago on attempts to align material culture with social wellbeing rather than industrialism. She then invoked some of the design thinking of the 1970s by reference to Andre Gorz’s 1982 work Fairwell to the Working Class: An Essay on Postindustrial Socialism — that looked to the possibility of a post-consumer culture. The reflection, here, was that with automation and information technology to undermining traditional notions of labour, how do we have meaningful lives outside work? Following on, alternative economies therefore provide ways by which traditional notions of labour may be reframed around new values.

Martina Grünewald picked up from Alison Clarke’s observation that a challenge, however, lies in how many alternative economies are double-edged. While they may appear to have autonomy, they are always producing data that can get used in the mainstream economy which, in turn, can affect systems of value in the former. Drawing on her work with auctions and second-hand goods, Martina illustrated how these participate in the formation of design value elsewhere, pointing to trends and interests, for example. Alternative economies may weave in and out of mainstream economies and vice versa.

Özlem Savas drew from her research on Facebook groups involved in the exchange of knitting patterns. Here, participants create digital patterns and photo essays to share their skills. As such they are hybrids of producers and consumer (or, as Alvin Toffler had it, prosumers). New understandings of creative citizenship can emerge through such practices as cultural rights are freely circulated. In this context, there emerges a challenge to design expertise as all participants become designers, rather than it being confined to an exclusive ‘club’ of professionals. It isn’t all knitting, though. Such platforms for sharing design, making and repair proliferate through a range of applications and practice.

Matthias Tarasiewicz valiantly made blockchain appear reasonably simple. We have yet to see if the claim that blockchain will be bigger than the internet in terms of social, economic and political change. But it’s looking that way. With its 5,000+ alternative coins, used at both local and global levels, it suggests a radical disembedding of economic practices from those neoliberal ones we are mostly living with — controlled by macro-interests of the global financial systems and nation-states. And once its systems of value get decoupled from dominant financial modes, they enter into other embedded systems of value — social, communitarian, ecological and others. The extent to which these can actually be ‘designed’ — as in configured around new socialities and economic practices — or to which they will emerge with their own straight or twisted logics is still up for speculation.

The view from the Chair, l. to r: Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (not hidden this time)

The view from the Chair, l. to r: Alison Clarke, Matthias Tarasiewicz, Martina Grünewald, Özlem Savas (not hidden this time)

Part of the challenge here may be in the anonymity of blockchain. Alison Clarke referred back to the brilliant work of W.F.Haug who wrote of design being a mediator of false values. Do some alternative economies do this still? Blockchain sets value through an alignment of multiple nodes communicating with each other. This may not be far from the social processes of the stock exchange or auctions with the big difference that the algorithms of blockchain do not play transparently into everyday life. Matthias Tarasiewicz would probably disagree here…

A key issue in alternative economies is in their different temporal rhythms and their entanglement networks in everyday life, perhaps. We heard about open source knitting patterns which may be slow-moving (writing and testing the pattern, digitizing etc.) but far-reaching (once uploaded it can move from localised knitting groups to global information flows). Meanwhile, in China the use of the WeChat app speeds transactions up and enfolds a number of different social practices (social media, ordering and payment for goods and services, wayfinding etc.). These weave digital and analogue space in and out of each other. In each of these examples, new geographies of exchange are created, though.

The financial crisis of 2008 has coincided with another hyper-wave of technological development. The invention of digital processes may be going quicker than we can deal with them. Sometimes these may exceed or supersede our ordinary abilities of creative action, as, possibly, in the case of Google Deepdream. Salon participants asked whether a backwash of this tendency would be a return to craft skills of making and deep creative action. It seems like we needed William Morris or John Ruskin in the room. Or to get closer to home, Rudolf Steiner…

Ultimately, design in itself may not produce alternative economies, but there are increasing opportunities for it to be engaged in these and for these to become part of the discourses in design culture.




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