City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Afternoon walk, Stockholm 7 April 2020

The changing dynamics of a deeper ‘slowdown’, hinted at by the coronavirus-induced ‘pause’, could change the distribution and dynamics of production and consumption, making and manufacturing, across city, region, and nation, with outcomes not only for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing but also politics.

In a world where everything connects, this is not only about cities. The pause that the virus has forced makes us suddenly aware of the deeper Slowdown, and the need to understand, explore, and embrace these long-running changes that seem so counter to the dominant narratives. Zooming out further beyond the home, neighbourhood, and city, we might see that this polka dot pattern also works at the scale of the region and country, a distributed pattern of habitation and labour across bioregions, localised supply chains, and natural and human resources, rather than arbitrary political boundaries.

More sustainable food systems will drive that change in particular, with the coronavirus immediately indicating the need for greater food security, for increased resilience, restorative ecosystems and permaculture, advanced food production, and probably an end to some countries importing most of their food over vast distances. That, in turn, requires bioregional governance, built around food systems, watersheds, forestry, and seas. (As described at the bottom of this paper. Much of my ‘day job’ is in this area of food system innovation, alongside sustainable cities work.)

Yet Danny Dorling, balancing data and anecdotes in his book ‘Slowdown’, describes a further countervailing movement away from megacities, away from growth, away from the pursuit of GDP at all costs, and instead suggesting the possibilities in a ‘return to the country’. The stories that have emerged in the last few years — young, professional, well-qualified Osaka- and Athens-dwellers moving back to rural Japan or Greece — initially seem interesting only because they are tiny specks apparently swimming against the massive centuries-old flow in the other direction: the opposite of the young leaving the countryside, heading to the big city.

Yet, and I say this is an urbanist who think that cities are our greatest invention, that movement to the city as the only possible destiny has created numerous problems, and not simply ecological but political, with many regions, whether in Japan, Europe, or America, feeling not only left-behind but without a meaningful future. In some way, that lack of curiosity in whatever is not urban is behind the populist uprisings of Brexit, Trump, or the gilets jaunes in France, and more besides.

Dorling’s book, although it opens with the almost-clichés of smart young things returning to mastic harvesting in Chios and paddy field farming in Shimanto, suggests that this return could be something more significant than an exception to the rule. These new narratives are absolutely in tune with the patterns described above.

In the excellent Japanese magazine Moment, we find the story of Fablab Aso Minami-Oguni. Fablabs have almost become a cliché, as ‘almost-sustainable’ big city fixtures in Barcelona and Bristol, Moscow and Melbourne. Yet here, in the small town of Minami-Oguni — pop. 4,000 people — out in Kumamoto Prefecture, just north of Mount Aso, known mainly for its hot springs? Less likely.

Fablab Aso Minami-Oguni, as described in Moment magazine. Photograph by Azusa Shigenobu.

Shunsuke Anai returned to Kumamoto to take over his family company as the third generation director of Anai Wood Factory Limited, but he has opened what Mizuki Suzutani, the Fab Master at Fablab Aso Minami-Oguni, says is “probably the most inaccessible fab lab in Japan.” (From a republished version of the Moment interview at Pop-Up City.)

The story is familiar to many post-industrial conditions. There used to be 40 sawmills around Minami-Oguni. Now there are only two left. So the Fab Lab fills a different gap, by reinventing the identity of a place, yet building on its deep history and particular local conditions. Although it uses exactly the same natural resource base—the local timber and its super-local ecosystems and conditions—it does not have to reproduce the dynamic of the sawmills. It produces something of high value but at a local scale. And by not scaling in the industrial model, it’s sustainable in every sense.

Fablab Aso Minami-Oguni, as described in Moment magazine, and surrounds. Photograph by Azusa Shigenobu.

Fablab Aso Minami-Oguni is not only beautiful but somehow, for a technology narrative usually associated with speed, data, robotics, it seems entirely in tune with the sheer slowness of timber production in the area. The Oguni Cedar is a fine-grained, high-quality wood, known for its lustre, texture, and colour, but by not aligning this timber solely to the old extractive mode of the sawmills, the Fablab finds a richer array of uses. They use the lumber from these trees, but also invent uses for the by-products of timber, using wood chips in nearby barns, providing a natural cushion for the cows, or creating aromatic oil from the cedar itself.

“Thinning the woods is vital for helping cedar trees to grow, but it’s unprofitable as well as a burden for lumberjacks. Rather than simply throwing away the leaves and branches, they wanted to see if they could create a business out of the ‘waste’. The aromatic oil was a result of several trials.” — From Moment magazine, reproduced at Pop-Up City

Most of their efforts, however, go on working with primary school and junior high school kids, aged 6–15, and providing a very different sense of a future, other than simply heading for Fukuoka and aspiring to become a YouTuber.

The Oguni Cedar trees around Minami-Oguni. From Moment magazine. Photographs by Azusa Shigenobu.

Working in a fablab amidst the biodiversity of forests and mountains, just as fab labs in Barcelona must encounter the centuries-old Ciutat Vella, gives a sense of time outside oneself, otherwise lost in the blur of information on screens. Yet the biodiversity of timber is something else — taking six decades for a tree to become strong enough for lumber. Shunsuke Anai is able to work with wood today as his grandfather planted it. “I am planting trees today so that my grandchildren and the generations to come could live off wood too. But unless we do something about the situation, there will be no one to succeed us. That is the reason why we created the Fab Lab: to plant seeds and to envision the future together with our children, the generation to come.”

A similar narrative can be found with companies like Morakniv and Fiskars. Morakniv is a Swedish knife manufacturer. They have been around since 1891, although knives have been made around the town of Mora for over 400 years ((‘kniv’ is Swedish for knife, and company is based in the town of Mora — hence Morakniv.). They now balance the craft skills from that long tradition with advanced computer-controlled equipment typical of other Swedish industry. Morakniv sells via their concept store in Stockholm, and also globally via the internet — yet they are still based in Mora. Here, quite unlike the clichéd Stockholm tech start-up, companies like Morakniv can offer a wide diversity of jobs, at all levels. These are not bullshit jobs, either.

Fiskars, the manufacturer of the famous orange-handled scissors and more besides, emerged in the village of Fiskars, Finland, in 1649, making it one of the oldest businesses in the Western world. Its product line is undeniably Finnish, yet its footprint is global, as are some of its operations.

Our Fiskars scissors

Yet the company remains headquartered in Helsinki, and the company still has strong ties to Fiskars village, as do the various practices of making associated with Fiskars.

“The Fiskars village could well become a model for a new kind of sustainable factory, one based on a local network of different craft factories. It has the history, facilities and community needed for just this kind of next step.
Fiskars was the site of Finland’s first manufacturer of cast iron and forged products. This foundry was founded in the mid-17th century, and thanks to these factories the town flourished throughout the following centuries. But by the 20th century a great decay had set in, and with the closure of the last factory in the 1980s, people were leaving. The town of Fiskars was on the brink of dying out. In order to bring inhabitants back to the village, artists and craftsmen were given privileged access to ateliers and workshop spaces. Cabinetmakers, ceramists and metalsmiths came to Fiskars, bringing new life to the empty shop floors. Today, this group includes some of Finland’s finest artists, designers and makers. It’s not too much to say that the village was brought back to life through craftsmanship and art!” — Anniina Koivu, curator, Factory exhibition, Fiskars Art & Design Biennale 2019

Fiskars, company and town

These companies are deeply synonymous with place, even using the same name, and thus both drawing from and giving identity to, their towns and regions. And the Slowdown narrative means that need not change, but in fact increases the viability of this linking of production and place.

Another Nordic example: Iittala, the Finnish glassware and ceramics company (actually now part of the Fiskars group) which came from the town of Iittala. Again, the same balance of place, identity, history, craft, but also high technology design and production, with a global market via internet and partnerships. Here, too, the Slowdown message of sustainability through high-quality products that may cost more, but last for life.

Whilst Morakniv is still in Mora, Fiskars and Iittala are now largely based in Helsinki. But to put this in perspective, Fiskars is only a bus-ride from Helsinki; it’s not as if we’re talking about Lotus or Volvo being run from Hangzhou.

Famously, Nokia came from the town of Nokia in Finland too, yet in the Slowdown not every company has to scale to become what Nokia became. In fact, given a different sense of time, it is clearly more resilient to be successful at the scale of Morakniv, Iittala, and Fiskars. As Slowdown ventures, they all describe a different possibility for regional economies, other than simply upping sticks and moving to the big city, sketching out a more equitable, distributed pattern of settlement and economy that could cover a whole country in such polka dot patterns.

It may seem odd, almost inappropriate, to focus on apparently high-end, almost clichéd Nordic and Japanese examples of craft, at a time when we need the manufacturing of face-masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Yet outside the current front line of the virus, food, knives, plates and glassware are ‘essential’ items, in the phrasing of the time — far more than cars, say, which can be made entirely optional — and a key Slowdown shift would be to recognise the value of these items, to make things well, to care for them, and to buy fewer things that last longer, even if the price point seems higher in the short-term. This approach links resilience, equality and sustainability to identity, provenance, and place, enabling those values to speak far more loudly than ‘universally accessible at low low prices’.

Iittalla’s sense of sustainability — “Equality, empowerment, wellbeing and life balance are at the heart of Iittala” — exemplifies this slower approach, as does Fiskars. See also this powerful, insightful piece by August Bard-Bringéus, co-founder of Stockholm-based ASKET, posting in the context of fashion: ‘We can’t afford to go back to normal’. It’s worth reading their vision of a Slowdown-style fashion business, post-corona.

We envisage a system where we acknowledge the true cost of clothing, and abandon the strive for arbitrage based on exploitation. Instead we call on brands to pay fair wages, endorse collective bargaining, social security and cleaner production. Then factories and workers alike will be in better shape to cope with temporary loss of business, dampening not only effects on individual distress but also that of local economies. It is the purpose of a good economy to build a buffer for more austere times. But historically, this buffer has amassed only on one side of the value chain. The effect would, of course, be a higher cost of goods to the brands. And as we can’t expect consumers to absorb the increased price alone, the brands would need to reduce their inventory risk, to cope with lower margins from the start. This would require brands to pivot from a fast to a more considered model, slowing down the seasonal calendar and abandoning the concept of constant renewal and replacement. As a result, garments would stay relevant for longer, with it prolonging their lifetime — and thus increasing both their financial value and consumer appreciation. Volumes won’t be what they were. Growth won’t pick up at the same pace. But the value created would be higher. The discounting less necessary, waste reduced — and the risk and reward distributed evenly across the entire value chain.” — August Bard-Bringéus of ASKET, ‘We can’t afford to go back to normal’, 12 April 2020

That sentiment — “pivot from a fast to a more considered model, slowing down the seasonal calendar and abandoning the concept of constant renewal and replacement …garments staying relevant for longer, prolonging their lifetime” — could have been plucked from Dorling’s ‘Slowdown’. Fashion is almost the preeminent example of ‘induced demand’, something Asket is actively and intelligently trying to step outside of. For those in the clothing industry who do not devise different strategies, it is likely that corona will wreak particular havoc. Perhaps it should do. To be clear, this does not imply all clothing should be Scandi muted-coloured basics—fashion and clothing is about cultural expression, diversity, belonging, and personal expression, and has helped drive and articulate much progressive change for decades. Yet the industry has now also accumulated an impressive array of existential problems, ranging from labour exploitation to horrendous carbon footprints, land- and resource-use, and more besides, as is well articulated by Bard-Bringéus. The design brief is to solve those problems whilst retaining some sense of what makes fashion more than clothing.

Again, though, as everything is connected, this is not simply about nice Finnish cutlery or Swedish pants, but entire supply chains, including those that currently are trying to make PPE. As noted in this piece by Maggie Koerth for Five-Thirty-Eight, having our supply chains draped delicately over the model of Just-In-Time (JIT) has produced a profoundly non-resilient system; successful when viewed in the short-term and from a narrow viewpoint; appalling in the long-term, and when factoring in true cost, and with no sense of systemic risk whatsoever.

For the benefit simply of cheap consumer goods — which ultimately produce the crises in climate, health, and social justice, from which the coronavirus both emerges and revels in — we have remade our entire industrial base, patterns of distribution, and social and economic geography, rendering them to be about as resilient as a house of cards in front of a stirring hurricane.

These papers are about trying to perceive some of these deeper patterns. And Koerth’s piece is excellent, but when her sub-editors titled it ‘How COVID-19 Is Wreaking Havoc On Our Ability To Make Things — Including Vaccines’, you can see they have rather missed the broader point. It is not Covid-19 wreaking havoc; rather, it is the systems we have put in place that are wreaking havoc. The coronavirus is a messenger, usefully, if terribly, showing this to us. Recall Deming’s aphorism, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”. The coronavirus is able to exploit the frailties in these systems, but we designed them like that. That havoc is ours.

Koerth ends with a quote from Julie Swann, professor of industrial and systems engineering at North Carolina State University, who is examining the impact of these choices about our supply chains:

“We need to be willing to pay a little more during times of peace without crisis so we have supply available during crisis.”

Again, this sense that we have built a non-resilient system to prioritise induced demand for cheap goods, to enable low cost for individuals, but with the highest price ultimately being paid by society—which includes those individuals, it turns out. And we will see much, much worse with the climate crisis — unless we collectively choose to meaningfully shift these patterns of living. We can see that clearly now, as these gleaming, TQM’d, astonishingly efficient supply chains, the result of a thousand Harvard Business Review articles, are struggling to make even the most basic life-saving equipment to deal with the coronavirus. It’s more than a little frustrating that the Financial Times is now complaining about JIT too, as it has been as complicit as HBR here, but there we are. From yesterday’s paper:

“Alas, pursuit of maximum efficiency — just-in-time manufacturing, supply chains and deployment of personnel — has become the norm across the private and increasingly the public sector. Take healthcare. “What we’ve seen is that the over-efficient management of the NHS meant that [for] just-in-case [scenarios], we were in deep trouble,” Ms Heffernan told a recent discussion organised by the consultancy Jericho Chambers. “There was no margin for error.”—Andrew Hill, ‘Covid-19 lays bare managers’ efficiency obsession’, Financial Times, 20 April 2020

Roger Martin’s forthcoming book, When More is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency’ (intriguing with Slowdown in mind) apparently describes the value of slack in the system (not that Slack): “there is always an optimal level of slack for any business system — and that level is not zero. Slack is a manifestation of friction — of the sort that in the right amounts contributes to greater resilience”. That ‘slack’ is the good inefficiency I described earlier, the meaningful positive friction at the heart of the public life in a good city, a meaningful place, practiced craft, a product defined by something other than a quick profit.

My point in mentioning Japanese furniture, Swedish knives, and Finnish glassware is not to say that we need these things specifically or even that everywhere needs subtle variations on them. Rather, it is that we need to shift the dynamics of consumerism in order to allow for a Slowdown-pattern of productive places, providing greater sense of purpose, employment, wellbeing, accessibility, and value for all people everywhere, and that products can be sustainable, resilient, durable, high-quality, and affordable when imagined within a different, slower, and more considered sense of time. Doing that, unlocks an entirely different economic geography, producing a more resilient culture and politics that is far more attuned to facing 21st-century challenges on their own terms.

Dorling’s ‘Slowdown’ also describes eco-tourism as a clear possibility for these dispersed towns and villages. That may be so, as long as the emphasis is on the “eco-”, there. The virus has quickly revealed the extent to which places like Venice were suffering via tourism, with aspects of the Venetian environment rapidly regenerating before our eyes, in inverse proportion to the tourists, enabling a kind of A/B test on our way of life. With that caveat on “eco-”, and thus a slowing down of the numbers themselves, the environment can be restored with a form of tourism continuing.

Leaving aside the question of just how much eco-tourism a country can support, we can see the issue with leaning on tourism too much right now, with the virus killing tourism effectively overnight. A more diverse economy and culture — production and consumption, young and old, local and global — ensures that towns like Mora, Fiskars and Minami-Oguni do not tend towards Venice, but have a resilience that can bend in a storm, ensuring stability over time.

The eponymous companies in these towns, and increasing numbers like them, present another possibility to eco-tourism: working with practiced craft, natural materials, and high-tech, deeply rooted in the slowness of place, with its meaningful cultural identities, connected to global markets via digital networks and low-impact logistics, with the increased localisation of production making zero-carbon regional logistics connecting to lower-speed local networks more viable than costly aviation.

When we were living in Helsinki in 2011, we visited Fiskars for its Slow Food Festival, and you can see how well the village lends itself to this kind of activity. Yet there are many small towns like this in the region, each of whom could conceivably carry a slow food festival. What makes Fiskars interesting, memorable and distinctive as a place are the factories, the copper smithy, the mills — their history, and their future—and the people that work in them, the things they make. (Though the food was good.)

A visit to the Fiskars Slow Food Festival in 2011

The challenge for towns like Fiskars is to plot this course between the relatively easy pickings — when times are good — of eco-tourism, with the social and technical infrastructure required to support today’s and tomorrow’s industries and agriculture.

“Fiskars is a model for how crafts can revive and variegate an entire local community. Today, Fiskars’ best products share a sense of place, authenticity and integrity. But the village’s unique potential lies in the next step: could the village become a new kind of factory? How could a network of different, expert workshops function together as a kind of diffused factory? What industries are missing in Fiskars? For example, there is a lack of upholsterers, plywood steamers and CNC specialists, leatherworkers or metalsmiths. To become a proper and sustainable manufacturing village, a greater variety of workshops and skills need to be introduced. Of course, they would need to work together — rather than compete with each other.” — Anniina Koivu, curator, Factory exhibition, Fiskars Art & Design Biennale 2019

These are good questions, and indicate the local and regional support required to ensure places continue to slowly thrive—yet it would not take too much to realise this vision, simply a rebalancing of the narrative. That, in turn, enables policy support for various forms of infrastructure, with social and cultural being amongst the most important, as well technical.

Crucially, the often hidden, less glamorous networks that support the likes of Fiskars or Iittala are fundamental. Not simply the infrastructure of everyday life, from bus drivers to school teachers, that make places work, but also specifically the small parts manufacturers that can quickly prototype new components, the lumber providers that enable the Fablab, the toolmakers to make new tools, the local networks of seamstresses that can find new ways to sew apparel, accountants that speak your language—these are the engine beneath the gleaming bodywork of Asket or Artek.

Gort Scott’s research into the ‘backsides’ of London’s high street reveals these local supply chain networks

Understanding and reinforcing these sometimes hidden local networks and supply chains is just as fundamental as valorising the finished product and service, and yet they often sit quite outside the existing logic of globalised supply chains, scaling production and consumption across multiple territories, and even the European single market. Put simply, the logic of the latter is that you’re not supposed to value the local; only the European scale.

Sometimes, however, it is just that policy makers and decision-makers are simply not looking for new models. Too often, the policy work that ought to address these issues has only a few dominant narratives to hand—usually, scaling, startups, and services—and is performed in environments that will not support the generation of alternatives. Its milieu is stuffy windowless rooms populated by homogenous thinkers, sitting in the cabinet offices of parliaments based in capital cities looking at a startlingly narrow set of data and forms of knowledge. Few alternative patterns will emerge from that. (The theme of these Slowdown Papers is to carefully observe and examine signals, and tentatively start weaving patterns together, without necessarily having an idea of what the entire tapestry will look like—but in the spirit of generating some alternative ways of thinking and doing, at least.)

Cities will continue to be attractive, with the history of humanity essentially a slow drift in that direction. And indeed many cities are also maintaining, rediscovering and developing the forms of design-led manufacturing described above—the EU-funded Cities of Making project is a great resource, including this wonderful set of design patterns for spaces and resources required for urban manufacturing.

Set of design patterns from Cities of Making project

This includes cities like London, long-thought to be propped up solely by the service sector (see this interview with Kayment’s Mark Brearley, who notes the value in the sector, but also the need for active support, given the huge loss of London workspaces to residential property development sector—London lost 17% of its studio space in the last three years, for example. (See also Røde in Sydney, who I wrote about back in 2008, for a suburban manufacturing story. Over the years, I’ve done a fair amount of work in this urban making and manufacturing area, in Manchester, Sheffield, Melbourne, Brisbane, and others. I’ll write all that up one day.)

Yet cities could do with a little steam taken out of them. The declining population growth that Dorling describes may do just that, undercutting the constant growth model underpinning recent urban development, even in cities like London.

Charts from Danny Dorling’s ‘Slowdown’ (2020), indicating deceleration and decline of population globally, in India, and in Japan

Deflating the property sector would help preserve space for more diverse forms of value, and closing the loop around production and consumption would prevent cities simply outsourcing high-carbon industry outside of its boundaries, whilst maintaining the consumption (which is rarely counted in CO2 accounts for cities). Either way, cities need to build more positive relationships with the regions they are actually dependent upon, whether for food systems, employees, or natural resources.

“Slowdown does not require a significant move of younger people to the countryside. It requires the countryside to stabilize, for its population pyramid to stop becoming ever more top heavy, ever older.” — Danny Dorling, Slowdown

Zooming out, imagine this polka dot pattern at the scale of the country, the countryside studded with small towns with big ideas. Some of these places have been ‘ABC towns’ for centuries; others could be, thanks to contemporary tech, changing cultural attitudes, and the more supportive dynamics of the Slowdown. Pursuing these ideas a little more rigorously would add valuable ‘presence of place’ to the otherwise abstract ‘Industry 4.0’-fuelled rhetoric dominating industrial strategies, which tend to be pursued independently of municipal and regional social, cultural and economic development strategies. It would enable a far more open, diverse, and culturally-rich version of the EU’s smart specialisation’ strategy, losing the whiff of ‘scalable innovation’ nonsense whilst retaining its welcome focus on place.

As the economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have shown, again running against the old dominant narrative of a footloose and mobile working population constantly relocated across a ‘flat world’, most people tend to have a strong relationship with place. They stay in the communities in which they were born, at least when they can, meaning that in-country migration is generally quite low. It is a kind of ‘stickiness’ holds for so-called ‘developed economies’ such as the USA, for Michigan as much as Mexico in Banerjee and Duflo’s example. This utterly undercuts the foundations that populists from Trump to Johnson to National Front have built platforms upon:

“There is simply no evidence the hordes are waiting for a chance to descend on the shores of the United States (or the United Kingdom or France) and need to be kept out by force (or a wall). The fact is that unless there is a disaster pushing them out, most poor people prefer to stay home. They simply aren’t knocking on our door; they prefer their own countries. They don’t even necessarily want to move as far as their local capital city. People in rich countries find this so counterintuitive that they refuse to believe it, even when faced with the facts.” — Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’ (2019) (my emphasis)

(Ironically enough, at the time of writing at least, when facing the pandemic-form of disaster, Greeks, for instance, would be way better off staying in Greece than heading for the suffering United States, United Kingdom, or France.)

Whether this is because they want to stay there, or that the friction of moving has become so high, is a complex stew of factors, unpicked in the first chapters of Banerjee and Duflo’s ‘Good Economics for Hard Times’. Either way, such factors are rarely part of coherent strategies.

“Businesses shut down in Boise and show up in booming Seattle, but the workers who lost their jobs cannot afford to move to Seattle. Nor do they want to anyway, since so much of what they value—their friends and families, their memories and their loyalties—will have to stay behind. But as the good jobs vanish and the local economy goes into a tailspin, the choices look more and more dire and anger mounts.” — Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, ‘Good Economics for Hard Times(2019)

Cultural aside: an extremely evocative articulation of these tensions is played out in the key American sitcoms of the last decade, particularly The Office (2005–13), where the ‘Jim-Pam’ relationship essentially pivots on the questions of moving from emotionally-resonant small town (Scranton, Pennsylvania) to the big city (variously, Philly, Austin, New York). To some extent Parks & Recreation (2009–15), by the same writers, also endlessly plays on the insecurities and foibles of small-town America. In this, these shows are markedly different to their counterparts of a decade previously, such as Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Frasier, Curb…, which barely stray outside their Los Angeles, Seattle or New York-oriented views of the world. Conversely, in The Office, New York and Philly are used simply as the bait for the question of ‘should we stay or should we go’ from Scranton, PA. The shift from ‘small-town shows’ to ‘big city shows’ back to ‘small-town shows’ might be tracing the same patterns as Banerjee, Duflo, and Dorling. With fewer graphs.

From a national or regional perspective, it would make sense to both enable movement (by reducing the cost of real estate by taking the steam out of speculation; by raising the bar in terms of public transport, infrastructure and environment; by focusing on childcare support; education and training; amongst other ‘essentials’) and to support the resilience of multiple places distributed across the country. Otherwise, the lack of ability to move, and a populist campaign against immigration (which Duflo and Banerjee show is without any economic merit), means that some regions prosper through ‘spillovers’ entirely at the expense of others in the same country. This imbalance would be the opposite of the polka dot distribution.

Putting together Banerjee and Duflo’s ‘Good Economics …’ alongside Dorling’s ‘Slowdown’, and applying to design and architecture, strategy, and planning, we start detecting a different dynamic to the economy and culture, which suggests a different sense of place.

A key value to this differently patterned polka dot approach is that it could reverse the last century’s narrative of the countryside simply as a place to leave when you’re young, and perhaps retire to when you’re old. Instead, it becomes viable again, as a diverse place generating diverse ideas, diverse value. Would this even change the possibility of the toxic nationalist politics that are currently thriving in the gaps left by the lack of meaningful futures for these places? Perhaps the sense that these places are left behind disappears as soon as we unlock the ideas latent within them? And with it, perhaps a politics of disenfranchisement disappears too.

It’s hardly novel to eulogise about ventures such as those noted above, nor to make the case for regional distribution as well as urban growth. What is new is exploring these ideas during an unprecedented global lockdown, a Great Pause that may serve as an ellipsis, enabling us to mark a broader Slowdown and finally address the far bigger crisis of climate change. Further, it may also be new to develop new ways of exploring, with design-led approaches to working at all scales, dynamics, and types of experience simultaneously, and in terms of systems or, probably better, assemblages.

Playing out the Saarinen Principle under virus conditions and applying its spatial logic to the question of place across various scales, indicates how this national political distribution is indeed connected to the chair that you may well be reading this in, and the design of the immediate environment around you. The collision of life and work in the home, and how well that happens, can be unpicked as a thread and tugged on until you end up with an alternative narrative for the countryside, national politics, and the history and future of places.

Just as an architect has to think about the quality of the door handle and the house sitting in the urban plan simultaneously, zooming up and down between those scales, we would benefit from connecting our thinking about home-work spaces and situations and the distributions of regional economics and politics. The simple polka dot pattern used here is simply used to suggest the relationships between a dispersed distribution of home-work activities across many small spaces in a house, a similar pattern of distribution of such work and life across a city’s neighbourhoods rather than in a simplistic CBD, and the same form of distribution of productive towns across regions and nations. The decisions at one scale ripple through the other scales. It’s not a plan, or even a suggestion, but a way of thinking about connection, relationship, interdependence, and impact.

The doorhandle-city connection comes from this piece on design practice, in which I used a deliberately simple diagram to show how design at the scale of the citizen has to consider the impact at the scale of the city; and crucially, vice versa. This purposefully-simplistic diagram can be redrawn to capture the thought-processes, discussions, and dynamics around these polka dots and pandemics, settlement and slowdown.

Yes, that’s Sweden on the right

Inspired by the quiet care and craft of the componentry of the typical Helsinki street, I once wrote that the best way to design a city might be to start with the door handles and work your way up from there. Thinking about how all these various scales can be positively connected under Slowdown conditions, may also be the best way to design a nation.

In the next paper, the example of Tokyo as unlikely Slowdown City.

Slowdown Papers

This is the second batch of Slowdown Papers, a series of observations, reflections, and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus Covid–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020. All Slowdown Paper are collected here.

13: From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

14: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Home-Work-Farm

As Covid-19’s Great Pause forces a blurring of home, work, office, classroom, studio, and shop, we get a glimpse of the patterns, spaces, and rhythms of a deeper slowdown.

15: From Lockdown to Slowdown: House-Playground-Street

Circling around our homes and their environs due to coronavirus-induced loops, how do the patterns, edges, and dynamics of neighbourhoods change in the Slowdown?

16: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Neighbourhood-City-Country

The Slowdown brings the return of the ABC-City, neighbourhood markets, and greenness on the edge of town.

17: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Region-Country-Continent

The changing dynamics of a deeper ‘slowdown’, hinted at by the coronavirus-induced ‘pause’, could change the distribution and dynamics of production and consumption across city, region, and nation, with outcomes not only for sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing but also politics.

18: From Lockdown to Slowdown: Tokyo as Slowdown City

Polka dot city Tokyo as an exemplar of ‘Slowdown’ theory, as the world’s largest and smallest city, and as a case study for others post-COVID.


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