Running Out of Steam

In 2016, I presented a paper “Running out of STE(A)M: A Critical Perspective on the Political Rhetoric of Innovation” at the Australian Architectural School Association (AASA) conference held at the University of Technology Sydney. The title for the event was “Project to practice: Innovating Architecture” and focused on two significant questions, where is architecture creating its future, and how is the sector shaping the policy and funding levers of tomorrow? My paper argued that state governments, in particular, the liberal Australian government, used innovation as a political tool and positions information and knowledge as sources of capital generation. While architects provide creativity and innovation, they cannot access the profits.

Information Vectors

The paper argued that there are assumptions and hidden strategies that lie in the use of innovation as an economic strategy that attempts to extract value from the control of information flow and how innovation provides corporations and institutions wealth from knowledge. The paper aimed to demonstrate that the paradigm of resource manipulation, where a perceived scarcity and market demand drives the price of natural materials, had been transferred onto the realm of data, information and knowledge, or as McKenzie Wark puts it, had created a “vectorization of information”^1.

This vectorization occurs through the placement of capitalist ideology, property ownership and the logic of market-based value extraction, onto an abundant resource. I was then, and am still now, critical of capitalism for its rampant demand for “growth” and “progress” which translates into often unethical exploitation of the biosphere for profit generation. I’m also critical of the unequal distribution of wealth capitalism has produced and its boom to bust cyclic nature that governments treat as a necessary evil.

Ideas Boom

The name “Running out of STE(A)M” was a response to the Australian government’s “Ideas Boom” policy that sought to increase Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in schools, aiming to establish innovation in the future. My main critique was in the loss of art as a necessary connection back to everyday life, and a counter to the observed trend of innovation for innovation’s sake within STEM. When art is compared within a framework of efficiency, productivity and return on investment, it simply cannot compete. The creative and cultural industry provided $86 billion in 2014 but only contributed 6.9% of the overall GDP (ABS); as a result, many Australian states cut arts funding. An economic lens applied to a critical cultural driver misses art’s role in society, to provide alternative means of understanding our world.

The only culture that the ideas boom referred to in 2016 was to tech startup and entrepreneurial culture, which I was also critical. The US has shown how vital tech innovation and startups can be in generating wealth, and how crucial entrepreneurial thinking is towards this. It is not surprising, therefore, that every government wants to replicate a version of Silicon Valley. This carbon copying of a unique industrial complex is problematic as beyond economic success the Silicon Valley model has shown to have issues with social elitism^2, sexism^3 and racism^4 in its drive to make the world “a better place”.

The promotion of startup culture and STEM in schools redistribute the pressures of business and drive for profit into an environment which should support free exploration and discovery. The promoted vision that entrepreneurs, startups and tech innovation can lead to fame and wealth a-la a Musk or Zuckerberg, should not be a driver of knowledge generation at the school level. Rather than conforming to an existing political and financial system, it should provide the foundation for its students to imagine something better in the future.

Designing Scarcity

The ideas around the paper referred heavily to Goodbun, Klein, Till and Rumpfhuber’s enlightening book “The Design of Scarcity” ^5 that describes how architects are complicit in maintaining scarcity within the capitalist system through desire, I thoroughly recommend it. Within the paper, I use the design of scarcity to argue that within an innovation framework of STEM the outcomes of architectural design and innovation become monetised by those with the means of capital accumulation, namely developers. Subsequently, decisions towards built outcomes align towards maximising return on investment and by those with the economic means of production. On large commercial projects, the architectural profession has found itself engaged in maximising gains through generating value in the building as a commodity. “Value Engineering” has become the driving parameter of spatial outcomes and the socially aligned profession of architecture, becomes subservient to corporations.

The paper concluded with some ways that architects could avoid being complicit in capitalism’s misfortunes. In summary, it looked at how architects could move towards socially concerned development, realign design focus away from buildings as commodities, and shift the mindset to celebrate the abundant rather than controlling scarcity. As Carlo Ratti and others have proposed architects should redirect their innovative energy towards developing an ecological view of buildings, its ambition should be to generate value through the processes and relations that come before and after a built outcome.

Social-Use Value

I proposed that new data technologies such as the Blockchain could provide ways to develop alternative sources of revenue through fostering community and social use-value. Although I cringe when I refer back to the paper and presentation for its limited understanding of the Blockchain, which I now understand in greater detail, I still hold by the claim, it could help circumnavigate markets monopolised and controlled by those acting as economic mediaries in the built environment.

In Jeremy Rifkin’s book Zero Marginal Cost Society ^6 he semi convincingly describes how abundance will soon become a condition due to innovation within our energy, communications and transport infrastructures. This abundance does not benefit from exclusive access and control, it wants to be shared, but this is a difficult financial relationship to convince architects. Professional practices are forced to protect their work and ideas in an economy that rely on property law and resource ownership. Ideas and knowledge are an abundant resource, but this energy is wasted within a system which values creativity so cheaply that it expects free entry into design competitions like it is a passionate hobby. Architects need to realise that a collective pooling of resources, knowledge and ideas will reciprocate input and ultimately benefit the built environment. The creation of an architectural commons, similar to open source projects or Wikipedia, could achieve this. Peer to peer collaboration and production, where sharing is the dominant mode of operation, has been shown to thrive on social benefit rather than wealth and can allocate resources based on need rather than under economic or managerial influence ^7. In an environment of sharing, value shifts towards the benefit of the community, rather than supply and demand.

Increased digital connectivity and an ethical tracking of people and things could provide evidence of action to environmental or humanitarian benefits. While this risks digital surveillance, it could help humans move away from an economic system which is unable to detect pricing impact beyond its immediate availability and current need. Sharing of architectural resources would not result in impoverished communism that forces equality onto a collective; it is what Michel Bauwen’s refers to as “Collective Individuality” where individual economic gain correlates to effort placed on a greater good.

Capitalism isn’t going anywhere soon, but that doesn’t mean architects have to settle for it. They should start to covertly explore alternatives, try and avoid the proprietary and profit-driven nature of markets forces and realign its energy towards the provision of a fair and just society with an abundance of fulfilling cultures.


Bauwens, M. (2005) The Political Economy of Peer Production M. Kroker & A. Kroker, eds. CTheory

Bauwens, M. (2005) The Political Economy of Peer Production. M. Kroker & A. Kroker, eds. CTheory

Goodbun, J. Klein, M. Till, Jeremy. & Rumpfhuber, A. (2013) The Design of Scarcity, Strelka Press: Moscow

Kosoff, M. (2016) Does Silicon Valley Have a Racism Problem? Vanity Fair.

Rifkin, J., (2014). The zero marginal cost society, New York, NY : Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Watson, R. (2016) In Silicon Valley, Young white males are stealing the future from everyone else.The Guardian

Wark, M. (2004) A Hacker Manifesto, Harvard University Press