The time in between Godelieve Spaas, Week 7

Proposition 2: Visible Hands

At the moment about 30 Commercial Economics students are doing an internship at my department at Avans University of Applied Sciences. The research group aims to investigate, design and co-create the economy of the future. This would be an economy that enabled well-being for all people in harmony with nature. We work together to investigate how entrepreneurs can find solutions to the difficulties that the coronavirus crisis brings with it and hope to find examples that will give us a glimpse into tomorrow's economy.

From Global to Local?

One of my students, Kevin de Waard heard about the acute shortage of ventilators from his brother who works in a hospital. He wants to look into whether crucial technology such as this could better be manufactured locally.

Last week he called me because he got stuck. He found out that life-saving equipment is often produced at assembly plants, companies that do nothing else but build machines from hundreds of different parts that come from manufacturing plants all over the world.

"This is a global problem," according to Professor Jaap Harlaar of TU Delft. "We depend on suppliers from across the world to supply the parts we need to produce this type of equipment."

Trump's demand to keep all U.S.-assembled ventilators in the U.S. could not be upheld for this very reason. After all, any country can refuse to supply one of the more than six hundred and fifty parts needed. Precisely because of this interdependence, no one has absolute power and the distribution of equipment must be negotiated on the basis of criteria other than market forces or obscure wartime laws alone.

Philips, which designs and manufactures ventilators, chose to cooperate with governments and fellow companies in Covid-19 times. Together they ensure that the ventilators are assembled in several places and then distributed to the countries that need them most. Problem solved, you might think, and Kevin can find a new topic.

Or maybe not.

Economic Ecosystems

Geert van Veer comes to mind. He founded de Herenboeren, a citizen’s initiative of alternative, sustainable farming cooperatives, and he believes that the resilience of economic systems increases as they become more complex, just like ecosystems. When the number of participants in a system increases, their interdependence grows as well, which makes the entire system stronger. The economy as an ecosystem…it is a nice starting point for the economy of the future.

Herenboeren Harvest. Photo by Marc Bolsius

The tricky thing about the assembly industry is that the designer retains exclusive rights to the blueprint. Effectively, this creates an uneven playing field which can tip the economic ecosystem off balance. The invisible hand cannot provide a solution now because during the coronavirus pandemic, the free market was unable to guarantee the fair distribution of face coverings and equipment that could save lives. Philips’ decision to work with others, however, was a solution.

Who Owns a Blueprint?

Atelier van Lieshout designed a build-it-yourself ambulatory building. The units are prefabricated so that you can construct your own building, expand it, or transform it whenever you like. It’s built to last and be rebuilt.

Atelier van Lieshout 1993

Atelier van Lieshout 1993

Jean Tinguely builds cool, playful mobile installations. His aim is to create a counterbalance to conventional, static art and the art world; he prioritizes play and experiment. He sees himself as a scout exploring the borders between art and life.

Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclograveur, 1960, Kunsthaus Zurich. Photo by Gert Jan van Rooij

Jean Tinguely, Le Cyclograveur, 1960, coll. Kunsthaus Zurich. Photo by Gert Jan van Rooij

Atelier van Lieshout and Jean Tinguely both make their blueprints public. Tinguely debunks the myth of the uniqueness of “the artist’s touch” and invites museum visitors to assemble his work. The concept behind de Herenboeren is similar: the members of a cooperative farm receive a blueprint they can follow to shape their food production.
What if Philips’ decision to share its blueprint with a couple of partners represents a first step on the road to an economic ecosystem in which designs and blueprints are made public or open source?

Perhaps we could all collaborate on manufacturing the economy together. Like the restaurants and cafes at Nieuwmarkt square in Amsterdam are doing: they want to share the rights to use the square for outdoor seating. Mayor Femke Halsema said in a television appearance that the Nieuwmarkt businesses wanted to set up a single distribution point and to share the waitstaff and the profits equally. This is their way of building a resilient, local economic ecosystem.

Through approaching the economy as an ecosystem we can explore the borders between the economy and life.

If everyone involved works to continually re-assemble the economy in new ways that can serve humanity and the earth, then the economy will revive, become mobile and, above all, resilient.

An Economy of Visible Hands

We should do away with the designer’s exclusive right to manufacture. I call for all the blueprints for everything that we as a society require to be healthy, safe, and happy, should be made public. So that our products and services can be assembled by many visible hands. Let’s play and experiment in a global ecosystem of parts that we use for local production, expansion, contraction, transformation, and distribution of what we need.

I propose that we also reject the uniformity of the economy. Let's design our own local economies and make the blueprints open source. Everyone can copy them, combine them, reject them, and change them as much as they want to make their own designs. This will create a landscape of many different, mutually dependent economic ecosystems that will keep each other in balance. The economy of visible hands, deliciously complex and massively resilient. I think Kevin can still add something to this topic.

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