Design within and for “post-scarcity” — opening lecture

Zachary Kaiser
28 min readApr 27, 2021


This draft essay is an edited version of the opening remarks for a week-long workshop I facilitated on “design within and for post-scarcity” as part of MOTYF 2021. Thanks to all the workshop participants and thanks to Brian Lucid for inviting me. Thanks especially to students Helena Jabłonowska, Natalia Przybysz, Kinga Ostapkowicz, Evelina Buhakova, and Steven Bönnemann for their active participation and insightful comments.


“We design the world and the world designs us back.”
— Arturo Escobar

“Another possible is possible.”
— Arturo Escobar (inspired by the Zapatista slogan “Another world is possible.”)

Introduction and General Thesis

Below is the original abstract for this workshop, in which I am grateful to have your participation this week:

The Covid-19 pandemic and accelerating climate change have laid bare the horrifying nature of global capitalism. We have no choice but to imagine different socio-political-technical configurations — a massively complex endeavour. Many theorists who imagine a post-scarcity future rely on a false idea about the power of automation, the prominence of which belies other economic shifts. If “abundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed,” however, but instead a “social relationship,” what does a post-scarcity society actually look like? This workshop — a theory-driven seminar-studio hybrid — asks what a post-capitalist, post-scarcity society might look like, and how design is done in such a society. It will critically engage with ideas about automation and ask what design means when basic human needs are met, economic growth is no longer an imperative, and necessary labor is shared and not relegated to certain classes of society.

My interest in imagining what graphic design might look like in a society that is very different from our own (regardless of where in the world we come from at the moment, given the general hegemony of global capitalism) emerged out a question I have been asking for a long time as a teacher of graphic design. What is the future of the (graphic) design profession? What exactly am I preparing my students to do? And why?

I argue that the future of the (graphic) design profession is shaped by two forces: (1) the ongoing and disastrous quest for economic growth at all costs and (2) a decreasing demand for labor that has prompted a number of theories around the automation of the professions.

This workshop will use this thesis as a point of departure for imagining a very different kind of future than that which is suggested by those who believe naively that perpetual economic growth is possible and good, and by those who advocate for and believe in the automation of the professions.

A note on how designers think about the future

For a long time I have been very interested in artistic and design projects that speculate on the future. In the 2000s and early 2010s, I was, like many others, captivated by the burgeoning field of Speculative Design, and in particular its more dystopian flavors. As I began to realize, however, that the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed, I learned from folks like Ahmed Ansari that the kinds of futures on which SD practitioners were speculating were actually being experienced by folks, primarily in the global South, who were ignored and/or erased by the eurocentrism of most SD projects and practitioners.

Not only is thinking about the future fraught with temporal and geopolitical asymmetries, but dystopia at this point feels somewhat cliché. When people working in Silicon Valley seem to believe that episodes of Black Mirror are a thing to be idolized instead of avoided, the value of dystopia as a deflective force from potential futures appears substantially weakened. There are important exceptions to this rule, and those exceptions generally emerge from a deep engagement with research and often utilize that specificity along with a more generous dose of ambiguity in order to develop sophisticated and complex narratives for their audiences to contemplate.

Generally speaking, art and design projects emerging from the academy — especially from the euro-American global north — about “the future” tend to focus on problems, and put forth a disproportionately small amount of “solutions” (though I hesitate to use this term). We can also look to recent academic monographs that analyze and critique various dimensions of our computationally-mediated present — these often have several chapters of critique and analysis, with any discussion of what is to be done confined to the concluding chapter (if that). This is admittedly something of a generalization, and again there are several important exceptions to this generalization, including the work of Afrofuturist writers and designers as well as academics such as Sasha Costanza-Chock and her new book Design Justice. I think it’s also important to point out that this is not to say that a detailed critique of our present moment is unwarranted. Instead, it is to suggest that the richness of this critique should help us develop some consensus and organizing around what is to be done, especially within the design disciplines. There have been some recent efforts towards developing a “concrete idea of a real alternative” (Benanav, p.81), but these tend to come from outside the design disciplines (e.g., Erik Olin Wright’s How to Be an Anticapitalist in the 21st Century). Designers, however, are the people who attach images to ideas, who develop the symbolic systems through which individuals and communities identify themselves and communicate. A “concrete idea of a real alternative” must flow through design.

Automation is not the answer, nor is it the cause

Do you think your work as graphic designers will end up, in some ways at least, being automated in the near future? Adobe’s research teams have consistently worked to automate and deploy in their software various tasks that once fell under the purview of the human designer’s hand (e.g., Bezier curve correction and background replacement/adjustment). Indeed, its highly-touted Sensei platform leverages analytics to create new web experiences for different audience segments of a given product or service, as well as cropping photos and rewriting copy. In light of the advances made by ML/AI researchers working to varying degrees in the spaces in which “graphic designers” might be said to sell their labor, I begin to fear for my students’ future livelihoods.

My interest in the relationship between automation and graphic design eventually became the basis for an article for Design and Culture, called “Creativity as Computation: Teaching Design in the Age of Automation.” When I wrote this article, however, I was not familiar with an economic historian named Aaron Benanav, whose work — in particular his new book Automation and the Future of Work — is one of the animating forces of this workshop.[1]

Benanav’s book is devoted to upending the prediction — coming from both utopian and dystopian angles — that most, if not all, labor will be automated. Both the aspirations towards full automation as well as the anxieties accompanying it, he argues, are misguided and inaccurate readings of recent economic history. The cause for job loss in industrial sectors, he argues, is not automation, but rather intentional mass deindustrialization facilitated by nation-states and incentivized by finance capital, an overall increase in productivity per worker, and a resulting decreasing demand for labor, with a shift towards systemic and large-scale underemployment especially as industrial labor shifts to the service sector. There has been nothing, he argues, to replace industrial production, as a growth engine for economies across the globe.

Indeed, in my D&C article, like critics and evangelists of automation alike, I took the automation of graphic design as a given. Instead of questioning that assumption, I looked at its potential consequences and how we might resist those consequences. But perhaps, as I learned from Benanav’s writing, this seeming inevitability was not so inevitable after all.

Benanav’s work is an insightful foil to the assumption that professions will succumb to automation, but it is also a warning. When nothing can replace industrial production as a growth engine, yet nations do not see continued industrialization as being viable, whether because of oversupply, a lack of demand, the potential for environmental damage, or the relative cheapness of labor and materials in other countries, income inequality becomes massively amplified and jobs transition to the relatively slim margins of the service sector, in which work becomes increasingly competitive and precarious. We have seen this happen with transportation (e.g., Uber), food delivery (e.g., Deliveroo), and many other lower-waged domains, but it has also happened in more traditionally “white collar” professions. This trend is likely to continue. In this sense, the automation of design will not destroy our jobs — instead it will happen from the inside and from above, from on-demand freelance services, coordinated through platforms not unlike Uber or TaskRabbit.

A not-so-shiny new future

“Who shall be Artists and who shall be Servants in the world to come? Or shall we all be artists and all serve?”
— W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater (1920)

“[A]bundance is not a technological threshold to be crossed. Instead, abundance is a social relationship.”
— Aaron Benanav, Automation and the Future of Work (2020)

The last chapter of Benanav’s book is devoted to exploring some of the implications of his analysis, making some suggestions about what the future of “labor” might hold in the face of decreasing or stalled economic growth and the dimming promise of automation discourses. The sketch he offers is compelling and I will offer a brief overview of it below. He defines the contours of a post-scarcity future along two axes: the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom.

Reconstructing the realm of necessity

By “reconstructing the realm of necessity,” Benanv suggests that we need to rethink that which is “necessary” and who is responsible for this necessary work. He argues that several key ingredients are needed to achieve a reconstructing of necessity that aligns with a post-scarcity framework:

  • Sharing of necessary labor, including dissolving the differences between waged and unwaged (hidden/domestic) work.
  • Deciding democratically what is socially necessary
  • Dividing according to aptitudes and proclivities, such that division of labor “neither leaves important tasks undone, nor reproduces an elite class of technicians”
  • More people participate in necessary work so that the amount any individual has to do is reduced
  • Workweek reduced to as few hours as possible, perhaps under ten
  • Reconceive of the relationships between production and consumption such that one is not divorced from the other, nor obscured by it.
  • Overcome the mentality of scarcity. This is different than “luxury communism,” in that, as the epigraph to this section states, “abundance is a social relationship” and not a “technological threshold to be crossed.” In other words, the title of this workshop is something of a red herring. Resources will always be “scarce” in the sense that there’s a limited amount of freshwater on this planet, a limited amount of bauxite or columbite-tantalite. “Post-scarcity” is, then, a mindset cultivated by a practice.
  • Solving (in communally autonomous ways) the general issues posed within the socialist calculation debate via technological interventions that eschew their capitalist origins. This requires using some technologies to coordinate a community/state’s needs and activities through the design of algorithms, protocols, and democratic processes for designing, auditing, and changing them.

The future of free time

The second dimension of Benanav’s brief sketch of a post-scarcity future addresses the shape of “freedom” and “free time.” There are a few key aspects of the reorganization of social life that he suggests is possible:

  • Reconstructing the realm of necessity leads to increased social solidarity, which leads to the expansion and equitable sharing of the realm of freedom
  • In redefining abundance for ourselves, and in reimagining the realm of necessity, we would achieve through a “collective social project what the automation theorists hope to achieve technologically.” In other words, we don’t need everything to be automated to enjoy what they say would happen if it were.
  • “The reorganization of social life to reduce the role of necessary labor is not, therefore about overcoming work as such; it is about freeing people to pursue activities that cannot be described simply as either work or leisure.” (p.91)
  • How will resources be allocated to these pursuits? Through democratic decision-making, voluntary participation in associations and federations of those associations.
  • Dynamism and innovation would primarily come through these pursuits as opposed to within the realm of necessity. People would be free to pursue their interests, especially as members/participants in voluntary groups and associations, through which tools and knowledge would be shared and resources allocated, and these pursuits would lead to new innovations both within and across sectors of the society.

Degrowth, the Pluriverse, and Conviviality

“How can a civilization that takes pride in its rationality rest on the mad idea of an infinitely large economy?”
— Kallis et. al. The Case for Degrowth (2020)

“Why do the masses fight for their servitude as if it were salvation?”
— Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise (1670)

While Benanav sketches the contours of, and perhaps gives us a heuristic for, what “post-scarcity” or socialism might look like at the local/community level, the broader picture of the state-level and geopolitical situation in which we might make some of these changes remains fuzzy. Some additional examination of the problems that proponents of automation suggest it will solve can illuminate the bigger picture and bolster the societal heuristic that Benanav begins to outline. One of the important analytical frameworks for this will be the concept of Degrowth.

While it might seem self-explanatory that the dominance of the current global economic system has been predicated on the exploitation and immiseration of humans and non-humans alike, a specific analysis geared towards its key underlying assumption will help contextualize the value of the heuristic Benanav sets out. The key assumption — the dominant “common sense” — underlying global capitalist hegemony is that perpetual economic growth is natural and humans are innately driven towards economic and material expansion. But there is, in fact, nothing natural about perpetual growth (Kallis, et. al. 2020).[2] Growth, and its colonialist geopolitical/ideological corollary “development,” are tautologies that must be undermined (see, e.g., Shiva 1993 and Ferguson 1994).

“Common senses often work to protect the status quo by making business-as-usual appear natural and logical” (Kallis et. al., p. 14). Today’s “common sense” about economics suggests not only that perpetual compound economic growth is possible but that it is also desirable. Degrowth theories demonstrate not only that continued economic growth is environmentally, technologically, and politically impossible, but that continued economic growth is undesirable no matter what. Indeed, a study of recent economic history since the 1980s in “developed” countries such as the US and UK demonstrates that in spite of massive increases in GDP, especially over the last few decades, the benefits of these increases have accrued almost exclusively to the wealthy, leaving most individuals’ economic well-being stagnant at best, and in most cases, on the decline. “Political debate,” wrote Ivan Illich in 1973, “must now be focused on the various ways in which unlimited production threatens human life” (p.47).

Indeed, Kallis et. al. ask us “how has it come to make sense that everyone can find satisfaction by ‘getting ahead’?” (p.15, emphasis theirs). Indeed, writes Ivan Illich “Our imaginations have been industrially deformed to conceive only what can be molded into an engineered system of social habits that fit the logic of large-scale production” (p. 15). This dominant imagination today is the individualist imagination. The individualist and hypercompetitive system that produces this deformation of imagination ensures that we pursue, in the famous phrasing of sociologist Ulrich Beck, “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions” in spite of the fact that “empowering individuals is rarely transformative without attending to the sociocultural systems through which identities, relationships, and worldviews are (re)produced.” (Kallis, et. al. 2020, p.22). And yet, “as individuals become detached from the daily joys and struggles of common living, the conviviality of breaking bread, of collaborative care for home and each other, they become more vulnerable to promises of pleasure, meaning and identity through consumption and competitive display of wealth.” (Kallis, et. al. 2020, p.23)

The deprivation of imagination is done by design. Cameron Tonkinwise compellingly argues that design is inherently a destructive act, curtailing the experience of both designs past as well as possible futures. He writes that, “though designing is cast as a creative practice, materializing preferable ways of being, it does so only by destroying current products, habits and values.” So, while designers always make futures, they simultaneously destroy both present(s) and possible alternative futures through the decisions made within the design process.

The “innovations” foisted upon us by the technocratic elite and globalized through neoliberal governmental practices and multinational corporate intervention are the “infrastructures, practices and expectations” which “appear to us as ‘modern,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘future-oriented.’ These characterizations make them difficult to criticize, and cast actions that seek to destroy them as extremist.” (Tonkinwise 2017) These things appear to us this way because of design.

Tonkinwise again:

“… we need to displace all such instances in order to destroy the belief that ‘there is no alternative’ (Margarte Thatcher’s famous neoliberalist slogan). These lifestyles are hegemonically entrenched by manifesting as the most (technologically) advanced ways of being. Their slickly designed currency moves them from an is to ought, from what just happens to be the current manifestation of unsustainable capitalism to the best of all possible manifestations of technoscientifically supported freedom… This means that the change effected by acts of creatively destructive design cannot in turn be cast as ‘progress.’ To do so might succeed in displacing the present with something more preferable, but the governing ideal of progress will not have been destroyed.”

The deprivation of imagination that happens by design is what Vandana Shiva (1993), in analyzing the deleterious effects of biotechnologies in agriculture, especially the way they eliminate biodiversity and foreclose alternatives through their ideological appeals to technological innovation, describes as a “monoculture of the mind.” Indeed, agriculture — and the multinational corporations controlling it — is one of the key domains within which the hegemonic capitalist and competitive growth-oriented “common sense” has exerted extraordinary colonial power, inducing the exploitation of billions of people through collusion with international governing bodies such as the IMF and UN.

In his highly influential book Tools for Conviviality (1973), Ivan Illich writes that, just like with agriculture, the tools of our society reflect and subsequently shape the deformed cultural imaginary that is obsessed with individualism, competition, and perpetual growth. He writes of the constrained and atrophied contemporary imagination that “progressive homogenization of personalities and personal relationships cannot be stemmed without a retooling of society.” Our imaginations are impoverished by design. “To recognize the nature of desirable limits to specialization and output, we must focus our attention on the industrially determined shape of our expectations.” (p. 20, emphasis mine)

Illich argues that in a society such as ours, obsessed with productivity and efficiency in the service of infinite growth, means become ends and tools become purposes. By “tools,” Illich writes that he means “all rationally designed devices, be they artifacts or rules, codes or operators,” such as computers, highway networks, motors, drills, productive institutions such as schools, factories, and hospitals.

In his conception, tools, broadly understood, reach thresholds beyond which they become irredeemably damaging to people and the environment. This begins in the colonial era, gains force with the Industrial Revolution, and completely restructures society yielding the individualist, growth-hungry, hypercompetitive and ultimately destructive society we live in now. “Many technologies or ‘tools’ based on specialized knowledge, such as medicine, energy, and education, surpassed their thresholds sometime in the early to mid-twentieth century. Once these thresholds were passed, the technologies become not only profoundly destructive in material and cultural terms but fatally disabling of personal and collective autonomy,” writes Arturo Escobar of Illich’s work. Illich believes, not necessarily unlike Marx before him, that “machines enslave men.” (p.10). But this is not to say technology itself is the problem — it is the societal values within which the technology is developed, which itself then comes to shape those very values.

Without saying more here, it should be obvious the damage that this prevailing “common sense” and its attendant institutions and technologies have wrought — damage borne unevenly across peoples, cultures, and the non-humans with which they are interwoven in environments that are coming apart at the seams. Kallis, et. al., however, do a nice job of correlating this violence with the perpetual growth machine and its accompanying cultural imaginary:

Growth has been enabled by hierarchical sociocultural systems that support unequal exchanges of labor and other resources between people, between countries, and between humans and their natural environments. Gendered expectations have interacted with evolving racial, class, and colonial hierarchies to minimize the costs of producing, sustaining, and exploiting humans. The sacrifice of diverse preexisting identities and relations leaves deeply felt legacies. (p.41)

Wrapping a broader program around the heuristics that Benanav sketches out, scholars of degrowth call for halting the “growth of material use and market transactions” and instead building “institutions, relationships, and persons to live well without growth.”

Degrowth calls for slowing down in ways organized to minimize harm to other humans and non-humans. Degrowth seeks to liberate people’s time and energy to engage life journeys with patience, compassion, and care for self and others, rather than desperately working more and buying more to escape the pain, sadness, and frustration of finding meaning in the face of life’s vulnerabilities. Degrowth is not forced deprivation, but an aspiration to secure enough for everyone to live with dignity and without fear; to experience friendship, love, and health; to be able to give and receive care; and to enjoy leisure and nature. (Kallis et. al. 2020, p. 19)

Importantly, “Degrowth does not claim one unitary theory or plan of action,” while its ideals call for a shifting of “productivist ambitions and consumerist identities towards visions of good life characterized by thriving and conviviality among humans and ecosystems.” (Kallis et. al. 2020, p.19). How can these visions be constructed? Who is in a position to put forth these visions and how might they do so?

I think here it’s perhaps important to note that a society engaged in practices of degrowth is not necessarily a utopia. And neither is the socialism that Benanav sketches out. Part of the reason this is the case is because our lives will have to look quite different, and our entire outlook about what we are doing here on this planet, in this life, will have to change. This is what Arturo Escobar is talking about when he describes the project of ontological design.[3]

Ironically, of course, those in the global South who have been the most exploited and damaged by the patriarchal-capitalist-colonialist system probably have the most to teach us about what degrowth might look like. Tony Fry writes that “The world of the South has in large part been an ontological designing consequence of the Eurocentric world of the North” (2017, p.49).

And it is precisely these communities and their traditions, along with a handful of designers and scholars of design, on which Arturo Escobar draws in his books Designs for the Pluriverse and Pluriversal Politics to articulate his concepts of ontological designing for a transition towards just and equitable futures. We’ll return to the work of Escobar a couple times this week, but I’d like to plant some seeds here, so to speak, especially in the context of his interpretations of Ivan Illich.

Below, I will highlight some elements from Escobar and Illich’s work as a way of illuminating other aspects of the general heuristic that Benanav lays out. Other conversations this week will delve into certain aspects of their writings in additional detail, especially as we begin to consider what the production of material artifacts that manifest an alternative future might look like.

A not-so-shiny new future (revisited)

Core to both Escobar’s and Illich’s concepts of a good life, a convivial society, is the concept of autonomy. This autonomy operates at multiple levels — that of the individual, who can live and work with dignity, free to pursue their passions and interests, and that of the society, which determines through democratic political processes the nature of its tools.

Escobar argues for the design of new ways of living that align with ideas such as those proposed by the scholars of degrowth cited above. These ways of living will result in societies not of material excess but rather ones in which we “share more and lack less,” saying that “enough is enough,” and in which we “support modest living, enjoyed in solidarity, amid shared abundance” (Kallis, et. al. 2020, p.7). And, furthermore, these ways of living will draw on ancient, traditional, and decolonial ways of being and knowing that have been marginalized by patriarchal-colonialist capitalism, but that are significantly more germane to such a social project than the system under which we suffer today (see, again, Shiva 1993, for example).

Key to this project is a resistance to patriarchal culture and embrace of a matriarchal one. (p.12) Escobar writes that matristic thought acknowledges that “the basis of biological existence is the act of emotioning, and that social coexistence is based on love,” that “emotioning constitutes human history, not reason or the economy, because it is our desires that determine the kinds of worlds we create” (p.12, emphasis mine). In other words, we need to “transform our desires” and “change our conversations (Maturana and Verden-Zoller 1993, cited in Escobar, p.13). To me, design seems well suited for such a project.

Additionally, for Escobar, part of fulfilling the requirement of communal autonomy relies on a shift from “state-driven development based on imputed needs and market-based solutions” towards “ways of learning, healing, dwelling, producing, and so forth that are freer from” the domination of external forces. “This is crucial for design projects intended to strengthen autonomy.” Such autonomy and the design projects that might yield it require “organization, which tends to be horizontal in that power is not delegated, nor does it operate on the basis of representation; rather, it fosters alternative forms of power through types of autonomous organization such as communal assemblies and the rotation of obligations” (p.181). This echoes some of the ideas around necessary labor and free time put forth in Benanav’s writing above.

One way in which the project of autonomous communal design will be achieved is through the public and political control over tools and the institutions that govern and develop them. Illich warns us: “If tools are not controlled politically, they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster. Freedom and dignity will continue to dissolve into an unprecedented enslavement of man to his tools” (p.12).

Illich’s project is intended to help communities exert political control over their tools in order to enable convivial modes of living. He writes that the term “conviviality” is intended to be the opposite of “industrial productivity.”

I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment… I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. (p.11)

The goal of a convivial society is “the cultivation of a joyful and balanced renunciation of the growth logic and the collective acceptance of limits” (Escobar, p.9). The politics by which the limitation of the scope of tools would be determined rests, for Illich on three values: survival, justice, and self-defined work (p.13). Tools, in Illich’s view, would necessarily be limited, and radically different than what exist today, in part because their design criteria would also be fundamentally different. But while tools would be limited, but not limiting. Again, this echoes the calls for change from scholars of degrowth, who ask us to reconsider what “enough” and “abundance” actually are, and how those concepts are constructed for us in the first place.

Illich describes the difference between convivial tools and industrial tools as follows: “Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in a convivial fashion” (p.21).

Escobar emphasizes Illich’s words, writing “a plurality of limited tools and of convivial organizations would foster a diversity of modes of living that would acknowledge both memory and the inheritance from the past as creation” (emphasis Escobar’s). Then, he cites Illich at length:

Convivial reconstruction implies the dismantling of the current industrial monopoly, not the suppression of all industrial production. . . . A continuous process of convivial reconstruction is possible on the condition that society protects the power of persons and collectivities to change and renew their lifestyles, their tools, their environments; said otherwise, their power to give their reality a new face. . . . Placing limits on industrial production has for us the goal of liberating the future. . . . (p.10, emphasis mine)

Note the resonances here with the way that Benanav suggests innovation will likely come from the domain of “free time” rather than that of “necessity.”

Illich again:

The public ownership of resources and of the means of production, and public control over the market and over net transfers of power, must be complemented by a public determination of the tolerable basic structure of modern tools. This means that politics in a postindustrial society must be mainly concerned with the development of design criteria for tools rather than as now with the choice of production goals. (p.43)

Parallels: food sovereignty and tool sovereignty

“Relationships bring worlds into being; ontology is a political achievement.”
— Marisa Brandt, in “Zapatista corn: A case study in biocultural innovation” (2014)

One might frame Illich’s concept of technological autonomy as being enabled by practices of communal autonomy like those articulated by Escobar and bolstered by the suggestions of Benanav as a kind of “techno-social sovereignty,” or to put it in Illich’s parlance: tool sovereignty. This concept resonates deeply with work being done across the globe — and in particular in the Global South — on issues of food sovereignty and it is in these efforts that I see profound and important parallels from which designers might draw inspiration.

Marisa Brandt’s examination of the biocultural practices of the Zapatistas (2014) and Altieri and Toledo’s survey of agroecological innovation in Latin America (2011) provide, perhaps, an orienting framework for understanding the parallels between food sovereignty work and the kind of tool sovereignty that would emerge under post-scarcity as understood by Benanav and the theorists of degrowth, and towards which we can work right now.

In reading both these articles, I became fascinated with questions that revolved around replacing different agricultural terms with technological or design-related terms. I found that in thinking of food sovereignty work as a corollary for what we need to do to achieve the kind of societies imagined by Ivan Illich, the scholars of degrowth, by Escobar, Benanav, and many others, we might identify actions to be taken, moves to be made, in the fight to reclaim our political imaginary. In other words, agroecological and food sovereignty projects can again help enhance the robustness of the social design heuristic set forth by Benanav.

Marisa Brandt’s (2014) research chronicles the Zapatista response to the invasion of Mexican maize by genetically modified corn. This response, called the Mother Seeds project — a biocultural, political, technological, and semiotic one — included “a seed bank, a genetic testing program, and a seed distribution program.” (p.875) Brandt demonstrates how Zapatista corn is a “biocultural innovation” — a Zapatista technology, and with its circulation accompanies the circulation of the Zapatistas’ political ideology: communal autonomy and opposition to neoliberalism understood specifically as a “collaborative effort of multinational corporations and national governments to exploit indigenous people, steal their land, and in so doing push the commodification of traditionally nonmarket domains.” (p.875). Indeed, just like the technologies pushed on us by Silicon Valley’s technoutopian founders and VCs, “Agricultural biotechnologies like genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are often aligned with altruistic progress narratives” that themselves emerge from the neoliberal technocratic establishment. The Zapatista program is characterized by “strategic technology adoption mediated through contact with allies and solidarity organizations.”

Brandt writes:

The Zapatista corn project’s goal is not only to distribute indigenous Mexican products, but also to create new semiotic relationships for corn in ways that perform Zapatista political ideology. This entails creating ‘another world’ than that envisioned in what they see as neoliberal models of modernity… Mother Seeds should be understood as an alternative to modern purification projects: its goal is not to separate nature and culture, but rather to demonstrate how deeply imbricated they are — Zapatista corn performs the biocultural link between Zapatistas’ political project and their maize plants. By creating alternative networks for corn circulation, the project allows international recipients to participate in Zapatistas’ political bioculture, that is, to relate to seeds as potential food or plants that are deeply inflected with the values of promoting self-sufficiency and resisting governmental and economic dependence.6 Relationships bring worlds into being; ontology is a political achievement.

Altieri and Toledo’s survey (2011) of agroecological innovations in Latin America, meanwhile, illustrate the ways in which practices similar to those adopted by the Zapatistas permeate a number of cultures and geographic areas throughout the region. Additionally, their survey articulates key elements of agroecological programs that might help us develop design criteria by which we can judge the development of democratic and convivial technologies under a new political-economic (socialist/post-scarcity) regime.

Altieri and Toledo demonstrate how important diversity is to the resilience of agroecological systems, which, they argue, are comprised of both scientific and cultural practices. If efficiency is the enemy of resilience, diversity is its most staunch ally. Indeed, “sustainability and resilience are achieved by enhancing diversity and complexity of farming systems via polycultures, rotations, agroforestry, use of native seeds and local breeds of livestock, encouraging natural enemies of pests, and using composts and green manure to enhance soil organic matter thus improving soil biological activity and water retention capacity.” (p.588) Such language echoes how Illich writes about tools, and should also serve as inspiration for design and the development of tools. A radical plurality, a diversity of tools, technologies, technics, and institutions, will emerge from the autonomous democratic decision-making processes undertaken by communities.

Key to agroecological innovation is the contextually-appropriate nature of tools and technologies adopted, and this contextual appropriateness is geophysical and cultural: “The technological dimension of the agroecological revolution emerges from the fact that contrary to Green Revolution approaches that emphasized seed-chemical packages and ‘magic bullet’ recipes, agroecology works with principles that take multiple technological forms according to the local socio-economic needs of farmers and their biophysical circumstances.” (p. 598) Altieri and Toledo emphasize the idea that much of the agroecological innovation in Latin America is peasant-driven, citing the influential campesino-a-campesino (farmer-to-farmer) model of distribution and adoption of new agricultural innovations.

Altieri and Toledo could not be more clear about the benefits of using the development of agroecological innovation in Latin America as a blueprint for a more just and equitable world:

Rural social movements embrace the concept of food sovereignty as an alternative to the neoliberal approach that puts its faith in inequitable international trade to solve the world’s food problem. Instead, food sovereignty focuses on local autonomy, local markets, local production-consumption cycles, and farmer-to-farmer networks that promote agroecological innovations and ideas. Agroecology provides the principles for rural communities to reach food sovereignty but also energy and technological sovereignty within a context of resiliency (see Figure 5). By exploiting the environmental services derived from biodiverse agroecosystems and using locally available resources farmers are able to produce without external inputs; this may be termed technological sovereignty. The application of such autochthonous technologies to production systems allows for the production of crops and animals to satisfy household and community demands: food sovereignty. Energy sovereignty is the right for people inhabiting farms, cooperatives or rural communities to have access to sufficient energy within ecological limits from local and sustainable sources, such as plant biomass produced on farm, without sacrificing food crops. Agroecology provides the principles to design resilient agroecosystems capable of withstanding variations in climate, markets, etc., while ensuring the three broadly distinct but inter-linked sovereignties. (p. 607)

And in case the reader has any doubt as to whether agroecological and food sovereignty projects are indeed more of a model for us than anything proposed by Monsanto-Bayer and the like, “… agroecologists have shown that small family farms are much more productive than large farms if total output is considered rather than yield from a single crop (Rosset 1999, Via Campesina 2010).” (p. 594–5; see also Shiva 1993, p. 134)

In sum, the practices of the Zapatistas and the agroecological innovators across Latin America illustrate key design principles that augment the heuristics for a socialism (or a “post-scarcity” world) that this paper has thus far laid out:

  • An emphasis on resilience, diversity, and contextually-appropriate, place-based, indigenous knowledge; avoidance of dependence on external inputs.
  • Technological innovation as a semiotic and solidarity-building process.
  • The cultivation of an intentional — politically- and culturally-aligned — dialogue between “traditional knowledge” and other (perhaps western) scientific approaches.
  • Direct opposition to “silver bullet” technocratic cures that emerge from outside the community and the technological manifestation of this opposition.


To sum things up here is where I ask us to humbly begin.

  1. We assume that the dominant western, capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal ways of living, working, and being, are not only unsustainable but actively destroying any chance of a better life for humans and non-humans alike.
  2. We assume that the “answer” to this problem is not the automation of all “work,” because empirical evidence shows that automation does not have the power ascribed to it in popular and academic discourse.
  3. The answer is therefore a political and social one, and not a technocratic one. Changing our ways of living, being, working — a new ontological design is first and foremost about changing our values, our understandings of what “work” is, what is “necessary,” and how we arrive at these determinations in the first place. It requires a decentering of the individual and a recentering of the community, of relationships and of interdependence.
  4. Doing the above requires a renewed sense of imagination, one that reaches beyond the confines of its atrophied condition under the global hegemony of capitalism. This is a “design imagination that avoids the traps of capitalistic industrial instrumentation and goes beyond the ontology of separation that thrives on hierarchy, competition, aggression, and the control of humans and nature.” (Escobar, p.18)
  5. It is the goal of this workshop to help you begin to cultivate this kind of imagination. You do not need to find answers, you do not need to “solve” the problems that this lecture has laid out in front of us. That is the fallacy of individualism to which designers, like everyone else, have succumbed. I ask merely that you start. To try to imagine something different. If only briefly.


[1] It’s worth noting that I found out about Benanav’s book through a podcast called This Machine Kills, which is most certainly worth your while.

[2] Kallis et. al. distinguish between economic growth (basically GDP and related measures) and material growth, being the actual consumption of physical materials (trees, minerals, etc.) measured through material flows analyses and ecological footprints — but, crucially, they demonstrate the clear and link and impossibility of decoupling economic from material growth. This is important in an era where highly ideologically-charged “immaterial” and financialized systems seem to present the opportunity for infinite growth. Furthermore, they demonstrate that deindustrialized societies with more advanced information-communications technology sectors actually still have larger material footprints than “developing” countries with smaller ICT sectors.

[3] Fans of Science Fiction and the writings of Ursula K. Le Guin might find some echoes of the project of degrowth in the life of the anarchosyndicalists living on the moon of Anarres in her landmark novel The Dispossessed. The subtitle of the book is “An Ambiguous Utopia” — and it alludes to the fact that while those residents of Anarres have something of an ideal social arrangement, it is their mindset that allows them to see it as one of plenty, not because they actually have a great deal of material wealth. Indeed, Anarres is, for the most part, a barren land and the Odonians work hard for what little they do have. There are issues within their society, power grabs, dissidents — nothing is perfect. And yet the main character, Shevek, a highly regarded scientist, upon traveling to Urras, the patriarchal-capitalist planet of which Anarres is a moon, declares about the people on Urras: “You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison.” We’ll talk more about Le Guin later this week.


Altieri, Miguel A., and Victor Manuel Toledo. 2011. “The Agroecological Revolution in Latin America: Rescuing Nature, Ensuring Food Sovereignty and Empowering Peasants.” Journal of Peasant Studies 38 (3): 587–612.

Benanav, Aaron. 2020. Automation and the Future of Work.

Brandt, Marisa. 2014. “Zapatista Corn: A Case Study in Biocultural Innovation.” Social Studies of Science 44 (6): 874–900.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1999. Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. Dover Thrift Editions. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications.

Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. New Ecologies for the Twenty-First Century. Durham: Duke University Press.

— — — . 2020. Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible. Latin America in Translation. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ferguson, James. 1994. The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fry, Tony. 2017. “Design for/by ‘The Global South.’” Design Philosophy Papers 15 (1): 3–37.

Illich, Ivan. 1973. Tools for Conviviality. Open Forum. London: Calder and Boyars.

Kallis, Giorgos. 2020. The Case for Degrowth. The Case for Series. Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA: Polity Press.

Le Guin, Ursula K. 2011. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia ; [an Astonishing Tale of One Man’s Search for Utopia]. 1. Harper Voyager mass market print. New York, N.Y: Harper Voyager.

Shiva, Vandana. 1993. Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. London, UK ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J., USA : Penang, Malaysia: Zed Books ; Third World Network.

Tonkinwise, Cameron. 2017. “‘I prefer not to’: Anti-progressive designing.”



Zachary Kaiser

Artist, scholar, educator // Associate Professor of Graphic Design & Experience Architecture at Michigan State University // Opinions are mine.