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A losing game: harnessing failure

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From mass migration to climate change to the crisis of capitalism, engaging with failure could unveil a new global geography of value

Preceding the financial crisis of 2008, there was ample evidence of increased risk from the approval and repackaging of subprime loans – but the financial incentives to bundle and sell them overwhelmed the certain knowledge of their risk. And while the virtual apparatus that organised these sales was largely invisible, the effects were not virtual, minuscule or hidden. Houses, commercial buildings and neighbourhoods were visibly falling into ruin. Locally, the invisible force field of failure left behind dead malls, empty big-box stores and deserted suburbs. Globally, the buckshot was equally powerful, if harder to trace. The evening news turned the camera on abandoned homes as it reported increased foreclosure rates. But it stared anxiously at the same house while reporting that more of these houses – the customary barometer of economic health and job creation – needed to be built if the economy were to recover. Even as a surplus devalued the house in a market flooded with foreclosure, new housing starts were treated as a sign of economic confidence. At any one moment, economists and financiers regarded the new house as both a positive and negative economic indicator – an object simultaneously exacerbating and relieving the financial crisis. These assessments were regarded not as irrational or addled, but as cast-iron economic ‘science’. 

In the middle of the 20th century in the United States, highway legislation promoted traffic engineering, a practice of sizing roads according to statistics about volumes of cars. But it soon became apparent that there was a fallacy in traffic-engineering logic – when more lanes of traffic were added, they simply filled up with cars and increased congestion. Currently, driverless vehicles promise to provide a solution to traffic problems. These smart cars will optimise driving, by travelling in platoons. And, as is the case with the advent of any new technology, from railways, radio or cars to digital devices, this latest technology is treated as an ultimate and superior platform that should render all others obsolete. Now, it is not statistics but digital data that is treated as the only information of consequence. But, it has become abundantly clear that if driverless cars become the next privately owned car, and if they are used instead of public transport systems, they will recreate new forms of traffic congestion – a smart vehicle in a dumb traffic jam. 

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Dockless bicycle parking in Xiamen, China. Keller Easterling harnessing failure

The growth in dockless bicycle parking outpaced demand and created more problems than it solved, generating enormous bicycle graveyards such as this one in Xiamen, China. Photograph courtesy of VCG / Getty images

While global warming is increasingly self-evident and measurable, it continues to attract naysayers. Typhoons, hurricanes and wildfires have given the world a dramatic preview of some evitable and lethal effects as scientists report that greenhouse gas emissions are accelerating like a ‘speeding freight train’. But President Trump and the US government nevertheless defy global attempts to alleviate the situation. Trump’s sentiments echo those of James Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, who has long led a dogged campaign to convince the world that climate change is a hoax. According to Inhofe, this hoax has been designed to ‘satisfy the ever-growing demand of environmental groups for money and power and other extremists who simply don’t like capitalism, free markets, and freedom’. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico scrambled for a year to restore electricity, but the only work sanctioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency was the repair of existing infrastructure, such as electrical poles that would be in danger of falling over again in a tropical storm.

Global infrastructure space has perfectly streamlined the movement of billions of products and tens of millions of tourists and cheap labourers. But at a time when over 65 million people in the world are displaced – more than at any other time in history – there is no way to move a few million people away from atrocities such as those in Syria. And there are still so few ways to handle political, economic or environmental migrations. The legal or logistical or spatial ingenuity applied to commercial movements is suddenly absent in these situations. The nation-state has a dumb on-off button to grant or deny citizenship/asylum. And the NGOcracy offers as its best idea storage in a refugee camp – a form of detention lasting, on average, 17 years.

‘Could design occupy itself with a matrix of problems – an ecology that rearranges and rematches their immanent potentials?’

In these spectacular failures, the organisations involved – whether they are construction companies, legislative bodies or financial institutions – prefer to overlook information that disrupts the status quo or the habitual solution. Financial rewards or other reinforcing group behaviour provide sufficient incentives to look the other way even in the face of the most transparent problems. Believing itself to be autonomous, the organisation even develops elaborate rituals to cover this denial – developing a story or argument to distract from potentially damning evidence. The most preposterous or impractical situations can survive. And from the echo chamber of corporate management to the self-congratulatory traditions of universities or political parties, these organisations may even behave as if they are superior or beyond reproach. In short, as the organisation rejects contradictory evidence and circulates more compatible or convenient evidence, it assumes the shape of a closed loop.

As these constructs and arguments become more entrenched, and as they clash with each other, they create their own weather and war apart from the weather and war they are intended to address. Humans battle over the superiority of their respective solutions. Now, not only are the solutions inadequate to address the problems, but the fight over the solutions compounds the problem by creating a political impasse against any action at all. Change can only occur through combat or collapse. Favouring successive rather than coexistent logics, one camp must kill the other, a new technology must make a previous technology obsolete, or a nation must reject the migrant as an invader. The clash of solutions makes it nearly impossible to address global warming, retool infrastructure networks or unseat an authoritarian power. And if the deadlock and denial become severe enough, an even more striking failure ensues, thereby assuring our histories, theories and religions that they were right all along to assume a teleological dramatic arc. Bring on the Accelerationist manifestos and cue the brooding music.

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Migrants landing on the beach in Kos Town. Keller Easterling harvesting failure

The evidence of migrants landing on the beach in Kos Town in Greece sits uncomfortably alongside luxury yachts and sunbathers. Photograph courtesy of Nick Upton / Alamy

Perhaps it is, then, not surprising that so many profound problems seem to be unresponsive to a solutionist approach. The very nature of a solution, standard or a masterplan that aspires to declare the end of a problem or to establish stability once and for all is very weak in the face of changing circumstances and duplicitous political actors. In other words, solutions can be mistakes. They are information poor.

Meanwhile the objects of failure can only be a sad embarrassment or something that is discarded, hidden or left behind. In the aftermath of an industrial retooling or financial crisis, shrinking cities or fields of industrial remainders are caught in a stalemate and only good for ruin porn. The failure of the migrations within a national logic of inclusion or exclusion leaves a trail of stranded individuals who can only be observed as victims. After a cataclysmic storm or wildfire, properties and utilities can only be restored to their previous inadequate state. Failure can have no utility.

But consider Parrondo’s paradox – a counterintuitive game theory positing that if you play a game with a low probability of winning, you will lose, but if you alternate between two games, each with a high probability of losing, you can begin to generate wins. The resulting graph of the wins resembles a ratchet, and the process may actually behave like a ratchet – as if the losses create a kind of traction against which to make many small gains that generate a win. 

When the failures are truly remarkable, the field of play that is often in denial of information is finally released from the grip of solutions and can become information rich again. As in Parrondo’s paradox, where losing games work together, failure inspires different organs of design that multiply rather than eliminate problems. It is not the solving or even the content of problems but the interplay between them that is most productive or robust. Problems from any quarter might leaven or catalyse each other. Similarly, maybe it is not the replacement and obsolescence of technology that is somehow smarter and more advanced: the idea of newness and succession may be quite dumb – rather it is the interplay between technologies that is smart. Not homeostasis but imbalance, not fixed pools of information but rather extrinsic information, contradiction and mixtures of information systems provide a wealth of potential to disrupt the closed loop. 

There may also be a political advantage to this multiplying of problems, this apparent abandonment of reason. It is akin to the old ruse of the briar patch in the sense that it welcomes the problems a political opponent offers as if they were raw materials. Devouring the toxins that are offered by an opponent defangs their powers. And it sidesteps the deadlocked fight along a path with few obstacles and many resources. Rather than engaging and fuelling that fight, the chemist of problems finds use in its by-products – in the detritus left on the field of combat. 

‘Devouring the toxins offered by an opponent defangs their powers’

While waiting for the apocalypse or the clean, modern, free future, might it be possible for design to occupy itself with a matrix of problems themselves – an ecology that rearranges and rematches their immanent potentials? Can a rust-belt city, a garbage gyre, a coal-mining town or any of their alarming consequences in the form of fires, hurricanes and thinning atmospheres enter into a new interdependency with each other? What does it mean to survey and scout a new ecology between components that are the very precipitates of our environmental crisis in a way that renders them a productive resource?

When shrinking cities in the United States such as Detroit, Flint or St Louis also experienced a financial crisis in 2008, the failure was so extreme the properties could no longer be mortgage products within economic constructs and, in abandonment, they returned to being physical land and building often gathered up in land banks. When the municipal leaders throw up their hands and say, ‘The financials just don’t work here’, that is the very moment the designer can roll up their sleeves and get to work. The prevailing cultural value given to properties through discrete ownership and management can then be converted to values that might relate to the condition of the building stock, accessibility to other urban offerings such as food and transport. The value is seen in relation to an interplay of urban parts. This value only becomes accessible in failure.

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Abandoned Detroit Keller Easterling harvesting failure

The subprime loan disaster of 2008 flooded the housing market in Detroit with properties blighted by foreclosure. Houses sank to as low as a few hundred dollars in price and many sat abandoned, reducing the city to images of ruin porn. Photograph courtesy of Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Frederick Law Olmsted wrote about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 in The Nation after visiting the city. Throughout the short text, he measured the space of the damage, the opening in development it created, the ways that locations previously separated by dense buildings were now available to each other, the distance from which dangerous heat could be felt, as well as the distance from the epicentre that people and objects were scattered in the aftermath. Studying fire presented the possibility of a new landscape with new separations, vantage points and visual corridors that would even help to prevent subsequent fires. 

The very windiness that threatens Puerto Rico is also a source of renewable energy. A field of wind turbines, most of which are designed to withstand a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, not only provides a more reliable, even uninterrupted source of energy, but also serves as a baffle to reduce damage from hurricane winds. Are there similar situations in which the most dire consequences of climate change might actually fuel the means to alleviate them if matched in the right interplay? And new technologies like those for renewable energy do not simply replace the previous technology but gain strength from interdependencies.

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Wind Turbine, Lincoln, Nebraska

A collapsed wind turbine in Lincoln, Nebraska. The same winds that wreak destruction across the globe are also a source of renewable energy from wind turbines, which can help protect against hurricanes and strong winds by acting as baffles

Global phenomena such as migration from conflict and changes in climate seem to be intractable problems with few resources. But in interplay, migrating individuals are themselves the resources that can engage in an interplay with other resources that the world regards as problems. The MANY platform, a project in development at Yale University, facilitates migration through an exchange of needs. It serves people who might say, ‘We don’t want your citizenship or your victimhood or your segregation or your bad jobs. We don’t want to stay’. Working around national obstructions, MANY reflects the persistence of resourceful people making secure group-to-group connections. Shorter project-based journeys that trade in non-market exchanges of time and training are generated and aggregated for global credentials. There are no haves and have-nots, and no solutions – only needs and problems to put together. MANY is a heavy information system that exists to build spatial networks and cosmopolitan mobility. Cities can bargain with their underexploited, even failed, space to attract a changing influx of talent and resources – matching their needs to the needs of mobile people to generate mutual benefits. 

The harnessing of failures of any kind might reveal an emergent global geography of value different from the mineral values that have driven human industry and capital. The Anthropocene is something like the epoch of a baby human that only knows how to point to things and call their name. Things like gold and silver are shiny. Other things can be beaten or burned up for fuel or shaped into property. 

A world beyond human sees things arrayed in more of a period chart, assessed not only as artefact with names but for their valence electrons or their reactivity with each other. In that world, problems are brimming with potential. It has geographies, dispositions and designs that, thanks to failure, often sit outside the bounds of capitals and nations with their wars and storybook histories. Constantly renewed, failure is a raw, limitless field of value.

Lead image: revealed by research conducted by Forensic Oceanography for the Death by Rescue report, on 8 February 2015 four boats carrying more than 400 migrants ran into trouble off the coast of Libya. While 86 people were saved by coastguards and passing merchant ships, it is estimated that more than 300 perished that day. Image courtesy of Forensic Oceanography. GIS analysis: Rossana Padeletti. Design: Samaneh Moafi

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today