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What’s Vital Now? What if….we turned on terms with RESOLVE collective

Posted on 21 July 2020

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What’s Vital Now? is an online series that will share voices from different communities, sectors and disciplines, on what we can do to create more inclusive and sustainable places that bring people together while responding to the needs and aspirations of our diverse communities.

By RESOLVE collective

It would not take an investigation into the public accountability of all the ‘People’s Republics’ in history to convincingly make the case that terms do not always bring the ‘termed’ into being. Demonstrably, the utility or importance of any term is not in the power to name things into existence. Rather, a term’s usefulness is in its capacity to change the efficacy of what is referred to by altering the affectivity of who is referring. Whether by invoking feelings of intuitiveness, belonging, abhorrence, or apathy, a term is it itself a function.

The histories inscribed into most terms and the vagaries of their modern social and political contexts make the act of consciously changing a term’s meaning or societal feelings towards them an often thankless task. Shared emotional responses to a term, for example Ruth Glass’ ‘gentrification’, are constructed along social and spatial fault lines such as race, class, gender and (perceived) ability and as such their deconstruction demands far more than just semiotic proficiency. Nevertheless, when sobering realities render us at odds with “what is” they should certainly not stop us from asking: “what if?”

In the built environment, two terms of particular interest to this question are ‘power’ and ‘responsibility’. What if these two terms were victims of a collective terminological shift in which a society’s feelings towards them changed? What if responsibility was operationally desired and not merely collateral? And what if power was valued not for its hierarchizing potential but as an unfortunate encumbrance? The effects are worth considering. Violent imbalances of power (from spatialised socio-economic inequities to the discriminatory policies that engender them) and uneven distributions of responsibility and accountability (such as the effects of socialised financial risk) are performed in both physical and psychological space. We carry perceptions of power and responsibility with us in our daily lives, ingesting and regurgitating patterns that affect us structurally on much smaller scales. The practice of socialising risk for example, demonstrated in the logic of economic bailouts of ‘too big to fail firms’, doesn’t only perpetuate wealth inequality but also works to ostensibly legitimise a desire for the dominance of this logic. Where power is attributed, it is accumulated [1] and value, through most conventional assessments, is assumed. Yet it is within this winner-takes-all landscape that an important assumption is also disassociated: that the powerful or the valuable are somehow responsible for and accountable to those from whom their power and value derives. This dissociation then sets in stone a modus operandi for irresponsible and unaccountable practices in those persons or organisations competing for power and value [2], creating, for those outside of this struggle, an accepted status quo at best and at worst an inert hopelessness .

Urban governance systems that value responsibility and endure power might be far less reluctant to rebuild economic strategies around maintenance and care rather than innovation and renewal because the latter processes are not assured in producing equitable and responsible systems [3]. So too, public health vectors might supplant measurements like GDP as a way of assessing societal growth because the conflation of value extraction with value creation [4] would no longer be desirable to those previously empowered by it. Perhaps even the electoral machine would no longer be the raison d’être of political discourse and its discontents when the main question is not of a return to power but an embrace of liability [5].

This provocation is not a roadmap. It is instead a moment to pause and consider the realities we accept and the acceptances that bind us. Tomorrow, we will most likely not see deep organisational and economic restructuring that supplants the ambit of power with the remit of responsibility. However, we can make immediate changes to our own personal practices and behaviours, changing the logics with which we build both spaces and organisations in order to reflect decided terminological shifts. And in doing so we could first witness within a group of collaborators, a project space, a supplementary planning document, what a “what if” looks and feels like when it is.

RESOLVE are Akil, Melissa & Seth, an interdisciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering, technology and art to address social challenges.

[1] See various literature on the “Matthew Effect” and “Superstar Effect”, such as Felix Koening’s ‘Technical Change and Superstar Effects: Evidence from the Rollout of Television’ (2020).

Peter Neary’s ‘Superstar Firms in the Global Economy’ and Bol, Vaan, & Rijt’s ‘The Matthew Effect in Science Funding’ (2018)

[2] See ‘How Superstars’ Pay Stifles Everyone Else’ (2010) in the New York Times and ‘Winner Takes It All: How Markets Favour the Few at the Expense of the Many’ (2018).

[3] For a greater insight into how frameworks of maintenance and care are operationalised, see Shannon Mattern’s ‘Maintenance and Care’ (2018) in Places Journal.

[4] For a more in depth analysis on the conflation of value extraction and value creation, see Mariana Mazzucato’s ‘The Value of Everything: Taking and Making in the Global Economy’ (2018).[5] For a more detailed distinction between the ‘electoral’ and ‘political’ machine, see Stuart Hall’s ‘The Crisis of Labourism’ (1984).

[5] For a more detailed distinction between the ‘electoral’ and ‘political’ machine, see Stuart Hall’s ‘The Crisis of Labourism’ (1984).