On Thursday 23rd of May I ran an event aimed at engaging stakeholders in discussions around crisis cultures. The workshop was hosted at, and run in partnership with, Truth, a marketing strategy company interested in changing commercial narratives in times of crisis. It was attended by a range of people including academics from Royal Holloway, Oxford Brookes and LSE as well as by members of local councils, representatives from meanwhile use and property guardianship companies and architects/developers.
The day kicked off with talks from myself and from Mark Thorpe, Director of Commercial Development at Truth. I presented on the research behind my forthcoming book – Precarity Rebranded – discussing the seven ‘logics’ I see as key to the re-imagination of crisis in the post 2008 context: immersion, flexibility, inbetweeness, surprise, secrecy, the micro and the meantime. I examined how each of these logics reframes crisis conditions; opening up new ways of producing urban space and time, but also potentially normalizing and glamorizing the conditions of instability they emerged from. Mark spoke about some key changes in commercial narratives over the past decade, including an erosion of trust, the outsourcing of choice, a shift to ‘system 1’ decision making (i.e. gut feeling rather than rational deliberation), radical cynicism and radical uncertainty. He described an era in which companies have lost sight of what works and why to the extent where the core question becomes ‘how to make failure cheaper’ while experimenting.
The workshop participants each presented on a key term they deemed instrumental in their industries at the moment. These terms included: modular, micro, slack space, flexible, property guardianship, digital nomad and meanwhile. We used these terms to think about what the city might look like in years to come, focusing on the areas of welfare, housing, labour and culture.
The terms inspired conceptions of the city as a flexible configuration of mobile and modular components within which people would live and work in increasingly nomadic ways, facilitated by digital technologies. This was imagined as bringing positives in terms of sustainability and dynamism but also as leading to increasing precarity and senses of rootlessness. The future city was also envisaged as involving more shared spaces and centrally owned equipment that could be accessed by individuals and groups. Participants thought this could allow for creative collaborations, experimentation and greater senses of community but also potentially lead to further segregation if co-working and co-living spaces, and shared resources, only catered to a particular, middle class demographic. A move towards the micro was aligned with affordability and sustainability but also flagged as problematic for families and possibly damaging to mental health because of lack of personal space. In relation to labour, participants pictured an increased blurring of work and leisure time and an entrenchment of zero hour contracts and other flexible work arrangements as the norm. They saw this as leading to worsening inequality, enhancing a gulf between those in a position to benefit from this flexibility and those without those resources, who could be left living hand to mouth and unable to make long term plans. There were also worries that if welfare services followed the same logics of flexibility, the meantime, the micro etc. there could be a lack of provisioning for people with long term needs. As a group we discussed how the potential benefits of these new terms and narratives could only be realised if safety nets were in place to ensure security. For example, a universal basic income would reduce the risk of flexible and short term forms of work and a joined up, well-funded international welfare system could make living nomadically viable and enjoyable for more people.
I’d like to thank Truth and all the participants for making it a fascinating day and hope to be able to continue these discussions in the future.