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Scarcity: a word that hangs over early twenty-first century society as both threat and reality. Scarcity: a condition that is shaping many of our environmental, economic and political futures. Scarcity: something we take for granted and therefore feel helpless in the face of. But what if scarcity is not inevitable? How then could we deal with it, how then could we design with it? 

There have been previous attempts to address scarcity. Forty years ago, the Club of Rome think-tank published The Limits to Growth. This report took a series of variables – food, non-renewable resources, population, pollution and so on – and mapped how they interacted over time. The authors predicted that if the global economy continued to grow as it had in the past, the world would reach its limits at a certain point. This conclusion was fiercely contested, but recent studies have shown its predictions to have been impressively accurate. Notwithstanding its pessimistic tone, The Limits to Growth attempted to account for many aspects of the modern economy and ecology. It had at its heart the most basic economic concept – scarcity – and for the first time prompted an interpretation of the complex nature of scarcity in relation to other systems. 

Forty years on and the issue of scarcity appears ever more relevant. The contemporary politics of austerity raise scarcity as a spectre, while rising inequalities draw attention to its realities. Environmental politics invoke the idea of planetary limits as a call to action. Assumptions about perpetual economic growth are being questioned as we confront the diminishing of resources and the degradation of the environment. 

Scarcity runs through all these debates; as a basic economic concept and as a practical reality, it touches us all one way or another. For designers, it affects the production of our environment and hence cuts to the core of contemporary practices in design and architecture. It is essential therefore to understand the historical and contemporary constitutions of scarcity in order to know how to work with it. It is equally important to find new readings of scarcity, readings that escape the dominant structures and processes that limit contemporary economic and social life. Scarcity is not going away, so we had better understand how it is created and what it means. 

In the most general terms, scarcity is understood as an insufficiency of supply: a lack. This essay takes “lack” as the working definition for scarcity, but challenges its neutral, uncontested status. Scarcity as simple, inevitable lack appears to shut down opportunities for design and life. But what if other readings of scarcity could offer productive opportunities, moving away from a negative and limiting conception? To find these other readings we have to understand that, far from being neutral, scarcity is designed. In turn architecture and design have to deal with these constructions of scarcity in order to know better how to design within the context of scarcity. Only then can the full implications and potential of design be explored.

To be so apparently affirmative about a term that has such bleak connotations probably appears counter-intuitive, even foolhardy. But a fresh understanding of scarcity allows one to imagine new possibilities, and with them new social formations.