Designing Scarcity

As I wrote in my previous blog, I try to comprehend what ‘frugal innovation’ exactly stands for. The meaning of ‘innovation’ was obvious to me, but the meaning of ‘frugal’ was a bit new (I only had a frugal foodie cookbook with ‘waste-not recipes for the wise cook’ in my bookcase left from my student life). So I looked it up on the Internet. I found out that, according to, ‘frugal’ means ‘sparing or economical as regards money or food’ or ‘simple and plain and costing little’.

Manifestations of frugal innovation seem predetermined by the presence of a resource constrained environment. Here logic suggests that when resources are scarce, one is especially triggered to ‘do more with less’ and opportunities for frugal innovation to arise will increase when compared to a resource enriched environment.

To learn more about the virtues of resource constraint and to see practical examples of innovative design, I visited the exhibition ‘Designing Scarcity – Design and Innovation in Times of Scarcity’ at Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. The exhibition is part of the programme ‘2014-1914: Conflict and Innovation’ and is curated by Jan Boelen. The key message of the exhibition is that scarcity triggers creativity. All the exhibited innovative designs could be linked to some form of scarcity – material or otherwise.

In economic terms, scarcity is the market situation in which demand exceeds supply. It is a prerequisite for economic decision-making. When looking at the equilibrium of demand and supply, consumer’s demand (not to conflate with consumer’s need) is unlimited. If resources would be unlimited as well then economic decisions wouldn’t have to be made because consumers can be satisfied with all available resources. Apparently, and from what the exhibition has taught me, times of scarcity are also necessary for creativity and innovation to occur.

The exhibition showed the following fifteen scarcity-related design strategies: ‘protect’, ‘inform’, ‘re-use’, ‘extend’, ‘super-use’, ‘repair’, ‘collage’, ‘recycle’, ‘multi-use’, ‘cooperate’, ‘cut down, reduce’, ‘imitate’, ‘divide’, ‘resilience’ and ‘share’. You can visit the exhibition until 30 August 2014 at Het Nieuwe Instituut – Museumpark 25, Rotterdam, The Netherlands.



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