As one of the most influential architects in modern history, Mies van der Rohe (1866 – 1969) helped define modern architecture/design in the early 20th century and advocated “less is more.” Facing rapid industrialization and drastic social changes – including two devastating world wars – he designed geometrically simple buildings leveraging emerging industrial materials such as steel and glass, and pursued “universal” space open to anyone by eliminating extravagant and luxurious details that restricted who could use it for what purpose.
It may sound contradictory, but “less is more” was a product of radical industrialization: Mies realized his no-frill, linear, international-style buildings taking advantage of increasingly affordable industrial materials. It allowed him to respond to new requirements from the society at large, which was rapidly transforming from a rigid, hierarchical regime to a group of increasingly empowered individuals. “Less” was a device to decouple luxurious excessiveness from design so that products and buildings could become available, affordable and helpful to a large number of emerging citizens. “Less” helped advance design from pre-modern (the era of exclusiveness and closed-ness) to modern (the era of freedom and openness).
At the same time, “less is more” was also a product of social tension and stress caused by rapid industrialization. As it realized unprecedented accumulation of wealth – “more” – it also started to trigger various kinds of confrontations among ever-increasing population. People felt anxious and became aggressive, trying to defend their share of the pie, which resulted in two destructive world wars bridged by a great depression. Such devastation made people question what “more” really meant, and what kind of benefits/challenges it brought to the society. Dutch art movement “De Stijl” (1917 ~ ), which is considered to be the origin of modern minimalism, was a reaction to the horror of World War I. By focusing on the elements that were purely universal and fundamental to anyone, such as straight lines and primary colors, De Stijl artists attempted to re-imagine essential values that could be naturally shared by people in restoring the order in a society thrown into chaos by violence.
Five hundred years before Mies van der Rohe and De Stijl, Japanese Zen culture already embraced the philosophy of “less is more,” letting magnetic beauty emerge from a careful subtraction process to reveal essential elements. When Japanese version of “less is more” – typically known as “wabi-sabi” – emerged, Japanese society had just gone through a rapid economic growth and a devastating civil war (called Onin-war) caused by competing regional leaders who tried to capitalize on accumulated wealth. Amid an excruciating social unrest, wabi-sabi discovered beauty in seemingly negative factors such as less, small, absent, decaying, broken or abandoned.
“Less is more” and “wabi-sabi” both emerged from a bitter realization that “more” was a double-sized sword. While it brought about much-needed material affluence to free people from constraints and discrimination, the very affluence invited severe social tensions and merciless competitions that led to massive destruction. Put in a devastating situation, Japanese Zen artists in the Middle Ages and De Stijl creators after WWI sought to offer an alternative to the value system that accelerated the competitions for “more.” “Less” was their device to free people from unintended negative consequences of “more.”
Today, about 600 years after the Ryoanji rock garden and 150 years after Mies van der Rohe was born, the power of “less is more” is needed more than ever, because the society is looking increasingly volatile as we go through rapid social changes, which are accelerated by ever-growing global economy. “More” – material affluence supported by a robust economic system that prioritizes maximization of economic output – seems to be at its pinnacle. But despite of that, – or because of that, we don’t know – we are increasingly divided, feeling stressed, left out, anxious and insecure – instead of feeling happy. If happiness was what “more” was supposed to deliver to us, it’s going to the opposite direction for many of us. At the same time, resources are rapidly depleting and the environment is deteriorating, only to make our future even more uncertain.
It is critical to step back and ask ourselves what kind of “more” we really want from the robust economic system we have today. Of course we want to live a healthy, stable life. But what about the negative side-effects? If our pursuit for “more” is resulting in increased competitions and confrontations, is it what we also want? Or do we want to change it?
Our Current Economic System is Centrifugal
The most confusing thing about “more” and “less” in an economic system is that they are the two sides of the same coin, rather than a pair of opposing concepts. Because our resources are not infinite, there are always more than enough people who should be eligible for the fair share of the pie. When some gets “more,” others get “less” and the negative side effects of “more”-centric economy is maximized when the economic output is maximized.
When a society is busy enjoying robust economic growth and the resulting material affluence, the threats from confrontations and divisions quietly but swiftly keeps mounting behind the jubilation. And when the threats exceed a certain threshold, the coin suddenly flips, and the negative side-effects gush out: recessions often start abruptly, plunging the society into a turmoil in a blink of an eye.
But in today’s world, the mounting threats are becoming noticeable enough while the level of material affluence is undoubtedly the highest in the history. Both sides of the coins are now very large and saturated, and news on positive economic growth doesn’t quite soothe our nervousness.
What is unique about our current system that realized such an exponential growth? Unlike the era of “wabi-sabi” or “less is more,” our society today is largely democratic and free. There are much less restrictions as to what extent the economy can become a controlling force in the global community. Indeed, it is almost looking as if it IS ruling the entire planet: nothing and no one can no longer escape from being assessed its economic value and put a price tag so that any intrinsic value can be traded for any potential profit.
As a result, the system is intensifying its centrifugal momentum for competition. We are now all thrown into a big, single bowl as potential resources and are span very fast. Most of the conventional shields or barriers are no longer sturdy enough to protect individual communities or people from the intense competitions. Only large capital, smart/competitive people and state-of-the-art technology are allowed to stay at its center so that the resources and investments can be concentrated on them.
Figure: Our economic system is centrifugal.
There are two commanding gatekeepers in this system that are accelerating centrifugal momentum: efficiency and productivity. It’s their job to put price tags on everyone and everything, because it is the most effective way to scout the most potent resources, whether it’s material input, people or capital. Once chosen, the “elite” resources will swiftly engage in an intensive game of maximizing the economic output, which is the goal of the system.
Others are span outward. Such concentration further accelerates the momentum, making the bowl spin even faster. As the system kept growing – or snowballing – the centrifugal force became overwhelmingly strong. More and more people are span outward, farther and farther from the central economic stage.
Figure: Centrifugal force denies inefficient resources.
Until pretty recently, such competitions were rather at a country or regional level. If you were in a winning region, you were able to access the benefits of the centrifugal force, securing a stable job that allowed you to support your family and make your life comfortable and enjoyable. But today, the competition is so fierce at every front that we have to take on it at an individual level. It is as if each one of us is forced to compete in the World Cup qualifiers on a daily basis. Your future/win is no longer guaranteed, no matter where you are and what you do. As a matter of fact, increasing number of communities, regions, people are declared “disqualified” to participate in the global economic markets even though they are located in a winning country, if their resume/agenda was slightly different from what the market required. As a result, our society is becoming seriously divided and people are feeling insecure, anxious and angry.
If it wasn’t enough, the centrifugal force has been so strong that it drove off nature from the economic center to the farthest corner, only to let it deteriorate. Just like many of us are feeling exhausted from fierce competitions, natural resources are squeezed like a lemon, which is starting to threaten our own future. Although it achieved unprecedented rapid growth, the centrifugal speed of our economic system has become too fast for many of us to keep up and enjoy the benefits it delivers.
Examining “maximized economic outputs”
It looks like the time has come for us to leverage “less” again, as we enter the crucial moment of history where unprecedented level of economic affluence is triggering intense competition among 7 billion people, who are collectively putting enormous stress on natural resources. And as a matter of fact, people are already starting to re-imagine “less” in today’s context. Things like minimalist life style, decluttering, tiny house or Zen-inspired mindfulness are gaining traction – surprisingly rapidly. But still, those are considered personal choices, not the choice of how our economic system can potentially work. In order to embrace “less” at an economy-wide scale, it is imperative to understand how “less” can actually “maximize” economic output. How is ever-intensifying centrifugal force improving products and services? How can “less” do better? Take strawberries as an example.
Genetically, strawberries are strawberries as long as they are grown from strawberry seeds. And in an economics textbook, a strawberry is considered a strawberry associated with a fixed amount of “utility” no matter where/how they are grown. But we all know that it’s not the case.
The kind of strawberries that come out of the current system would look large in size. The one in the picture was about 1 ½ inches in diameter. If you remember the size of the strawberries you used to eat as a child, it’s obvious that centrifugal force is making them larger and larger. Our current system is so good at identifying the most efficient way to produce a large amount of larger strawberries from less investments and efforts per piece – whether it means operating a large-scale production method, applying genetic modification to make them grow faster and easier, choosing stronger fertilizer or pesticides/herbicides. They are all efficient strategies to increase productivity that reduce/replace time and labor-intensive – inefficient – farming practices that local farmers have developed spending years and years interacting with the surrounding environment.
So the size/volume is definitely what efficiency/productivity maximized. What else did they maximize? You won’t know until you cut and eat them – and that is when things start to look a bit questionable. When you cut the “efficient” strawberries, you may find that the meat is mostly white and rather firm. They don’t have much aroma/flavors. And since they are not very sweet either, you would have to use sugar to increase your enjoyment.
Since strawberries are food, their primary values should be their tastefulness and nutrition. However, efficient strawberries don’t score high in either category. And as a matter of fact, the volume – the only obvious advantage we’ve identified so far – might not have have improved, because the size increase might have been achieved by simply increasing water content, which probably actually diluted flavors with no gain in calories. If that’s the case, there might have not been a whole lot of eating benefits in “efficient” strawberries.
Then how do strawberries of “less,” or smaller strawberries look like?
Let’s take a look at strawberries that come in “natural” size – the size that is inherent to the species at which they can grow best. It may not the size humans want to see – it is often much, much smaller than the gigantic size that come from “more” – centric economic system.
But when you cut and eat them, you will realize how much those “small” strawberries can offer to you. Even before you start cutting them, you will smell pleasant aroma. The meat is beautifully red inside out. It is dense but tender, and have delicious juice. Both flavors and nutrients are “maximized.” Such delicious/nutritious strawberries might have been produced by devoted farmers who know how to cooperate with local climate and soil condition to let strawberries thrive, using only good quality/healthy fertilizers and least amount of pesticides.
If a strawberry from “more”-centric economy was diluted to become large, its counterpart is condensed from head to toe.
In addition to the maximized eating experience, those strawberries might have been grown locally and sold at a farmers’ market in your neighborhood. You can buy directly from the people who grew them, feeling great to support local economy. You may also learn at a stand what it means to grow strawberries, the best season to enjoy them, and a tip or to make delicious strawberry jam. And last but not least, you will amaze your family and/or your guests, who would be rejoiced to find how “real” strawberries taste.
Demystifying the myth of “more”
We have found that the “more” that comes out of our productivity/efficiency-dominated system may not have as much benefits as we’ve believed. Why does it happen? It is because maximized value at the point of sales is not necessarily equal to maximized user experience, and our system focuses on the first, not the latter. When it happens, our clear-as-day assumption that “more” is always “more” actually falls apart. When efficiency and productivity dominate the entire game, “more” is often “manufactured” by diluting the quality in order to increase the volume. But since actual content or the source of satisfaction embedded in a product might not have changed, or even decreased in order to improve cost efficiency, “more” becomes “less.” That is when we need to flip our value system and start embracing “less is more.”
Less is more economy
In an economic system in which maximized economic output is not directly correlated with maximized user experience, “more” becomes “less” and “less is more” becomes true. As you might have realized by now, “less is more” is not a quantitative comparison: it is a correction process to make maximized economic output equal to maximized user experience.
So how does the correction process work? We need to replace intimidating gatekeepers of our system– efficiency and productivity – with something else so that it can regain its focus on user experience.
In “less is more” economy, we propose to replace productivity with our own potential, and replace efficiency with beauty (aesthetics). You may react: “So are you simply replacing efficiency with inefficiency?” Well, it’s not that simple, so bear with us. The replacement process is not so much about denying efficiency or productivity and going back to old-fashioned, labor-intensive economy. It is rather about identifying and eliminating negative side-effects of the current system that result in damaging our happiness, either by unnecessarily intensifying competition or decreasing user experience. In other word, “less is more” economy questions what kind of “more” we really need to feel happy. And surprisingly enough, it also becomes about blurring the boundaries between “producers” and “consumers,” and setting up a stage in which anyone can engage and be involved.
The reason why we need to leverage our own potential is not because we deny productivity, but because that’s the only way you can feel accomplished and proud of yourself. You may remember when you felt a proud producer even if your production was not something marketable. But do you ever remember feeling a proud consumer? You need your own engagement in some fashion for real satisfaction.
Likewise, the reason why we need to leverage beauty is because it is the source of happiness: we call things that resonate with our fundamental values “beautiful,” not only something that are cosmetic or artistic. Products are beautiful when they are natural, humane, kind, caring, nutritious, inspiring, encouraging, engaging… The buildings designed by Mies van der Rohe and Zen gardens are beautiful, but strawberries grown by dedicated farmers are also beautiful. Unlike efficiency, which could be quantified using common units, beauty can take many shapes and the potential is boundless. You could and should have your own aesthetics standard by which you decide what kind of products makes you happy.
When you leverage our own power, you are no longer a mere “consumer” – someone who is only good at consuming, or someone who is consumed by an efficiency-driven system – but are an engaged and proactive player in the entire experience. When you leverage you ability to create/find beauty around you, you have a wide range of potential to find happiness so you no longer have to rely entirely on material things. And since nature is our primary source of happiness, it will never be sidelined – it is crucial part of our daily life.
Figure: Less is more economy prioritizes our own happiness.
As the society accelerated its pursuit toward “more,” we’ve somehow come to believe that happiness had to be and could be manufactured somewhere else and delivered to us at a great value. We somehow separated people who produce the source of happiness (the winners in the efficiency game) and people who would receive it as a consumer. Efficiency escalated the division because it’s faster to let only large capital, competitive people and state-of-the-art technology engage in production process and exclude others. But it turns out becoming a mere consumer was very similar to being rejected in an efficiency game, deprived of opportunities to contribute to the society and receive a recognition for your unique work. The kind of “more” that came out from such a divisive system was not something that makes you happy, but makes you anxious.
By leveraging “less,” we can revive the values that are labelled “inefficient” and “unproductive” in the current system but have boundless potential to unleash happiness.
At the end of the day, only you can design/determine your own happiness, and there is no efficient to achieve your goal. If mass-produced, bargain products cannot satisfy you, it’s not because they are not efficient enough, but because they are not resonating with your fundamental value. If you can’t shine by competing for good grades, you should be allowed to contribute through collaboration. There should be many ways for you to explore your own happiness.
Through his “less is more” design, Mies van der Rohe opened up new opportunities for emerging citizens who were starting to design new lifestyle/future in an emerging urban environment. Zen rock gardens discovered vast beauty in the voids created by eliminating plants and water – presumed essential elements – from a garden. “Less” gives us unexplored potential for beauty and happiness, and the tradition still persists. There are many examples of “less is more” today which will inspire you to start embracing new kind of happiness.
Through his “less is more” design, Mies van der Rohe opened up new opportunities for emerging citizens who were starting to design new lifestyle/future in an emerging urban environment. Zen rock gardens discovered vast beauty in the voids created by eliminating plants and water – presumed essential elements – from a garden. There are already many examples of “less is more” today, that pursue their own beauty of “less,” delivering profound happiness to customers or the community.
Inspiring stories of “less is more” economy
Useful External Resources
There are also various movements that attempt to re-think ad re-imagine our system as a whole. Although they take different approaches and pursue unique goals, there is one thing that are common: which is a realization that we may not fix the “meg challenges” we face today using the same system that created them. Emerging ideas embrace “less is more” in their own way, including by leveraging sustainability, empowering individuals and local communities or decentralizing the economic blocks.