We think “less is more” is about design aesthetics. But what if it can be a powerful tool for our society to navigate today’s increasingly volatile, divisive world and find true abundance? That’s what the “Less is more” economy does.

The philosophy of “less is more” is powerful, profound and can resonate with all of us. But we never associated it with the economy because we thought it was primarily about art and design. But as the terms “more” and “less” suggest, it is fundamentally about quantitative differences, i.e. the amount of resources that you may or may not get. It is the notion that belongs to the world of economics, therefore it makes a perfect sense to tie “less is more” with the economy. But what do we achieve by doing so?

It helps us re-imagine our happiness relative to the amount of resources we acquire in a way no other guidelines have done before. You will find it very helpful to survive in today’s intensely divided society – materially-affluent but access-limited, opportunity-filled but competition-driven place and pursue satisfying, accomplishing and self-fulfilling life.

The term “less is more” was discovered by creators, and there was a profound reason for that which was closely connected rapid economic growth ad its pitfall.

We are relying heavily on the current economic system
that pursue “more” to define our happiness. But is it working?

What do “more” and “less” do for us to feel happy? Does”more” always result in “more” happiness?

The “Less is more” economy is our tool to
navigate today’s divisive and stressful world.

“Less is more,” an aphorism embraced by modern creators

Let’s start off by reviewing the history of “less is more” as an aesthetic term because it helps us understand where it came from. As you may already know, the first prominent artist who expressly used the term “less is more” was modern architect Mies van der Role (1866 – 1969). But while he used the aphorism very often, “less is more” was not really his invention; it was an approach widely shared by the like-minded modern creators of his times. They collectively helped transform design/architecture from decorative/excessive pre-modern style to a simple/clean modern one, based on the aesthetic that favored “less” over to “more” in many senses. The shift revolutionized design, but it was also a reaction to the tectonic change of the underlying society: as it was rapidly changing from a rigid, hierarchical regime to a group of increasingly empowered citizens, innovative creators like Mies sensed completely new opportunities to democratize design/architecture from the hands of people in power so that it could become an effective tool to solve the problems of the society at large.

The Farnsworth House (completed in 1951), Plano, Illinois, U.S. is a one-room retreat for an intellectual woman designed by Mies van der Rohe. It is considered as one of the apex of modern architecture that leveraged technology to empower people.

Such transformation and empowerment was boosted by the rapid industrialization, which made many emerging materials available and affordable by a lot more people than before. With the help of new materials such as steel and glass, Mies realized the buildings of “less is more” – no-frills, linear, often white, International Style ones. He and his fellow designers passionately pursued functional, problem solving-oriented yet beautiful design that eliminated superfluous and irrelevant details to serve broader class of people who rightfully demanded “more” and “better” to improve their quality of life.

If pre-modern design was about “more luxurious” or “more exclusive” that came with complicated protocols that restricted who could use it for which purpose in order to solidify the power of the privileged class, “less is more” was a promising weapon modern society acquired that opened up new potential accessible and affordable by substantially “more” people than before.

   Tectonic shift manifested in architecture

1880’s: The Neuschwanstein Castle, Bavaria, Germany. [Pubicl Domain]
The King Ludwic II of Bavaria built it spending astronomical amount of money solely to make his own dream come true.

1931: The Villa Savoye, Poissy, France, designed by Le Corbusier. Image by m-louis via [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Modern architects focused on residential houses as a way to empower emerging middle class.

1841: The Semperoper (Semper Opera House), Dresden, Germany, designed by Gottfried Semper.

1926: The Bauhaus building, Dessau, Germany. [Public Domain]
Designed by Walter Gropius.

The movement “less is more” in design/architecture showed that “less” could outshine “more” and make a lot more people happier. But it had another face – a darker face – as a stark reflection of social tension and collisions caused by the very “more” that helped Mies van der Rohe and his fellow creators achieve their goal by making an increasing number of solutions affordable.

Mies was born in 1886 and died in 1969. His life (and of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius or Frank Lloyd Wright, to name a few) as one of the most prominent modern architects coincided with two deadly world wars. And it was probably not by accident. The rapid economic growth that democratized many aspects of the society spurred creative energy in modern artists like Mies van der Rohe, but the very force for growth also created enormous social tension that resulted in deadly wars.

When Mies was born, Western Europe, especially his country Germany, was in the middle of an electrifying adventure for “more.” Boosted by the Industrial Revolution and the colonialism, the regional GDP grew by about 500%, and the population almost doubled from 1800 to 1900. Booming economy created a countless number of new industrial/service jobs in urban areas, to which many rural peasants flocked to form a completely new but ballooning working class. Middle class also burgeoned. 

The factory of German chemical giant BASF in Ludwigshafen, Germany in 1881. [Public Domain]
Population growth of major European countries. Source: Encyclopedia.com
Unprecedented industrialization resulted in population surge in Europe, especially in Germany from 1850 to 1900.

It was a tectonic shift on how people lived their lives – from rural to urban, grounded to mobile, suppressed to free – virtually from “less” to “more” in many ways. You could feel the excitement of the time – “joie de vivre” – from the French Belle Époque or English Victorian culture.

However, unprecedented level of economic growth also created strains and fractures in society. By the early 20th century, Europe became divided into two blocs hanging in the balance: England-France-Russia coalition and Germany-Australia-Hungary-Italy alliance. Now that 200% more people were eyeing 500% more wealth bulging within the same geographical boundaries, the tension had to keep rising. As symbolized by the Anglo-German Naval Race, major economic powers escalated the contest for military expansion, and the eruption of WWI looked just a matter of time. Reflecting such intense social atmosphere, Vienna had emerged as the cultural center for the Fin-de-Siecle movement, and very new art schools such as Dadaism and Surrealism followed suit, brewing the sense of decadence, pessimism or nihilism. It was as if “joie de vivre” and awareness/anticipation of destruction or death was two sides of the same coin.

1876: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Renoir.

1917: The Fountain by French Surrealist Marcel Duchamp. He named a porcelain urinal “fountain.”

Growing tension among European countries finally exceeded the tipping point in 1914 and WWI broke out. And people were just staggered by its devastating outcome – so many “more” people were harmed due to “more” destructive weapons that were produced leveraging “more” industrial materials and advanced technology. New types of deadly weapons such as flamethrowers or poison gas emerged, and more than 15 million people died, including many civilians. (For a comparison, in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, that became a precursor of WWI, about 150,000 soldiers were killed.)

That was the social backdrop that spawned the modern aesthetics of “less is more.”

De Stijl and the Bauhaus – harbinger of “less is more” aesthetics

Mies van der Rohe started his career as an architect by working at the studio of Peter Behrens from 1908 to 1912. It was during this time – the era of drastic societal change in Europe – modern artists such as Mies started embracing new concepts and experiment innovative materials and design techniques. When WWI erupted, many of them were in their 20’s or 30’s, full of creative energy. Mies was 28 years old.

People were rattled by how rapid economic growth abruptly turned into violent clash. Artists were also deeply affected by the disaster and tried to uncover what was behind the calamity. In 1917, in reaction to excruciating war, a group of artists, led by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, formed a movement in the Netherlanders named “De Stijl (The Style).” It is considered to be the very early stage expression of modern Western minimalism, and it influenced creators that followed, including Mies. The works of Mondrian showcase how the shock of WWI accelerated his artistic journey to “pure” abstraction. 

Left: Spring Sun (Lentezon): Castle Ruin: Brederode, c. late 1909 – early 1910
Center: Gray Tree, 1911  Influenced from the Cubism is observed.
Right: Tableau I, 1921 De Stijl’s signature black lines and primary colors emerged.
Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944) [Public Domain]

Mondrian lived in Paris but was staying in his home Netherlands when war broke. Since couldn’t go back to Paris, he went to Laren artists’ colony in north Holland. There, he met other artists who were exploring abstract painting. He was inspired to advance his Cubism practice into further abstraction in order to seek “universal beauty” – his answer to the horror of destructive war.

For Mondrian, it must have looked as if rapid economic growth inadvertently opened up a can of worm of what he called the “consciousness connected to the individual” – any unique, specific or personal elements, values or feelings that helped shape/feed one’s ego. Such consciousness kept growing bigger and bigger, until it collectively generated irreconcilable/deadly collisions among people, and eventually backfired to shutter their own souls and throw the entire society into chaos.

So he was determined to eliminate those elements from his art. At the end of drastic reduction, he found his goal – universal beauty – in ultimate essentials such as straight lines and primary colors. “Universal” became the key philosophy of De Stijl movement.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow by Piet Mondrian. 1930.
“Pure abstract art becomes completely emancipated, free of naturalistic appearances. ” – Piet Mondrian, 1929

In 1919, right after the end of WWI and two years after the birth of De Stijl, Walter Gropius, who’ve previously worked for Peter Behrens with Mies van der Rohe, founded a progressive art school Bauhaus in Germany. The Bauhaus was an ambitious endeavor to embrace and elevate every kind of creation – from fine arts, architecture to crafts and industrial design – as “total work of art.” As the Bauhaus artists produced a wide range of outputs from buildings, furniture, ceramics, graphic design to typoface, functionality was their priority as much as aesthetics. Ultimate simple design and form was leveraged to expose materials’ real strength/beauty without being coated or covered – a technique widely used in pre-modern era to make the appearance fancy. Bauhaus’ functionality, problem solving-oriented, no-frill minimalist style came to be called “International Style.” It had a lot in common with the notion of “universal” pursued by De Stijl artists: both attempted to strip away all extraneous ornament from the structure and leave only essential elements. What’s left was truly universal to overcome country-level hostility to touch the fundamentals of all people, regardless of the differences of each individual’s belief, tastes or needs.

The tea pot designed by Marianne Brandt, 1924.
Brandt joined the Bauhaus in 1923 and quickly became a prominent figure in metalwork and industrial design.
The Bauhaus attempted to elevate every product to artistic creation.

It is critical to remind ourselves that both De Stijl and the Bauhaus emerged to expressly counter unintended consequences of society’s aggressive pursuit for economic growth, or “more.” De Stijl was created in reaction to the devastation of WWI, and the Bauhaus was founded to stop the “soullessness” of the emerging mass manufactured products. In wake of staggering social changes, the artists dag deep into the core of human existence by stripping off everything they could in order to reveal the truth. What emerged from the painful endeavors was transcendent, pure and fundamental beauty of “less.”      

But sadly, the history repeated its cycle. As world’s economy started growing again recovering from the wounds of WWI, the society became even more volatile. Mies van der Rohe became the director of the Bauhaus in 1930, but the school was forced to close down in 1933 due to the pressure from the Nazi regime. Soon after, Mies reluctantly left Germany and moved to the U.S.  And we all know what happened after…unfortunately the power of “more” was proven to be dangerously irresistible. But the Bauhaus alumni, including Mies and Gropius, moved to different parts of the world and pursued their own quest for beauty despite harsh social environment. Humans have inherent power to find beauty even in desperate situation, and it almost seems like such beauty crystallizes when situation becomes severe.  

In 1914, Piet Mondrian wrote to his friend on how he saw ultimate essentials of his art:

I construct lines and color combinations on a flat surface, in order to express general beauty with the utmost awareness. Nature (or, that which I see) inspires me, puts me, as with any painter, in an emotional state so that an urge comes about to make something, but I want to come as close as possible to the truth and abstract everything from that, until I reach the foundation (still just an external foundation!) of things…

Mondrian’s pursuit for “universal beauty” seems to have become stoic in face of war, as if he was a Zen priest practicing strict mediation training to arrive at the “pure land,” fleeing from “vulgar” world – human’s world full of greed and evilness, according to Buddhism. And actually, it is what the Zen priests did in the Middle Ages in Japan to cement the aesthetics of “wabi-sabi,” their own version of “less is more.” Regarded as one of the oldest manifestation of minimalism, “wabi-sabi” emerged from a turmoil created by a rapid economic growth, very similar to how De Stijl and the Bauhaus came to an existence reflecting social unrest stemmed from race for “more.”

Wabi-sabi (Zen minimalism)

Five hundred years before De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Mies van der Rohe, Japanese Zen culture had already embraced the philosophy of “less is more,” letting magnetic beauty emerge from a careful subtraction process to reveal essential elements. Called “wabi-sabi,” the Japanese version of “less is more” also emerged from a devastation of warfare, just like the way WWI prompted De Stijl movement. The war is called the Onin War (1467 – 1477), which is considered to be Japan’s first all-out civil war, triggered by the assassination of the then Shogun Yoshinori. He was the son of the very powerful Shogun Yoshimitsu (1358 – 1408), who expanded the power of the Ashikaga Dynasty significantly by accumulating unprecedented level of wealth from international trade with China.

Shogun Yoshimitsu was a powerful leader under whom the economy boomed. He commissioned the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, which symbolizes extravagant, lucrative culture of “more” of his era.

When Yoshimitsu died rather abruptly, the vacuum created political turmoil, which eventually led to the Onin War (1467 – 1477). It turned Kyoto into debris.

Like Luis XIV (The Sun King) of France, Yoshimitsu’s power went uncontested – until he died unexpectedly. His sons and grandsons couldn’t keep his legacy after his death, and the vacuum led to political instability as regional military leaders sensed the opportunity to challenge weakened shoguns. They fought to the death, making the Onin War by far the most extensive and destructive war Japanese have experienced up to that time. They obsessively tried to destruct Kyoto, the then capital and the city of culture and elegance. After 11 years of chaotic fights, the entire city was damaged and the people of Kyoto suffered from enormous loss, both physically and emotionally.

Amid excruciating social unrest, people sought redemption in Buddhism, which taught that everything in this world was transient, evanescent, inconstant and destined to change. You couldn’t, and shouldn’t count on anything as absolute or permanent, even yourself. If this world was full of sorrow and pain, you could try to extinguish the flame of desire and greed, become empty and completely dissolve into the vast universe. The ultimate stage you would arrive at the end of the journey to vacate yourself will be the “pure land” full of  mercy and compassion coming from Buddha. 

Zen ink paintings by Hakuin Ekaku
Some prominent Zen priests were also prominent artistes. They played central roles in cementing “wabi-sabi” aesthetics by transcending the philosophy of Buddhism to pieces of art. The “enso” (a circle drawn in Zen ink painting) could be the equivalent of straight lines and prime colors De Stijl artists pursued.

And though it may sound contradictory, Buddhism teaches that we can access boundless potential exactly because nothing is absolute. Think of the “glass half empty or half full” discussion. Buddhism goes further and observes that the largest potential emerges when a glass is completely empty, because it can be filled with anything you wish or imagine. That notion resonated with people and who had to survive the time of destruction and enormous sense of loss. Zen Buddhists pursued strict meditation training in order to “extinguish the flame of desire and greed” to become empty. And at the culmination of their pursuit, their version of “universal beauty” – “wabi-sabi” – emerged.

Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436 – 1490) was Yoshimitsu’s grandson, but he lacked strong leadership his grandfather had. Unable to handle brutal Onin War as shogun, he tried to escape in the world of art. He became the ardent patron of “wabi-sabi” culture and commissioned the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto. Making a stark contrast to the Golden Pavilion Yoshimitsu built, it represents the Zen spirit of “less.”

Major “wabi-sabi” culture emerged in the Middle Ages includes Zen rock garden, tea ceremony, ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement), Zeb ink painting and Noh theater. After 500 years of its naissance, wabi-sabi still defines Japanese culture.
Top left: Ryoan-ji Rock Garden, one of the most acclaimed Zen rock gardens designed in the 15th century. Image by Cquest
Top right:
Ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) also cemented its foundation in the 16th century. Image courtesy of ikenobo
Bottom: Zen ink painting by Sesshu.

“More,” a double-edged sword

You may have noticed by now that the “less is more” approach – De Stijl, the Bauhaus or “wabi-sabi” – emerged at the point of history when “more” exposed its extreme aspects – unprecedented accumulation of resources/wealth followed by the violent race to seize them.  While it is very true that “more” brought about much-needed material affluence to free people from constraints and social suppression, the very affluence achieved by “more” turned out to be very prone to merciless competition, and the bigger the “more” was, the more destructive the contention became.

Figure: Conceptual relationship of
“more” and its as adversary consequences of the pursuit for it – i.e. “less.”

The aesthetics of “less is more” such as wabi-sabi, De Stijl and the Bauhaus emerged when the society saw unprecedented level of wealth accumulation, followed by destructive competition. It is possible that our society today is at the pinnacle of yet another unprecedented level of wealth accumulation.

Torn between the positive power and devastating impacts of “more,” Japanese Zen artists in the Middle Ages and the modern creators after WWI seriously attempted to reveal the true face of “more,” which inevitably led to the discovery of the beauty of “less.”

As contradictory as it may sound, sincere and thorough pursuit of “more” will eventually lead to “less,” because they are two sides of the same coin, not a pair of the opposite concepts that never converge. If you keep tilting a coin that has “more” on its surface, it ultimately will flip and becomes “less.” By the same token, if you keep tilting a coin that has “less” on its surface, it will ultimately will and becomes “more.”

The history repeatedly showed us how feverish pursuit for “more” invited violent clash at its height to put many people in misery of “less,” and how the aesthetics of “less is more” emerged from a desperate situation as a drastically different alternative to place “more” and “less” in our value system to seek beauty and happiness. And it seems that today the concept is needed more than ever because we may be at the tipping point where “more” is almost saturated and starting to flip to the other side. Considering the astronomical level of population and material affluence our society collectively have today, the risk is simply too high to ignore.

The real reason why our society is so divided

Everyone would agree that we are on track of bullish pursuit for “more” today, and that we are doing pretty well. The global GDP keeps rising, and the Dow Jones hit the highest closing record earlier this year, in 2018. But despite such supposedly uplifting news, we are feeling frustrated, angered and divided. And it’s not the sentiment shared only within your country; people from across the globe are feeling the same way. It is fair to think that our aggressive pursuit for “more” economic growth finally started to cause stress fractures in our society, and they are revealing their unpleasant nature in the world of politics. The extremists are on the rise everywhere, burning people’s anger and frustration as fuel. People are polarized and finger pointing each other to decide who did wrong to make this society such a bad place.

But wait a minute. Did we say that our world has become a bad place? But it is, actually, the most materially affluent world in our 100,000 year history. How can the most materially affluent world be a bad society, not a great one? This disparity alone could be a good indicator that we are at the tipping point of the current cycle of “more” to be over, but let’s look into it deeper.

Extremists try to argue that the problems are distilled by their political opponents/enemies, but it doesn’t explain why such high level of frustration is shared by so many people throughout the world, who live under different political climate. The only factor that can explain a globally shared problem is a globally shared platform. And that is the economic system.

If you remember why humans invented politics to begin with, it was because we needed some system that’d help us decide how to distribute finite resources among so many people who were entitled for them. Politics is primarily a mechanism to decide “more” and “less” – who gets how much for what reason. If the politics are on a shaky ground and dividing people so badly like today, it should mean that the underlying resources are in trouble.

If we look back the crucial points in history when “more” abruptly turned from its pinnacle to destruction, such as the end of 19th century to early 20th century, it was when the economy grew singularly and our material affluence surged, which invited a rapid population growth. The existing resource supply-demand balance became overwhelmed to handle the abrupt expansion and became paralyzed.

If we look at the current economic status, the growth looks to be very sharp even compared to the late 20th century, and the population count is at staggering 7.5 billion. The experts estimates that it will reach 9 billion by 2050. Put in the context, we are at an extraordinary time.

World GDP was $11.17 trillion in 1980, $33.35 trillion in 2000, and $ 80.68 trillion in 2017. Source: World Bank

World population was 4.44 billion in 1980, 6.12 billion in 2000, and 7.53 billion in 2017. Source: World Bank

A tremendous change occurred with the industrial revolution: whereas it had taken all of human history until around 1800 for world population to reach one billion, the second billion was achieved in only 130 years (1930), the third billion in 30 years (1960), the fourth billion in 15 years (1974), and the fifth billion in only 13 years (1987). Source: Worldmeters

Global “megatrends” – putting today’s world in context

In order to understand where we stand, we can look to the “global megatrends” compiled by the consulting giant PwC. According to their reports, the global megatrands are “macroeconomic and geostrategic forces that are shaping the world and our collective futures in profound way.” PwC suggests that we would need systemic changes to deal with those megatrends because “they will have profound and disruptive effects on the defense and security environments in which…nations must operate. This will require more agile and accountable approaches…to mitigate risk. For some countries, being able to anticipate and adapt to the megatrends will be a matter of national survival.” And here are the five consequential megatrends that are rapidly developing disparities and imbalance, causing stress fractures in our current system as we speak:

25671818 – brazilian favela in rio de janeiro shantytown

  1. Shift in global economic power: economic growth is shifting from Western countries to BRIC and other emerging economies.
  2. Demographic shifts: despite the fast population growth worldwide, some regions, including many developed countries, are aging/shrinking while young countries burgeon.
  3. Accelerated urbanization: today 50% of the world population live in urban area, but it is expected to reach 72% by 2050. It is an enormous population concentration that could clog social systems and infrastructure in many ways.
  4. Rise of technology: technology keeps advancing at an amazing speed, far outpacing our abilities to control/adapt to it.
  5. Climate change and resource scarcity: as the economy and population keep growing, the environment degrades and resource becomes scarcer, rattling the very foundation of our economy.

Megatrends show us that the current balance of resource distribution – the overall landscape of where “more” of them goes and where “less” ends up – is drastically changing as we speak now. If that’s what’s happening now, it’s understandable that many people today who are driving anger politics are feeling that “someone else” are eating in their share, and that that people needs to be out. As 200% more people fought for 500% more wealth when WWI broke, today 7.5 billion people are involved in a global race for contracting amount of resources. Remembering how destructive previous world wars were, it is mind-boggling to try to picture what would happen next if we collectively fail to make right decisions.  And as a matter of fact, experts are already warning the next economic downturn:

While our economic system is overwhelmingly huge and it’s impossible to summarize here, at least there is one element in our system that is accelerating the momentum of our system, inviting severe divisions among us. That one could be our common enemy. It does not wear red nor blue.   

The real face of modern economic system

We all agree that healthy economy is our priority, but how a truly healthy one would look like? We don’t try to take a hard look and question if our current system or the direction toward which it’s taking us is right. It is as it’s the only and best one, and that there are no polarizing factors in it. But is it true?

What is making the current economic system unique? Unlike the era of “wabi-sabi” or “less is more,” our society today is largely democratic and free. There are much fewer restrictions on the extent that the economy can become a controlling force in the global community. Indeed, it is basically ruling the entire planet: nothing and no one can escape from being assessed on its economic value or given a price tag. Everything is for sale if there is any intrinsic value in it. And putting a price tag is the job of the powerful gatekeeper of the system: efficiency. Whether natural resource or human resource, you are asked to perform your tasks as efficiently as possible. If you are efficient, you win. If you are declared inefficient, you are in trouble.

The current economic system is so powerful that it sucks up everything and everyone, and assess its economic value by applying universal efficiency standards. There is no running away from it, no matter where you are.

The beauty of efficiency-based system is that the methods can be standardized and applied to anything or anyone no matter where it/she/he is. Whether results are measured based on a price, specification or a score, efficiency standards can make any contest transparent and globally open. In today’s world, a small mon-and-pop retailers are on the verge of extinction against Wal-mart or Amazon. A telemarketing company in the U.S. compete with its competitors in India. A small independent soybean farmer in Kentucky indirectly compete with large-scale Brazilian or Chinese ag producers. If you apply for an engineering job that can be performed in any language, the chances are, the employer is also interviewing highly qualified candidates on the other side of the globe. It is as if all of us are thrown into a big, single bowl as potential resources. “Efficiency” powers the bowl and spin it fast so that it can catch efficient resources only leveraging centrifugal force, and spin inefficient ones outward.

No matter how hard you may try, unfortunately only the most efficient ones will win because of the intensity of the competition. The usual winners are large capital, competitive people with a fabulous resume and/or state-of-the-art technology. They are allowed to stay at the center of the system so that the resources and investments can be concentrated on them.

The economic system strictly monitors and ranks efficiency and productivity everywhere in the world, including our individual competitiveness.

At each level of competition, winners are identified and others are sidelined and spun outward, labelled as “inefficient.” Of course competition itself is nothing new: people always compete, creating winners and losers. What’s new today is its scope and magnitude. Until pretty recently, the competition was rather at a national or regional level because country functioned as economic barrier and protected domestic producers/workers from the fierce global competition. 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. That’s when you felt the politics in your country was working great.

But as the competition has become so fierce on every front, we now have to take on it at an individual level. It is as if each one of us is forced to compete in World Cup qualifiers on a daily basis. Your future/win is no longer guaranteed, no matter where you are and what you do. Your children need to get really good grades, be an accomplished athlete AND the chair of a youth charitable group to get in a decent college (and you are stranded with an eye-popping amount of tuition!). You need to send in 30 resumes to get one interview, and when you finally get a job, your employer maybe closing the office to relocate the operation to the Philippines. Even if you are an experienced, caring and skilled worker, you may be replaced by a machine that does a crappy job but super fast. Due to a variety of “efficiency-first” scenarios, today more and more people are spun outward, farther and farther from the center of the economic stage.

The magnitude of today’s efficiency contest is so intense that it rejects so many people and divide the society between winners and losers very explicitly. To be efficient or not to be, that is the question. If you are not on the efficient side, it is as if you have no value.

If it wasn’t enough, the centrifugal force has become so strong that it has driven 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.

Whenever there is a severe division, there’s this gatekeeper “efficiency” behind it that’s drawing merciless lines between handful of winners and the rest. But it’s hard to accept, because we thought efficiency was great. So let’s look at what efficiency really delivers to us.

The mechanism of how “less” becomes “more”

The reason why we love efficiency so much is because it is very good at identifying resources that can deliver “more” from finite amount of input. America’s largest retail chain says: “Save Money. Live Better.” And we believe that we need to let efficiency do its job to achieve it. For example, an efficient manufacturing process can offer “25% more” bag of potato chips. An efficient team of engineers deliver a phone that allows more GB usage with for cheaper rates. An efficient investor will bring your community a shopping mall with more stores than you’ve ever had.

Efficiency standards enable us to compare which is “more” and which is “less.” We assume that we are using a common scale that lets us perform a legitimate comparison.

If feels like the determination of “more” realized from efficiency improvements is straightforward and explicit.  But in reality, we are comparing a surprising number of things that cannot be apples-to-apples, using an insufficient scale without realizing that it was actually an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Let’s take a look at a surprising apples-to-oranges comparison, which is actually strawberries-to-strawberries comparison. You would assume that two strawberries are always more than one strawberry, and a strawberry that weighs 18 grams is more than the one that weights 12 grams. Let’s verify if that’s the case.

The current agro/economic system can produce large strawberries at a reasonable cost, thanks to its pursuit for efficiency. If you remember the size of the strawberries you used to eat as a child, it’s almost certain that today we are getting a lot “more” strawberries than before for the same price (inflation adjusted). And when we say so, we are using the size and weight as a common scale to determine “more” versus “less.” 

Left: The strawberries sold at grocery store as “great deal,” probably at $2-$3 per pound. This particular package had strawberries about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Gigantic!

But why do you buy strawberries to begin with? Obviously getting the ones as large as possible is not your goal. You buy them to 1) fill your tummy and 2) feel pleasure from eating them. You chose larger ones just because you assumed that they’d serve your goal better – more filling and delicious at a lower price. But was your assumption correct? To what extent were size and weight helpful in measuring your satisfaction?

For the first goal, size and weight look to be the right indicators, because “how filling” is about how much calories, and it should be the function of quantity of food. Your may say: “Oh I had enough…” when you ate 100 grams of strawberries, whereas you may feel: “I want some more” when you only had 20 grams. Then what about the second goal? How were size and weight helpful to find tasty strawberries? To find that out, you have to cut open them.

When you cut them, you may find that the meat is mostly white and rather firm. They don’t have much aroma/flavor and taste plain. And since they are not very sweet either, you may have to use sugar to increase your enjoyment. All in all, they were not the yummiest kind of strawberries.

It turns out there is no strong correlation between the size/weight and the quality – we cannot assume “the larger, the yummier.” And by the way, they might not have been a good indicator even for the first category, the quantity. It’s very likely that the “efficient” strawberries were grown with good amount of water to maximize yield with less growing time and tending. If the size increase was achieved simply by increasing water content, you might have experienced “the larger, more diluted (with no virtual calories gain) and less flavorful,”  instead of “the larger, the more filling and yummier.”

Now let’s take a look at strawberries of “less” – smaller in size and lesser in weight. In this particular case, they are organic and heirloom strawberries grown by a local farmer. Since they are heirloom, the size looks how strawberries looked decades ago. They are the size at which they can grow best. If you are used to the strawberries sold at grocery stores, they may look awfully small.

Comparing commercial strawberries and organic/heriloom ones using the “size” as a common scale.

But when you cut and eat them, you will realize how much those “small” strawberries can offer. Even before cutting them, you smell a pleasant aroma. The meat is beautifully red inside and out. The flesh is dense but tender, and has delicious juice. Both flavors and nutrients are “maximized.” Such delicious/nutritious strawberries have been produced by devoted farmers who know how to cooperate with the local climate and soil conditions to let strawberries thrive, using only good quality/healthy fertilizers and limited amounts of pesticides.

If a strawberry from the efficiency-first economy was diluted to become large, its counterpart is condensed.

In addition to the maximized eating experience, these strawberries have been grown locally and are sold at a farmers’ market in your neighborhood. You can buy directly from the people who grew them, feeling great about supporting the local economy. You may also learn at the farmer’s stand what it means to grow strawberries, the best season to enjoy them, and a tip or two on how to make delicious strawberry jam. And last but not least, you will amaze your family and/or your guests, rejoicing to discover how “real” strawberries taste.

Demystifying the myth of “more”

In order to buy strawberries that could meet our expectation, many of us compared size or volume relative to their price. We almost automatically associated increased size/volume with increased user experience, but it turned out that it was not necessarily the case. Why does such a discrepancy occur?

It is because our economic system ended up re-writing its goal. We believed that the system was there to serve our ultimate goal, which to become happier. To collectively live a happy life. But today’s efficiency-first economy puts “maximize profits” as its goal, and does not really care if it is not equal to maximized happiness.  When it happens, “more” is no longer the kind of “more” expected.

More is more

When quantity is increased without decreasing quality and other added values, “more” becomes “more.” We usually assume that this is what we receive from efficiency-first economic system.

More is less

When quantity is increased by decreasing quality and other added values in order to maximize the value at the point of sales, “more” becomes “less.” This happens surprisingly often in efficiency-first economic system.

Less is more

When “more” is a product of diluted quantity, “less” becomes “more” by delivering values that go beyond quantitative limits.

Again, he ultimate goal of our consumption activities, or what we do in general, is to become happier. But under efficiency-driven economy, “more” is diverging from our ultimate goal: 1) the race for “more” is causing serious divisions among us, and 2) “more” is increasingly depreciated and eroding our happiness.

Less is more economy

In the previous chapter, we saw how “more” is often “less” in an efficiency-first economic system despite our belief that “more” is always “more,” and how “less” becomes “more” when it happens.

The confusion occurs because we mix up our goal, ways to achieve it, and how we measure such achievements.

We all have different agenda for our life, but ultimately everyone’s goal is to become happier. We do so many different things in our life – from satisfying basic needs such as sleeping and eating, studying to get a dream job, switching a job to earn more money, to seeking friends and lovers to feel personal bonds. But at the end of the day, we do them to feel happy and accomplished. We want to eat more, better job that pays more, buy more products and own a big house, and we want more friends and more “likes” on social media.

In the “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 the 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, the “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. If you’ve ever created something, you will remember the feeling of being a proud producer even if your production was not something marketable. But do you ever remember feeling like 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 a source of happiness: We call things that resonate with our fundamental values “beautiful,” and not only things that are cosmetic or artistic. Products are beautiful when they are natural, humane, kind, caring, nutritious, inspiring, encouraging or 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 is quantified using common profit and loss units, beauty can take many shapes and the potential is boundless. You could and should have your own aesthetic standards 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 your ability to create/find beauty around you, you discover a wide ranging 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: The “Less is more” economy prioritizes our own happiness.

As society has 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 as 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 consumers. Efficiency escalated the division because it’s faster to let only large capital, competitive people and state-of-the-art technology engage in the production process and exclude the less-efficient others. But it turns out that becoming a mere consumer was very similar to being rejected in the efficiency game, deprived of opportunities to contribute to the society and receive a recognition for your unique work. The kind of “more” that emerges from such a divisive system is 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 route 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 values. 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 lifestyles/futures 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 kinds of happiness.

Inspiring stories of “less is more” economy

Business

The businesses that leverage “less is more” have enthusiastic fans, because they are bonded by shared passion. The Japanese household item brand MUJI inspires users with their simple, no-frills yet magnetic products. The clothing company, Patagonia, offers outdoor gear for users to help them bond with nature in a profound way. “Less is more” businesses do not sell products; they provide tools/catalyst that help users design/find your own happiness.

Design and architecture

The fact that “wabi-sabi” and De Stijl were art movements, and “less is more” emerged from the world of architecture, demonstrates that design and architecture are the very media that crystallizes and materialize the power of “less.” Why? Because the largest driver for our happiness is our own creative energy which can let vast beauty/happiness emerge from zero. “Less is more” starts with design and architecture.

Useful External Resources

There are also various movements that attempt to re-think and re-imagine our system as a whole. Although they take different approaches and pursue unique goals, there is one thing they have in common: which is a realization that we may not fix the “mega 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.

Circular Economy

If our current system is linear – take, make, waste – we can re-design it so that the loop is closed and one person’s waste could be someone else’s nutrients.

Biomimicry

Nature is full of complex design that achieve resilience. The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet.

Alternatives to GDP

Local currency

The Big Pivot

If you are still not so sure to what extent our planet is in a critical situation, read Andrew S. Winston’s “The Big Pivot.” It will provide a larger context on why we need a new approach to pursue happiness, especially as a member of business community that is supposed to “deliver” happiness to the society.

The Post Growth Institute

The Post Growth Institute is a research-based, international organization accelerating the world’s shift to a purpose-driven economy that thrives within ecological limits.