Low-Cost, Fast-Turnover Design Values
Leif Czakai and Timm Donke
As designers, what is your role in this project? How do you relate to global politics and economic shifts through your practice?
We see our role as collaborators, observers and intermediaries. We always aim for collaboration with people who are deeply involved in the specific context. In this project, we decided to start a business together with Barbara Ahimbise, a Chinese language student in Uganda, therefore we took the role of business partners. This allowed us to explore the shoe vending business firsthand, both online and offline. We used this as a case study to relate to global issues on a qualitative level—zooming in to the action itself and zooming out to connect it to a bigger chain of global relations. This method enables us to mediate between different scales of complex systems.
Do you think the hybrid business platform between Ugandan vendors and Chinese digital tools creates space for different kinds of design to circulate in the world? What unique qualities did you observe in the products, networks, or market cultures of Uganda?
We observed an impressive amount of diversity mixed with very similar mass-produced products. Everything is produced very cheaply and therefore needs to be exchanged and sold as quickly as possible. This creates a rapid circulation of products, and it is more common to buy cheap and replace quickly than to have a selected range of expensive, high-quality goods. In the European design culture this would be seen as a bad thing, but the reality is not that simple. A business model based on a small number of high-cost objects is much riskier for a vendor in the Ugandan economy. And there are also positive aspects of this low-cost, fast-turnover market: there seems to be an unfathomable amount of variations on the same product, and the psychological attachment to the objects seems to be different. Meanwhile, the people we met seemed to have a more entrepreneurial mindset: they didn’t want to simply sustain themselves, but to really invest their energy into international business to fuel Uganda’s economic growth.
In design rhetoric, “local” is often used as a mark of authenticity and sustainability to make products seem virtuous. Do you have a more nuanced understanding of “local”?
We use the word “local” more to describe the opposite of global. For us, local does not necessarily mean sustainable, authentic, or high-quality. Local for us describes a specific context—a limited geographical frame with particular cultural, technological, and economic qualities. Global, on the other hand, describes a larger picture composed of several connected localities. To observe the local requires zooming in; to observe the global requires zooming out; and to understand both requires reflecting on the gradient between the two extremes.