Prosumption Architecture: The Decentralisation of Architectural Agency as an Economic Imperative
“Don’t think you know better than they do, because none of us do” announced Richard Stride, Head of Product Quality at Tesco PLC, in a meeting referring to customer wisdom. He directed his statement to a subsequently disheartened product pitcher who was unaware of how the industry fully worked. Any item that makes it onto their shelves has to survive a rigorous testing process, the final and most critical stage of which is a customer tasting session.
This consumer oriented approach to product development represents a point on a gradual transition from traditional company-centric value creation, “the premise that the firm creates value” autonomously, to a consumer-centric approach involving the co-creation of value between consumers and companies. The sentiment behind Stride’s statement reveals the impetus when utilising customer insight. The idea is to add targeted value to the items they are intending to sell back to consumers.
However businesses are now beginning to discover competitive pressures to pull their consumers deeper into the value creation process, not just as test groups to consult (as at Tesco PLC), but as active agents inside the initial design processes. Co-creation or participatory design are the terms used to describe this practice, and the commercial value that has been demonstrated therein may have significant implications for contemporary business and commercial design.
In her influential 2006 book “Outside innovation”, Patricia Seybold provides a catalog of long established companies that have begun to embrace this emerging ‘customer revolution’with profound success. These include LEGO with its Mindstorm product, conceived of and developed actively by consumers and subsequently progressing to become “the best-selling product in the company’s entire history”. Seybold amounts such activity to an ‘outside innovation imperative’, in the sense that businesses that do not embrace consumer driven innovation will eventually fall behind competition. The eminent futurist Alvin Toffler forecasted this necessity in the 1970’s and 80’s, and Don Tapscott today describes the circumstance even as an emerging ‘societal imperative’ encompassing governments, and healthcare systems as well as commercial institutions.
These ideas and the economic reality they represent are the focus of this essay, and in particular their relevance and applicability to the practice of commercial architectural design.
The first chapter explores a brief history of commercial production and economic theory in order to provide context for the growing trend of co-creation. This initial discussion will then form the basis of an inquiry, through the following chapters, into how the identified economic trend is affecting the practice of commercial architecture.
In the second chapter, the contemporary influence and work of Frank Gehry will be explored, and the creative role of the architectural consumer will be analysed in reference to contemporary research and cultural theory. The experimental work of Professor Armand Leroi, evolutionary biologist at the Imperial College London, will then serve as a crutch in formulating the argument that consumers of commercial architecture are shortsightedly excluded from the process of design.
Finally the third chapter will consider the crucial difference between public sector architecture (where participatory design is relatively common) and commercial architecture. Through discussing The Design Councils emphasis on the importance of ‘return on investment’ in commercial design, and referring to the work of Alvin Toffler, this essay will attempt to answer an important question: – In an increasingly co-created world, as a matter of economic imperative, why is commercial architecture designed without consumer participation, and how might this change in the future?
Democracy’s Commercial Value
[su_quote]Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black[/su_quote] 
– wrote Henry Ford in his autobiography, ‘My Life and Work’, 1922, referring to an announcement he had made previously. However this statement is not about the imposition of one man’s aesthetic preference over those of the many, and instead it epitomises the very nature of mass production. Ford’s intention was to maximise output, while minimising costs, in order to reduce prices and turn automobiles from a luxury for the privileged into a product for the masses. Limiting variability in production allowed for increased efficiency. It so happens that the black paint was the quickest to dry. Ford achieved this goal, and demonstrated the commercial value of mass production and consumption. ‘Fordism’ then became the dominant model of production in the 20th century in almost all industries. However as Peter Day, global business correspondent for the BBC, would suggest, times are once again changing as the cost of production is falling. Day pointed out in a 2013 radio broadcast (reiterating a statement by Joe Krauss, founder of Excite), that this model is increasingly being turned on its head. “The 20th century was a mass production world – dozens of markets each of millions of people. The 21st century, quite different, is about millions of markets each of only dozens of consumers.”
This statement describes the supply and demand relationship of our ‘Fordist’ mass production economy shifting into a demand and supply pattern of production and consumption. Such a reality is evident in businesses like Shapeways, Sculpteo, and Kraftwurx, which all specialise in producing fully customised goods completely designed by the consumers. All three companies have also only been founded within the last 6 years. Instead of generic products which are made for stock and for a mass market, unique and personalised products are being made to order for either an individual or a small market of consumers.
This ‘democratisation of design’, as it has been termed, is not limited to product design; it reflects a growing culture of information sharing, creation, participation and collaboration via digital tools and the World Wide Web. Wikipedia, YouTube, and Flickr are just three examples where would be passive consumers have been organised to collectively produce some of the largest and most successful resources in the world, all of them having been founded in the 21st century.
Alvin Toffler predicted this shift from passive consumption to active production and consumption, coining the term ‘prosumption’ in his 1980 book ‘The Third Wave’. Toffler described a situation where various “forms of market expansion [were] reaching their outer limits.” To remain competitive, businesses would need to find ways to improve on existing merchandise or find better products to sell, and it is here that the value of ‘prosumption’ was implied, in utilising consumer insight.
Tapping into the pool of consumer potential is an increasingly common practice known by such terms as co- or participatory design. In these instances consumers are not merely producing content to be aggregated into a resource, such as Wikipedia, nor are they solely acting as test groups. Instead they are involved in a two-way collaboration with professionals in order to produce targeted design solutions. With regard to commerce, the intention is to improve the marketability and success of a product, by –
[su_quote]–involving the people who will be using it in the creation process [which] makes for a better result. This is because people are usually the best experts on their own lives.[/su_quote]
One example of a growing company that crowdsources the bulk of its product innovation, design and development to an online community (of 678,000 would-be consumers) is Quirky. The community members submit product ideas on the Quirky website, and each week three products are selected through a combination of community up-votes and staff selection. These three products are then developed further by the community, who collectively generate and evaluate ideas for improvement.
Their most successful products so far include a flexible multi-socket called the ‘Pivot Power’, selling 706,267 units at $29.99 each, and ‘Bandit’, a simple rubber band with a hook. Interestingly in this year’s May issue of Wired Magazine UK Ben Kaufman, the founder of Quirky, is quoted as saying;
[su_quote]Bandit is the stupidest idea I have ever seen… no one will ever buy it.[/su_quote]
The product went on to sell over 250,000 units at $10 each. This demonstrates the value that collective consumer insights present in the face of misled,centralised or professional preconceptions.
A similar prosumption model of production is being employed by various 21st century companies, such as Threadless with its ‘extremely profitable’ practise of crowdsourcing clothing design online through individual submissions and community voting. The highest ranking designs are then produced and sold back to consumers. Other companies include Crowdicity and Edison Nation; and as Toffler’s work suggests, such models may increasingly become economically imperative as businesses struggle to maintain their share of increasingly stratified markets. In her book “Outside Innovation” Patricia Seybold asserts that this is the case.
None the less, the criticisms of prosumption include the time expensive nature for consumers and the creativity required in creating their own products. This criticism, however, focuses on the movement of mass customisation, associated with companies like Shapeways, but not so much on the kind of collaborative consumer creativity apparent at Quirky and the like. Both models fall under the category of prosumption, but the latter only requires input from a representative and inclined cohort of potential consumers, as opposed to each and every individual.
As the theorist Clay Shirky points out, “Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users”. Similarly, even if a small percentage of Shapeways’ consumers actually used the service to customise their products, these products could then be made available to the other customers. In most instances, perhaps a small percentage of a large consumer population will be more representative of this population in comparison to a group of professionals. This, at least, is the engine that drives companies like Quirky, a young and rapidly growing company that is attracting millions of dollars in investment.
Consumption is Creative
We’re not employed just to make things beautiful, but to create value in the object we’re working on so that value can be sold on to consumers. Clients are not investing in the arts [when they commission designers].” In the context of commercial architecture or retail design ‘Clients want to see payback’, or in other words the best possible return on investment. By the nature of commerce these returns are determined by the spending behavior of consumers, and in this sense the appropriateness and success of commercial architecture could be seen as decided intrinsically by the consumer population. Quirky capitalises on this realisation in the context of product design, and in the last few years since its founding (in 2009) it has become a huge success. How then has the practice of commercial architecture been affected by the co-creation explosion, considering what Don Tapscott, in ‘Macrowikinomics’, refers to broadly as a ‘societal imperative’ for openness, participation and prosumption?
The rise of ‘flashy buildings’ described by Dyckhoff is attributed to the ‘Bilbao effect’, in reference to Frank Gehry’s 1997 Guggenheim museum and the financial impact it had in regenerating Bilbao’s economy. Three years after opening, four million tourists had visited the striking and bizarre looking building, generating an estimated 500 million euros in economic activity. The Guggenheim Bilbao has since presented an appealing model for commercial architecture, as architects and corporate clients have followed the demonstrated demand for icons and spectacles. However this method of matching supply with demand is synonymous with a business model that in many cases is becoming outdated. In C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy’s 2004 book, ‘The Future of Competition’, the authors describe ‘the traditional system of value creation’ where supply is supposedly matched against observed demand. They then refer to ‘the new frame of reference for value creation’, where consumers co-create value, dictating supply and working collaboratively with a firm. This new frame of reference becomes the focus of the rest of the book.
However if even car manufacturers can find reason to embrace the concept of prosumption, where are these principles of co-creation being employed in commercial architecture?
In general architecture is not void of participatory design initiatives, and in fact community driven design projects are relatively common. The Glass-House, for example, is an independent charity that helps communities make architectural changes in their neighborhoods. The project manager, Maja Jorgensen, states that her background in urban design, specifically in the private sector, informs her ambition to enable inclusive design processes, however the activities of The Glass-House reside wholly in the public sector. Members of the public, and non-profit institutions, are supported and guided in obtaining the resources or skills necessary to realise physical, spatial, and democratic change. The charity’s work pivots on neighborhood spaces, social housing, and community centres.
The agenda here is wholly philanthropic, and therefore commercial viability is not demonstrated as competitive profit has not been sought from any co-created architectural value. This distinction is important if such activities are to suggest an economic imperative, as they have in the commercial contexts described by Toffler, Tapscott, and other economic theorist of prosumption and co-creation.
Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, is an outside innovation concept employed frequently in an architectural and commercial context, and in fact it has been for a long time. Gehry’s‘Bilbao anomaly’ was itself the result of a design competition that effectively outsourced proposals. However only three practices were invited to take part. The competition was exclusive, requiring prequalification, and the contest was judged by a panel of only four people (The Minister of Culture and economic consultants). The intention here was clearly not to take advantage of consumer insight.
Even open competitions for commercial architecture (which are comparatively rare) are often evaluated solely by panels of officials with no direct consumer influence. More crucially proposals seem to be generated by architects who are pressured to conceal creative ideas in order to maintain an advantage over competitors. As discussed this typically automotive activity inevitably leads to the exclusion of co-creative consumers.
Such competitions fit the term crowdsource, outlined by Jeff Howe (who coined the term in 2006), but evidently the act of crowdsourcing is not always participatory nor is it necessarily the same as co-creating value with consumers. This is a strikingly different form of outside innovation than the imperative described by Seybold in her book, “Outside Innovation”. Pivotally there is a diverted step, in the sense that corporate clients outsource design proposals to architects, while product and car designers are increasingly outsourcing ideas and evaluation directly to their consumers.
Interestingly the term ‘designer’ (reflecting those that work in product development, branding, fashion or game design) is not a protected title in the UK and elsewhere, while ‘architect’ on the other hand is. Perhaps this contributes to a corporate stigma that meaningful architectural solutions, ideas, or insights (ones that add tangible and competitive value to a firm) can only come from professional architects.
Brand design, incidentally, is increasingly becoming an act of engaging consumer participation. Microsoft’s VP, Andy Hart, has said “We’re right to put people right at the heart [of advertising]” while referring to the company’s efforts to change the way advertisements are formatted, by working directly with consumers. Wolf Ollins, of the international brand consultancy Wolf Ollins and Flamingo, recently published a report that suggests the importance of a ‘minimum viable brand’, which consumers can then ‘adopt, adapt and improve’.Quirky’s product line, for example, is determined significantly and directly by its consumer community, and of course the products that a company supplies will inevitably be influential in defining its brand. Businesses are therefore finding value in the co-creation of their public appearance, but why is this not the case for the architecture of companys’ intended urban icons?
In a 2009 TEDx Leeds talk entitled ‘The Democratisation of Design’, Clive Crinyer expressed a common opinion regarding consumer participation – that it doesn’t generate significant innovation in itself. He tells a story about a conceptual washing machine that cleans clothes through the natural filtration process of plants, taking a week to complete a cycle. He then compares this extreme innovation to the ideas that would “probably” crop up in a co-creative session, such as “a bigger door” or “nice, easy buttons”. This idea relates to an interesting statement commonly attributed to Henry Ford; “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”, and while the inference seems to be in accord withClinyer’s story, maybe it should be taken to suggest that if you ask a vague question you’ll get an obvious answer.
The kind of co-creation Crinyer refers to is most likely that of modest target group discussions with only small handfuls of participants. After all, Quirky, a company built on the principle of co-creation (en mass) is certainly demonstrating that there is innovation to be found in consumer driven design. Scott Weiss, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, interviewed all of Quirky’smajor retailers before his firm’s investment in Quirky proceeded in 2012. While Weiss found that all retailers were shocked by the pace of innovation, he recalls an interview with one particular retailer; “I think their quote was, ‘Nobody is innovating at the pace that Quirky is.’” As Seybold states, “The faster and better you innovate, the more likely you are to remain in the lead and to set the new rules that others will have to follow.”
The innovation behind Quirky’s ‘Bandit’ product is debatable, but perhaps it is this kind of tangible consumer insight that compliments the skills presented by Quirky’s design staff. This of course is the whole idea of co-creation, the coming together of consumers and professionals, so that the former’s strength complements the latter’s. This partnership however, isn’t always easy. To quote Clive Crinyer again, “Wait a minute, we used to do that, and now all the users are coming in and tell us what to do, and this is developing an uncomfortable relationship -” but Crinyer continues “- as well as being an incredibly powerful source of insight.”
Perhaps then it is the awkwardness associated with having the practice of commercial architecture encroached upon by respectively uneducated individuals; people who have not spent years in education in order to obtain the means of entry into the profession. Maybe this encourages the architects in this money driven sector to act with ostensible self-sufficiency. Eliciting the help of consumers could eat into their pay-pack.
The architects, however, are fundamentally expected to deliver a return on investment (ROI), and so the pressure to conform to co-creative activities (if they are indeed becoming imperative) should originate from the corporations who finance these buildings – ROI being their central objective.
The Design Council currently host a 2009 article on their website that discusses the inherent vagaries and difficulties of measuring ROI, but also the growing importance of this measure in the industry of commercial design. Kate Blanford (founder of Kate Blanford Consulting and former head of packaging design at Sainsbury’s) is quoted;
[su_quote]Proving ROI has never been more important. Clients can’t afford not to get things right the first time now[/su_quote]
This statement sets the tone for the entire article. The implication is that since the 1990 recession, investment in commercial design has gradually required a greater measure of its tangible worth in order for businesses to make more efficient decisions regarding initial investment. According to the Design Council’s research, “the majority of companies surveyed (69 percent) did not measure their return on design investment”. However half of the larger companies they surveyed did, a rate that is three times higher than that recorded just three years earlier. We are of course now in the wake of another significant financial collapse, and so perhaps ROI may continue to grow in importance.
Referring back to Alvin Toffler, in the 1980 book ‘The Third Wave’ he suggested that in order to remain competitive in a saturated market companies would need to embrace and facilitate the act of prosumption. This is increasingly the case today. Companies like Shapeways and Quirky, (which may also be seen as platforms or as minimum viable brands) receive daily design input from hundreds of thousands of consumers, initially free of charge. From an ROI perspective this appears to constitute a significant advantage over traditional competitors. All that’s required to sustain these contributions is a share in any profits, if and when they come.
Evidently there is a significant percentage of consumers who are willing to contribute to this process, but would there also be this kind of interest in the prosumption of the commercial built environment?
In a 2014 post on Quirky’s Open Discussion forum, the user ‘A.Lorimer’ posed the rest of the community a question. “Could Quirky also find value in challenging the online community to help design and develop the retail architecture of their future stores?”
Discussion was sparked, consumer insight was provided, and within 24 hours sketch-up scenes had been uploaded to the discussion thread, presenting one user, Ernesto Tan’s, initial and preliminary contribution for how the shop could look.
All consumers need is a platform through which to express themselves. As Clay Shirky puts it in his book ‘Here Comes Everybody’; [su_quote]We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race[/su_quote] – and business is just beginning to wake up to the inherent value in this phenomenon.
Leroi’s work in consumer music generation demonstrates an interdisciplinary truth about consumption and production. The public vote with their feet, and the commercial artifacts of culture are therefore inevitably defined by the invisible handprints of consumption.
The traditional interface through which consumers have left this mark on commercial products has been through market observation, by companies that act on this information reflexively. However emerging 21st century companies such as Quirky, Shapeways, and Local Motors are flipping this model on its head, utlising consumers in directly guiding the design of their brands and products. Economic theorists have suggested with authority that this competitive business model will begin to dominate, challenging the conventional assumptions about how business should operate. It is perhaps difficult to appreciate while in the midst of it, but this significant transformation holds true to Alvin Toffler’s prediction that prosumption will emerge as a competitive means of growing profits. Companies continue to compete and as Blanford has stated, the economic environment demands effective design the first time around. Corporate clients may not currently demand co-creative architecture, but 21st century companies are continually springing up, utilising prosumption as a central business model. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until one of them decides to apply this logic in the brief for a ‘revolutionary’ retail establishment. As is the case with consumption in general, the outcome of such a project will be difficult to predict – but perhaps this is the very point.
Alexander O.D. Lorimer is an architectural theorist and computer programmer intent on developing systems to better optimise the process and products of architectural design and human organisation.
His research focuses on the use of emergent properties within self-organising and optimising systems in order to solve complex design problems.
See also: www.aodlorimer.com and his previous article in H+ https://hplusmagazine.com/2013/03/27/adaptnetic-structures/