12. A big group for all

Ford “Model T” Advertising (1908

A few years ago, Aldo Bonomi classified contemporary production activities into four categories:

“Today there are four major types of productive systems: there is a capitalism founded on the supremacy of the virtual, which is American, in which commodity production is carried on within communication and symbolic realm. Work involves the making and transformation of what I call “long life”, including DNA, memory, and the symbolic level.

But there is still a portion of capitalism based on the primacy of the mass: I think obviously to China , where the production model has all the features of post-Fordism. There is then a third level, typical of our capitalism, based on the sophistication of the original universe of manufacturing: the level of total production in which the form of production and the symbolic interact simultaneously.

A fourth level, finally, is the one of informal economies, quite relevant for the survival of many people in Latin America or Africa, depending on the economies of gift.

Capitalism today does not think only in terms of value chain. This means that the production system has to include the desires of the user-customer in order to win. This means to incorporate in the production system of goods elements like desire, reaching the core essence of man. Capitalism has included the human dimension inside the products, transforming itself into some kind of  “personal capitalism”. Yet, if someone thinks that because of this the conflict has been removed, of course he is wrong”.

(Interview to Aldo Bonomi by Guido Caserza: “La questione capitale”, Il Mattino, 8th January 2008).

Simplifying Bonomi’s classification, we can say that we can read the contemporary production of goods in three different ways.

Some people make things in order to survive (the previously mentioned examples of people who are forced by poverty and various circumstances to build a house where to live). Then there are those people who produce “hard” goods in the traditional Fordist mode (or if you prefer post-Fordist). In this moment there is a worker in a Cambodian ice factory committed precisely to produce ice blocks to meet the need for refrigeration of a world in which the refrigerator is not yet fully established.

Cambodian ice factory, 2007

Finally, there is a third category of people that makes objects and artifacts whose meaning is symbolic in the first instance (whether digital objects or artifacts rather than analog). And in some broad extent, these people are us (if you’re reading this blog, we can assume that you belong to this third category).

Ettore Sottsass (Memphis), “Carlton” room divider, 1981

Ron Arad, “Ripple Chair” (for Moroso), 2005

Compared to other periods of human history, we live in a world where these three ways of production do coexist and overlap (more or less smoothly) at the same time and in the same place.

I am now writing in an apartment in the northern outskirts of Milan. Downstairs there is a large open space where a large group of designers develops its activities together with a rapid prototyping service for large scale (specialized in making 1/1 scale models for the automotive industry). Within a few kilometers we have great stretches of warehouses where against all commercial logic there is a  continuous production  of low value added goods such as mosquito nets,  children rooms and mechanical tools.

Finally, a few hundred meters from our position there is a gipsy camp, filled with people engaged (to our eyes) in incredibly exotic activities: building constructions, home-made stove, clothes, various DIY processes, without forgetting the breeding of various animals).

Children in an Italian gipsy camp (2009)

Anyway, given the scope and goal of our class,  we therefore focus on people who work producing symbolic value.

Let’s start from Ikea, a Swedish corporate company producing for the mass. The same goes for IBM and other endless well-know companies. What is interesting to us, is this skill of some of these company to work perfectly on the symbolic level, becoming a global force able to trigger personal needs and desires shared by the vast majority of people living around the world (regardless of latitude, longitude, socio-economical and cultural factors) .

Ikea smart packaging: one of the keys of their success

For instance, if we take core values of an Italian family of the 1950s and we cross them to “what and how an house should be”, we can easily agree that upon that standard, Ikea’s product would have not been considered “good enough”. At the opposite, nowadays Ikea’s furnitures not only works fine and are well accepted, but they also are synonim of “intelligence”

What happened? How does it work?


Ikea did open its first store in Italy in 1989. What happened in this 20 years to make them perfectly accepted and a succesful cultural and business model (in Italy like in the rest of the world)?

Ideal living room from the Italian 1950’s


If we are going to observe the most successful cases (the so-called “best practices”), the design strategies are always very clever and subtle, using various elements and different tools.

For decades, the big corporations have operated in what was once called “first world”, whereas other markets were not considered of  any relevance

At a given moment someone thought that even in a remote village in India the idea of being able to get  shampoo could have been attractive and worthy of financial investment (however small). Obviously though, the spending power of an average rural Indian family is not comparable to a Luxembourg one (to make an example of a rich country).

Given the brief, someone invented the monodose shampoo. For a few cents you buy enough cream to wash you hair once. Of course, using this system, the profits are laughable, but if we compare India’s population (one billion two hundred million people) with that of Luxembourg (five hundred thousand people) the whole thing starts to make quite sense.

Commercially speaking, it is true that a person living in Luxembourg earns an average of  113.000 U.S. $ per year (111 times its corresponding Indian fellow who gets  $ 1,017 per year). But since we have 2400 Indians per Luxembourgers we easily understand etc.etc.

This type of reasoning can be extended as much as you want. If you are the marketing director of Philip Morris and you want to increase the sales of your company, the idea of selling loose cigarettes is a great system. By the way, this is the same mechanism used by Muhammad Yunus to win the Nobel Prize for Peace (replacing shampoo or cigarettes with access to credit – technically called “microcredit” or “microloans”).

Benetton ad campaign promoting microcredit

This way of doing things is actually quite interesting and fascinating for our purposes.

If we want to improve the life of African farmers, what are the really effective ways?

One solution may be the send some missionaries (religious or secular, it doesn’t make a difference) building water wells and community centers (typical activity of a small group – like a NGO –  for a larger group or for all).

Community well in a Mozambique village, 2008

Another method is to have the Nokia selling its cell-phones at a very low cost. Low to have at least one person per village able to buy the tool generating (as a byproduct) a phone equipped village (with all the given andvantages).

From this point of view, oddly enough, objective economic indicators tell us that in order to improve the condition of women in rural India (if you are a woman, rural India is one of the worst places in the world where you can be), dozens of government programs + United Nations didn’t achieve much.

At the opposite, the arrival of television in this backward world makes the lives of local women much better (according to the most classical parameters: mortality rates, schooling, etc.). If you are interested to get the details of the “how this can happen”, please refer to: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, “SuperFreakonomics: Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes, suicide bombers and Why Should buy life insurance“, William Morrow, 2009.

Indian villagers busy with their cellphones (2009)

Here below another interesting point, made by Martin Feldstein (Harvard Business School), in an article published on the Wall Street Journal (February 16th, 2006):

The government’s microeconomic policies have been less successful than its macroeconomic reforms. Energy remains a major weakness, with too little building of electricity generating capacity and a distribution system that wastes much of the electricity that is generated by a combination of free electricity for poor and agricultural households and the outright theft of electricity that is permitted by low-level bureaucrats in state energy companies. The results are electricity shortages, brownouts and the ubiquitous small generators in shops and homes be-cause the state electricity supply is so unreliable.

In contrast, telecommunications is working well because of widespread use of privately sup-plied cellphones, now at 75 million users and rising at 3.5 million per month. It is ironic that cellphone service is widely available at low cost because it was regarded as a luxury and there-fore left to the market, while electricity is hard to obtain because it has been regarded as a necessity and therefore managed by the government.

This kind of paradoxes can be found in any field, ranging from the American corporation, to the UN humanitarian programs all the way to the Bolsheviks heading for the Winter Palace.

Mao Ze Dong famously stated that the revolution is not a dinner party. On this subject Antonio Gramsci has a different take and points out that the revolution should not be done with guns but in a much more subtle way. The succesful revolution (Gramsci argues) deals with a long journey bound to take the various centers of power (schools, universities, newspapers, publishing houses, etc. ) from the inside, without any violence or armed struggle.

This strategy is defined “cultural hegemony”, a concept describing the cultural dominance of a group or class imposing on other groups, through everyday practices and shared beliefs, their views until they are internalized, creating the conditions for a complex system of control.

Obviously, the history of the twentieth century tells us that whatever you use a rifle or you become the dean of the university in your town, at the end Communism does not work. But what is important for us (in this course) is the mechanism in itself, not the ultimate goal.

Back to our original example, Ikea wins because it becomes culturally dominant and able to rearrange the shared set of values referred to the family house and its representation. Interesting to notice that the impact of  Al-Jazeera television network in the Arab world looks like a Gramsci-like case study (to win you wars you don’t need an army, you need a TV). This system is also know as  “soft power“, in the sense that “power” is always and primarily a function of language.

Another interesting element of the recipe is this ability to take previous system and models and apply them today in unexpected ways.

Enzo Mari, self-made bed using his book: “Autocostruzione

For instance, in the early 1970’s Enzo Mari did publish “Autocostruzione” (self-construction), a book where he taught everyone how to build his own furniture at a minimal cost. Upon our grid, Mari was working following the “one for all” model. That said, Mari proposal (although very important in the design world: you don’t design a new expensive chair, but you rather teach people how to build their own chairs), didn’t achieve nothing and didn’t change the world of a fraction of a millimeter.

Interesting to note that some twenty years later, Ikea (the typical Capitalistic corporation, the real ennemy for politically engaged designers like Mari) did use his same exact system to market its furniture to the middleclass masses of the whole world.

This is one of the most elements not to be forgotten. Aldo Bonomi reminds us that capitalism has managed to acquire the ability to listen and understand the desires and needs of the individual.

If we go the way around, what can the single person learn from those large extended structures?

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Ron Arad



Ford “Model T”


Enzo Mari


Value Chain



Soft power

Ettore Sottsass


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