The Spatial Politics of Work (SPW) is a new initiative of the India China Institute, develop out of a collaboration between faculty in multiple divisions of the university, and being led by New School for Social Research faculty member Victoria Hattam, Laura Liu, and Parsons faculty member Brian McGrath.

New School faculty Victoria Hattem (2nd from right) and Laura Lui (far right) at a SPW meeting in Shanghai, China.

New School faculty members Victoria Hattem (2nd from right) and Laura Liu (far right) at a SPW meeting in Shanghai, China in 2015.

Conceptual Background

Twenty-first century modes of work are changing. Old patterns of mass production, whether through large-scale Fordist production in the United States, state-owned enterprises and foreign-invested assembly lines in China, or the extensive export of South Asian labor abroad seem inadequate models of twenty-first century making. The Great Recession amplified the sense of crisis, as daily media stories broadcast manufacturing problems around the world: Foxconn, food safety scandals, air and water pollution, and the recurrent production failures recently exemplified by the Colbolt/GM ignition switch all have captured the headlines. Many older systems of production are in trouble. Intergenerational inequalities are pressing, leading some scholars to question the value of work itself (Krugman, Piketty, Weeks).

Yet, in amongst the economic turmoil, there is evidence of economic regeneration. New forms of labor are creating radically different urban forms in China, India, and the United States. A 3D printer maker seeds an array of new businesses from a quiet and non-descript neighborhood in Bengaluru. A sewing cooperative in Brooklyn is filled with young designers sharing space and skills. Manufacturing in place—rather than a global supply chain—creates new forms of intentional making communities, collapsing the ocean wide distances between producer and consumer. An entire factory zone in Shenzhen becomes a design district of start-ups and cafes.

Change is a foot. As yet, no one change dominates the socio-economic landscape. Taken together, however, they suggest that deep-seated changes are at work. A lively debate is underway about the future of manufacturing around the world. Are we entering a third industrial revolution? What are its parameters? What are likely to be the enduring reconfigurations? And who are the beneficiaries and losers of the changes at hand?

The Spatial Politics of Work (SPW) group wishes to intervene in these debates over the future of work from our distinctive vantage point. We come together around the premise that contemporary economic problems—and future possibilities—-are embedded within design-labor relations. Nineteenth century industrialization was premised on splitting design and labor apart. Adam Smith argued that the Wealth of Nations could be secured through increased specialization that accompanied the division of labor. It is precisely this assumption—that wealth is generated by division—that we question. Indeed, many contemporary economic changes might be understood as experiments in putting design and labor back together again. Might reintegrating design and labor in new forms of production alleviate the most egregious aspects of degraded labor, defective products, soulless industrial parks, and extreme global inequalities? Or are new ways of producing goods simply re-inscribing old inequalities in new forms?

To be sure, current changes in work are uneven and incomplete. It is not at all clear which innovations will win out. Nevertheless, change is afoot. The pressing task is to take their measure.

Our research team includes architects, geographers, industrial designers, and political scientists all of whom have been working across the design-social science divide for many years. Thus we are especially well positioned to both track and assess changing design-labor relations.

Faculty Involved in SPW

Meet The New School faculty involved in the Spatial Politics of Work group at ICI.