The spiral into neo-protectionism

First published by Blueprint, March 2016
Associated Categories Design
Worldwide protectionist measures taken between 2008 and 2013. Source: Global Trade Alert

Especially since the 1980s, design and architecture have been international in character. My old employers, Fitch, took over the Ohio product designers RichardsonSmith back in 1988; just a few years later, Foster Associates won the job to design Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok airport. Today big design and architecture firms not only work all over the world, but have at least a few offices across Europe, China, and elsewhere. The globalisation of design practice also dominates multinationals. Samsung’s 1600 designers work in London, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Delhi, Tokyo and Milan, as well as in a Gensler-designed studio in San Francisco. The firm will also open Virtual Reality film production in New York City.

Now that the Edward Snowden furore has subsided, the Balkanisation of the Internet seems set on hold, even if China, Turkey and other countries still censor foreign content on the Web. What, then, could stop the practice of design and architecture crossing borders still further? More than a Brexit or a Grexit from the EU might suggest; and more, too, than might be implied by Brussels vs Washington spats over the tax evasions (sorry, ‘tax planning’) of Google and other US tech firms.

There have always been frictions in world trade – around intellectual property, and around visas for immigrant designers. But since the Crash of 2008, world trade has been rising at only 80 per cent of the rate of world GDP growth – a turnaround on the pattern of the previous two decades, even if some suggest that trade will 20 per cent grow faster than world output in 2016. Of course, supply chains for product and building components remain as far-flung as ever, and tendencies toward ‘reshoring’ – bringing back parts of manufacturing from offshore locations – are still vigorously debated: eggheads at AT Kearney are sceptical, but the Boston Consulting Group is bullish.

Yet there are other, more subterranean trends. Disputes have long moved on from the imposition of tariffs and quotas to the demand that inward investors make things with high levels of local content – so much so that among petrol-driven cars, those with the most American-sourced components are today made by Toyota. And new, if qualified, kinds of autarchy have emerged. Yes, Apple hardware goes on being mostly manufactured in China; but now China is heading toward America in its relative independence from export markets.

On top of this, multilateral trade agreements wither, while bilateral arrangements multiply. Moreover, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are strongly protectionist.

The US, Japan and 10 other Pacific Rim countries agreed the TTP in October 2015, but opponents or a world slump could easily frustrate ratification. The putative US-EU TTIP could meet the same fate. Both are bastard children, chaotically born to exclude China, which since 2009 has been the world’s largest exporter of goods.

The two partnerships reveal that, in tomorrow’s bigger-than-ever trade blocs, standards – around sustainability, media correctness and preventive measures in health and safety – will be used to exclude unwanted imports from non-partnering nations (on top of China, think India). And tensions also abound inside the TTIP: the EU worries about the US taking too many risks in food and pharmaceuticals, while America could fine Volkswagen up to $48bn for its iffy vehicle emissions.

Designers and architects, wake up! Tracking the provenance of your ingredients, raw materials and labour supply will be more common: a Royal College of Art student has already pioneered a mobile app to do just this to supermarket produce. Clearly, food labeling will grow more complex.

There’s more. Design professionals will need to know more international law, and should expect truly swingeing reprisals when, overseas, a product is recalled or a building collapses – and that’s without Santiago Calatrava rejigging the White House for Donald Trump. Design for state-owned exporters will be trickier. It will be harder to move around the planet, and more national prejudice will infect those global conference calls. No doubt, too, an ascendant Africa (Kenya, for example) will be given the China treatment, just as Brussels already meddles with democratically elected governments in Eastern Europe.

In 1932, when the Depression brought about beggar-thy-neighbour policies in international trade and currencies, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson defined the International Style in architecture. Naturally, tomorrow’s world economy will see no simple replay of the 1930s. But who will now come forward to uphold internationalism in architecture and design?

Image by CrossswordsOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40025456

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