Strelka Press is a digital-first publisher of new writing on architecture, design and the city. Reviving the essay as a popular form, we publish critical writing in digital and print editions.


As growth was the defining condition of the 20th century, so scarcity is set to define the 21st. Already it pervades political discourse and shapes our reading of the economy and the environment.

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But scarcity is not just the inevitable result of growth and resource exploitation. Scarcity is constructed daily through the creation of desire, it is designed. The authors of this timely essay set out to establish a more sophisticated understanding of scarcity.  The message for architects and designers – experts in working with constraints – is that scarcity is a process, and one that can be productive. This essay asks us to throw out our simplistic Malthusian graphs and escape the stranglehold that scarcity has on our imaginations.

About the author

Jon Goodbun teaches at Bartlett UCL, University of Westminster and Royal College of Art. He has published papers on spatial politics, aesthetics and cognition.

Michael Klein is an architect currently based in Vienna. Forthcoming publications include Modelling Vienna, Real Fictions in Social Housing.

Andreas Rumpfhuber is an architect and researcher. He is principal of Expanded Design, an office for design and research. Publications include Modelling Vienna, Real Fictions in Social Housing (2014).

Jeremy Till is an architect, educator and writer. He is Head of Central Saint Martins and Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of the Arts London. Written works includes Flexible Housing, Architecture Depends and Spatial Agency, all of which won the RIBA President’s Award for Outstanding Research.


Scarcity: a word that hangs over early twenty-first century society as both threat and reality. Scarcity: a condition that is shaping many of our environmental, economic and political futures. Scarcity: something we take for granted and therefore feel helpless in the face of. But what if scarcity is not inevitable? How then could we deal with it, how then could we design with it?

There have been previous attempts to address scarcity. Forty years ago, the Club of Rome think-tank published The Limits to Growth. This report took a series of variables – food, non-renewable resources, population, pollution and so on – and mapped how they interacted over time. The authors predicted that if the global economy continued to grow as it had in the past, the world would reach its limits at a certain point. This conclusion was fiercely contested, but recent studies have shown its predictions to have been impressively accurate. Notwithstanding its pessimistic tone, The Limits to Growth attempted to account for many aspects of the modern economy and ecology. It had at its heart the most basic economic concept – scarcity – and for the first time prompted an interpretation of the complex nature of “scarcity in relation to other systems.

Forty years on and the issue of scarcity appears ever more relevant. The contemporary politics of austerity raise scarcity as a spectre, while rising inequalities draw attention to its realities. Environmental politics invoke the idea of planetary limits as a call to action. Assumptions about perpetual economic growth are being questioned as we confront the diminishing of resources and the degradation of the environment.

Scarcity runs through all these debates; as a basic economic concept and as a practical reality, it touches us all one way or another. For designers, it affects the production of our environment and hence cuts to the core of contemporary practices in design and architecture. It is essential therefore to understand the historical and contemporary constitutions of scarcity in order to know how to work with it. It is equally important to find new readings of scarcity, readings that escape the dominant structures and processes that limit contemporary economic and social life. Scarcity is not going away, so we had better understand how it is created and what it means.