The Downside of Abundance

Who doesn’t like abundance? It’s great, right? But the downside, which is often overlooked, is that what starts out as abundance, soon becomes the new standard of what is “necessary.” Abundance can lead to waste and laziness.

Constraint can be good. Parameters; limitations on resources. Constraint sparks innovation. What seems impossible at first, becomes do-able as we apply our minds to the problem.

If we only ever have abundance, we can miss out on opportunities to refine and optimize design.

An insurance company decided to build a big office building in my town. Most people are happy about this; it’ll create jobs, bring foot traffic to the downtown merchants, and so on. However, the company has insisted on closing a segment of street and removing some historic houses. It “has to” do these things to create its office building. And these moves are unpopular with many residents.

But what if the company were instead to impose constraints on its design: “We will not close an existing street, nor will we tear down any historic buildings, to create our new office building.” What would happen? Of course the project would still get built! It would just be better, because it would get built without eliminating the community assets of a street and historic buildings.

We might have the striking visual of an office building wrapping around the lovely old historic homes. It would become a unique landmark, as well as a precedent for future preservation efforts.

We might have a street running through part of the office building, breaking up the monotony of a big box, and preserving pedestrian access between the shops and the residential neighborhoods. As such, the street would offer value to the new employees as well as the existing residents.

The United States, rich in land, wastes a lot of space. Rich in resources, we build excessively large things, and far too many single-use items. Some of the most functional and beautiful design comes from countries that are resource-constrained in some way: Japan; Italy; the Netherlands.

On a personal level, abundance in the form of money, time, or space can be a dual-edged sword. When constraints appear, we should not use them as an excuse to back down from our good plans or goals. We should use them as an opportunity to refine our designs, and then tackle our plans with doubled-down vigor.