This paper was retroactively added to the Industry Contrarian. I feel like it’s an appropriate addition to the rest of the articles.
It’s light of recent news about Foxconn City, I’ve decided to publish a paper I wrote a year ago about Foxconn City. It is compared to KM3 a conceptual city developed by MVRDV, contrasting Narrative vs. Utility and Control vs. Chaos. I’ve reformatted it since initial submission (for easier reading) and I will be adding pictures to the PDF version as time allows. “Works Cited” is in the PDF, please reference that as needed.
Text follows below (after jump):
Title: CITY AS AN INTERFACE: Foxconn City and KM3: Narrative vs. Utility, Control vs. Chaos
Link to Full PDF: www.pratikpramanik.com/docs/FoxconnCity_KM3.pdf
Note to students: This site IS indexed by Turnitin.com and other integrity check sources. Your IP addresses are logged. Do not plagiarize. Academic integrity is worth a whole lot more than a good grade.
Foxconn City, near Shenzen, was recently in the news regarding multiple worker suicides. While the suicide rate is well below the national average (Wired, 19 Nov), the proximity of each of those suicides (all within the 2.1sq-km campus) strikes up questions about the design of the facility. The facility expanded to housing over 420,000 workers, many of those workers being of college age in Western society.
MVRDV (architects Maas, Van Rijs, De Vries) set out to create KM3 as a way to mitigate the rapid consumption of space for living. They look to house and serve one million people and their needs in the most compact form possible. The study places the city “autoarchic[ly]: it has no neighbors. To survive, the city must solve its own problems” (MVRDV, 272). It raises the question about how many people can be fit into a space. They work along the claim that “The current capacity of available land that can fulfill such expectation is 1.8 Hectares per person” and that “several countries need more space than the size of their territories” (21).
Foxconn’s Rapid Expansion, KM3’s Compression
Foxconn has been around for a while with steady relationships with electronics companies around the world (Bloomberg BW, 9 Sept). The recent consumer technology explosion and their aggressive business plan have caused them to see growth unlike anything else. In order to accommodate this growth, CEO Terry Gou, built up his factory facilities to house his growing army of migrant workers. Workers are forced to live on company premises because of Chinese laws that make it extremely hard to get a new residence license. The surrounding rural community provides migrant workers that are extremely low wage, mainly because of these residency laws. The lack of jobs in rural communities and Foxconn’s competitive pay create a huge pool of young candidates for the job. The microclimate is similar to the Pullman Townships during America’s industrial revolution, Foxconn City provides all the services normally provided by the government; Foxconn is nearly 70 times larger in terms of population (Pullman, Wikipedia). Josh Tyrangiel of Bloomberg Business week says that it could be equated to “nation building”.
MVRDV seem to be developing, at KM3, the same sort of facility Foxconn requires to stay active. However, Foxconn City is a drastic departure from KM3 and fails to provide a sufficient interface to the social aspects of its populace. The design is purely centered on the work and not much else. I will evaluate Foxconn City and KM3’s social structures through the criteria of Narrative, Utility, Control and Chaos. Hopefully, the analysis will reveal why many employees residing in Foxconn City decided it was worth it to commit suicide.
Narratives are the design story behind an interface. In a city, these interfaces are not explicitly visible and may be a combination of various laws, workflows, and social interactions that make up the narrative. Narratives have a specific flow of knowledge and end result in mind and the design decisions work towards that end.
MVRDV examines the every need of a city. MVRDV, using various cities in Netherlands as a basis point, reorganizes the idea of the city and infuses it with sustainability solutions. A significant part of the programmed narrative involved keeping things simple and sectioning the city into eight sectors for easier analysis of internal functions (MVRDV, 272). Through this they discovered that “housing and offices do not occupy the majority of the necessary space” and that “20 percent of the space for the city is needed for food production and 45 percent for oxygen” (280). It revealed that a lot of the design needed to be focused on the aspects normally “intensively neglected by the architectural and urban tradition”. The narrative follows “the sector with the most needs[; it] will lead and determine the city” (284). The design of KM3 takes into account the amount of food consumption of meat, produce, and photo-exposure needed for plant photosynthesis. A set of seven valleys increases the amount of sun-receptive areas in their program, getting enough sunlight for the various different crops (288-298).
Another aspect of the narrative is making sure resources are always present and in close proximity. Tanks contain water needed for all sectors for an entire year and “every distribution tank has a backup tank of the same size” (376). They argue that having necessities “positioned near their supply” (384) promotes efficiency. Proximity also pervades into industry. They state that factories with over 500 employees should be considered as “extra-large industries” and have the greatest impact on the city (386). They want “industry [to be] situated in clusters that connect to each other in the shortest possible way to benefit from synergistic relationships. Industries with less than 500 employees are more flexible with their location and thus, are spread equally throughout the city” (388).
Much like the Foxconn City, it lacks other considerations for its direct populace such as social, psychological, and cultural ones (420). They acknowledge that “Density can create new alliances. Unexpected relationships can come out of this surroundedness: direct liaisons between houses and other programs” (469). However, as seen with Foxconn City, pure density may be a problem.
Within Foxconn city there are two sets of environments. The factory work floor is very heavily narrated by the management. There is no talking on the work floor and virtually no movement allowed except to carry out the function the worker is assigned (Wired, 19 Nov). Basically since any and all human interaction is strictly forbidden in a work environment, it demands the worker to be standing the entire time. Workers complain of becoming a “meaningless” “machine” (Bloomberg BW, 2 June). The company relies on undereducated but receptive young minds to fill its workforce. This design essentially places humans as replaceable reprogrammable components in a system. My interpretation is that these migrant workers are cheaper than developing robot systems to perform the same menial task. “The constant monitoring was unnerving, but everything was well-organized,” says photographer Thomas Lee. “There were obvious safety precautions in place and plenty of protective clothing. The place was like a hospital. The sterile environment only added to the unease at times” (Wired.com). This workplace sterility is not uncommon in many factories. Prestigious factories such as Volkswagen’s Dresden facility employ workers proud of the sterile environment. In the same vein, sterility is essential to making quality electronics. However, does that feed into the narrative of the environment? Does that sterility, combined with the work narrative and hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in a small section of Shenzen create an environment of despair?
Given the users of this system, impressionable youth ranging from 18 to 25 years old (Bloomberg), the effects are magnified. Workers anonymously told Wired.com that public displays of discipline were a common occurrence in the factory. Corporal punishment was also a tool used by the management. The mandated overtime (up to 100 hours per month) and strict quotas also serve to further program the workers’ ethic. The environment displays a narrative for the workers as workers and not as human beings. This is a narrative that works to make Foxconn the largest exporter in China (Bloomberg BW, 9 Sept) so it is extremely effective design on part of the management. The unexpected cost was serial suicides.
When it comes to housing the 420,000 workers Foxconn provides many different facilities for workers to take advantage of. However as noted by Thomas Lee of Wired, these facilities were chronically empty. I believe this follows the narrative of the worker as a worker. This is a case of pure utility and no narrative.
Utility is a measurement for how many specifications are achieved in an environment. These include basic necessities for human living. Things like sustenance and shelter are the foundations of utility. Certain environments, such as Foxconn City, have additional requirements to assist in its workflow. There is no deliberate ordering or interface to these items.
Due to China’s residency laws Foxconn must provide everything for the workers. They do so with a hospital, security crew, swimming pool and crowded dormitories. There dormitories are usually packed in 8 to 10 people to a room (Gittens, 10 June). For many of the workers this is their first experience away from home and away from the rural community. This serves as their introduction to the urban world and their first glimpse of what the future holds for them. These residents are taken from a place of poor economy yet mental security and shoved into a place of rich economy and questionable mental security. “Common problems are homesickness, financial woes, lovers’ quarrels and spats with co-workers” (Bloomberg BW, 2 June) according to one of Foxconn’s counselors. However, according to Wired’s sources, not many people used the counseling sessions at all. As before, the same was true for the rest of the facilities. The clear message is there is no design or thought put into a social interface for the workers. Thomas Lee continues to point out that even the places of gathering have no human interaction. “The internet cafe was telling, it was being used but usually you expect chatting, talk about movies or games; they’re supposed to be a relaxed place but the human interactions were missing” (Wired.com). The design is clearly poor and fails to lead the residents into becoming familiar with these facilities.
The overt responses to the suicides further emphasized the utilitarian treatment of the workers. The increased number of overt open-air security force briefings seemed to Lee as “a public show for the workers.” Foxconn immediately installed bright yellow security nets to the sides of every building. The security nets were “a deliberate choice so they stand out. I think the authority there wanted to say, ‘Hey look we’ve done something in response to the suicides, so now it’s on you [the worker] to not screw up.’” (Wired.com). Bloomberg provided a description and pictures of the public “Solidarity Rallies” held by Foxconn. The turnout was great but a closer examination of the pictures didn’t show much interaction between workers. These actions and the alleged increased pay (Xinhuanet.com) serve to show that there is no narrative for the workers as residents and social beings; only as workers and workers alone.
Unlike Foxconn City, KM3’s design of basic necessities follows some narrative that serves sustainability and emergent behaviors in a community.
Control vs. Chaos
From the book Sensorium: “Control Theory focuses on programming algorithms and other techniques used” (Jones & Arning, 125). Chaos is the design decision to allow users form their interfaces with various aspects of the world around them. Both rely on user interaction but control provides or enforces a set of guidelines to the result of that interaction.
KM3 is a very specifically controlled city. It uses a sort of baseline environmental sustainable condition to drive the design philosophy. The current world is considered chaotic as it forms “an endless ‘skin’ of human occupation around the earth. It has transformed the world into a single city, one endless domain of colonization and urbanization. It is composed of huge, banal substances – built environments, mediocre productions of cheapness – that lead to a sometimes depressing inescapable matter: the Universal City” (MVRDV, 19). They see this as an unsustainable approach because it leads to abuses of the Kyoto Treaty where countries with a large carbon footprint “‘use’ other parts of the world. If certain countries were to compensate for C02 production on its own land, the USA would need an area 4 times its size and Singapore 20 times its size. If the current total global population behaved with US citizen-like consumption, four additional Earths are required” (20). If MVRDV was able to design civilization, they would solve these problems by having self-sustainable cube cities of at least 59 km3 (280). These cubes exhibit the highest level of control in order to sustain its null carbon footprint.
In Foxconn, the controlled environment is different; it goes back to the narrative aspect of the worker as a worker. The worker has a predetermined function assigned to them by the managers. In order to meet quota, every worker has a predetermined operating capacity; these are manifested in mandatory unpaid overtime and strict output numbers enforced by strict punishment. From day one, new workers are vigorously trained and boarded in overcrowded dormitories. “It’s like student orientation. They get [information on] dos and don’ts, phone numbers, facilities” (Wired.com). This reinforces the notion of the workers as machines to be programmed. However, this emphasizes the chaos of the social lives of Foxconn City residents. “Foxconn puts the ball in the workers’ hands. The vacant pool reinforces the overall sense on the campus of management” (Wired.com). Earlier described as utilitarian, these recreational facilities see no use because of the controlled work environment. I see these young workers getting molded into workers by the narrative and control aspects of the factory. With the intense amount of control in the workplace telling them how to interact with their coworkers, the residents are left with a void socially waiting to be filled by a narrative. This chaos has led to some emergent properties of the social atmosphere. Workers smoke alone behind a shipping container to “hide” from the workers they are not allowed to interact with (Wired.com). These same individuals go to the internet café only to huddle away and do their own things; this is directly opposed to my personal experience of Asian cybercafés where the computer experience is driven by human interaction. The excessive control in one half of Foxconn City may lead to negative properties in the uncontrolled, chaotic half. This may also be true in KM3.
KM3 is heavily rooted in scientific data but did not take into account human entropy. Everyone wants to “live with more space and more comfort” (18) causing various schemes for expansion and opportunism. This creates chaos as the productions of these desires have shaped an endless “skin” of human occupation around the earth. “It has transformed the world into a single city, one endless domain of colonization and urbanization. It is composed of huge, banal substances – built environments, mediocre productions of cheapness – that lead to a sometimes depressing inescapable matter: the Universal City” (19). MVRDV admits to this by saying “KM3 is one of the initial steps for understanding density. Yet, it is not an optimized city” (418). It has the building blocks towards a more realized future without wasteful mechanisms of transportation and good production. They see cities as “a “Chinese puzzle” of circumstances, where one has to negotiate in order to optimize one’s desires and one’s possibilities for survival” (465).
Both Foxconn City and KM3 are self-enclosed cities. The tragedies and continued conditions of Foxconn City may serve as a case study to help build towards a future KM3. Understanding how the levels of control negatively affect the spontaneous properties of human living will prove beneficial to a society focused on self-sustainment. With the added knowledge, we can work towards creating efficient interfaces for urban interaction.
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