KWI – Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Intitut Essen, KWI)


Project Growing by Shrinking? Rethinking the Paradigm of Growth

Principal investigators: Prof. Dr. Ludger Heidbrink , Prof. Dr. Dr. Peter Seele CRR

Shrinkage processes have recently been observed in different fields of the European economy, culture and society. Shrinkage processes can currently be seen in demographic change, downsizing of employment, in migration of the highly skilled or in the cutback of industrial or urban regions. Furthermore, shrinkage processes comprise public goods and natural resources. The idea of a ‘shrinking society’ is mostly associated with a negative development replacing the dogma of a progressive, ongoing growth in every field. Shrinking processes were held responsible for reductions in productivity, reduced prosperity, decreasing quality of life and social and ecological processes of erosion.

The project aims to show that under certain conditions, processes of erosion and scarcity bear the potential for qualitative growth, sustainable development and social integration. These potentials consist, amongst other things, in the formation of new products and services as well as structural improvement of regions. Furthermore, it will analyze to what extent shrinking processes enhance the emergence and accumulation of social capital as well as new forms of integration within society.

The objective is to gain a differentiated perspective on shrinking processes that allow a statement to be made on the tendency and quality of challenges to regional development. Processes of regression, scarcity and thinning do not necessarily have integrative and cohesive consequences.
The project arrives at three insights: First of all we critically analysed shrinkage processes that can currently be observed in Europe as well as in other parts of the world to show regional potentials for development. Secondly, we show the risks of damaging public goods caused by shrinking processes (e.g. forced competition for scarce goods or declining quality of life). By facing these risks we aim to improve social cohesion. Thirdly, we argue for greater acceptance of shrinkage processes that are inescapable (e.g. renaturation caused by climatic change) or that result in positive consequences (improved migration policy).
Altogether, we aim so show that shrinkage processes and scarcity might lead to processes of social and regional cohesion. In contrast to linear growth paradigms, these processes are characterized by an evolutionary self-dynamic, which demands new strategies of political governance and societal self-organization.