Back to basics: embracing frugality in high-resource contexts and beyond

The use of rather rudimentary wicker shields by Dutch police during recent anti-lockdown protests is surprising given the availability of resources in the Netherlands to invest in more high-tech protection gear. This act of frugality in a context where it isn’t considered ‘necessary’ can help us better understand frugality as a strategic choice and supports the argument for the need to embrace frugality at an institutional level, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A large group of young people seeks confrontation with the police and pelts the police present with stones and fireworks on Beijerlandselaan in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 25 January 2021. EPA-EFE/KILLIAN LINDENBURG / MEDIATV Source: https://www.neweurope.eu/article/coronavirus-curfew-sparks-protests-across-the-netherlands/

A few weeks ago, a picture (1) shared as a funny meme on social media attracted much attention. The picture was unanticipated in many ways, showing the Dutch police using wicker shields for protection while controlling the youth protesting against the night curfew that had been announced shortly before. I was not sure about the authenticity of the picture; however, a quick Google search confirmed that it was real.

It was the type of shield used that struck me. The Netherlands is one of the most resourceful countries in Europe. It is in the top ten of the Global Innovation Index (2). For the Netherlands, it’s not difficult to design and buy robust, lightweight shields. So why use these shields?

I thought there could have been two reasons behind not using a ‘proper’ shield. First, perhaps, since these protests erupted suddenly, the police were not prepared logistically, so they might have had to use whatever best ‘substitute’ for a proper shield was available to deal with the situation. It reminded me of the Indian police wearing cricket helmets while controlling aggressive protesters. They wore these helmets because most of the state governments failed to provide proper equipment to police personnel. However, this was most likely not the case for the Dutch police.

I believe the use of wicker shields was an intentional decision rather than a result of logistical unpreparedness. It was a symbol of something more interesting. Some studies show that people feel less reluctant to attack the police personnel when they carry heavy weapons, including shields (3). The Dutch police is most probably aware of these research findings, so they might have chosen a shield that does not look like a proper shield so protesters would cooperate with the police rather than attacking them. The wicker shields were ‘good enough’ to protect police personnel in a non-extreme violent situation and at the same time they do not look like intimidating equipment that provokes people to become even more violent.

I kept wondering about the frugality displayed in this act. The police could have used high-tech shields, but they didn’t. So, to dig a bit further, I started following the discussion about this ‘unexpected act’ of the Dutch police on a digital platform (4). While commenting on the picture, one of the users opined:

“These rattan shields are lighter, and flexible. The flexibility absorbs the force of impact, so the arm must deal with less impact. Even when they get damaged you still have the biggest part intact. The cover is a non-burning material. For years people have been doubting if they shouldn’t have the clear plastic ones, but in testing these always are preferred.”

The history of using wicker shields starts in medieval China and Korea. The national archive of Singapore also has a picture from the 1950s where police was using wicker shields to control rioters (5).

Riot police trying to control protestors in Amsterdam while holding wicker shields (source: reddit.com)

Different riot shields are used in different situations. The main purpose of a riot shield is to protect the police personnel. A normal non-ballistic riot shields can be made of different types of the material. However, transparent shields are made up of the polycarbonate.  Another user mentioned:

“Prior to the introduction of the modern police shields, rattan shields were standard issue with the Hong Kong Police. These were traditional Chinese shields. On Google, you can find pictures of them used in the 1967 riots. For their successful efforts, they were granted use of the prefix Royal, and became known as the Royal Hong Kong Police, up until 1997 changeover”.

Overall, there was around 200 comments in the thread, where people discussed pros and cons of this unexpected act of frugality by one of the most technologically advanced and professional police forces in the world.

The frugality element

Frugality is a virtue with the mindset of ‘doing more with less’. Sustainability, affordability, recyclability, flexibility and user-friendliness are the basic tenets of frugal approaches. In human psychology and evolutionary biology, frugality is a cognitive ability to make best suitable decisions with limited resources (knowledge and materials) in an uncertain environment. In spiritual discussions, philosophical traditions and religious thoughts, it has been suggested as a way of life. In India’s freedom movement, Gandhi used frugality as a symbol of self-reliance. He advocated for ‘voluntary simplicity’ in boycotting British products. He successfully mobilised the masses against the most powerful colonial power of his time through a simple idea of frugality. In economics, frugality is an outcome of rational choice where people make the most ‘judicious’ decisions to use what suits their needs best.

Most of the time we confuse frugality with cheapness and unattractiveness. It is true that some frugal solutions are not the best solutions. In fact, it is also not a primary aim of frugal solutions to be the best. The aim of frugality is to search for the most ‘workable’ solutions in specific circumstances. In everyday life in the Global South and elsewhere, frugality is an everyday practice. It has nothing to do with the binary of good and bad. It drives action as an approach to deal with everyday struggles.

The need for institutional frugality

Institutions set the rule of the game. They create the space for the propagation of certain ideas and approaches. The judicious embracing of frugality-based approaches at the institutional level will help to challenge the misunderstanding around frugal services and solutions.

Frugality is not the last resort of the underprivileged; it is also the responsibility of resourceful individuals and institutions. Institutions can reorganise or strategise their existing set of diverse resources to make frugal solutions and resources relatively more effective and acceptable. Planetary limits, rising inequalities, and global challenges like climate change have led to renewed interest in the ‘frugal ways of doing things’ as our resources are not infinite and as unfettered used of existing resources could lead to further inequalities and new global challenges. Individual voluntary simplicity is always welcome, but these are the challenges that must be fought at a larger institutional level.

The ongoing pandemic also calls for ‘new forms of frugality’ at an individual and institutional level, where creative resource reorganisation driven by frugality approaches can be a game changer in a post-pandemic world (6). Mixing flexible, situation-oriented decision-making with standard protocols, the strategic use of experiential knowledge, institutional memory, continuous communication with practitioners, and interactions with diverse sets of actors can help institutions harness frugality approaches (7).

The Dutch police in my opinion did well by showing that frugality can be welcomed at an institutional level and that rather rudimentary tools and practices focusing on lower resource use are not undesirable, but are making a comeback despite rapid technological advances.

Wicker shields may not be useful or robust enough in a context where extreme violence is observed and police equipment is used as a symbol of intimidation, but the example of wicker shields reflects the importance of old materials used in a different context. Wicker is also more sustainable to produce and can be recycled after use. Frugality is not about new or old, but about what is most suited to a specific context and how one can creatively engage in that search process.  


References

  1. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-55788924
  2. https://www.wipo.int/edocs/pubdocs/en/wipo_pub_gii_2020/nl.pdf
  3. https://www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/233280.pdf
  4. https://www.reddit.com/r/interestingasfuck/comments/l4kn41/these_dutch_riot_police_have_wicker_shields/
  5. https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/photographs/record-details/9f3bcf8a-1162-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad
  6. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/dec/01/last-of-the-big-spenders-covid-new-frugality
  7. https://www.cfia.nl/news/covid-19-should-europe-embrace-frugality

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Birendra Singh is a Science Technology and Society (STS) studies researcher. He holds a Master of Technology (M.Tech) and a research Master (M.Phil) in the realm of science policy. His research interest includes, frugal and grassroots innovation emerging from marginalized spaces, politics of knowledge and social institutions. At ISS/EUR, his PhD project is aspiring to conceptualize knowledge and learning dynamics of the bottom-up frugal innovations. For more info https://www.cfia.nl/people/birendra-singh

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1 Comment
  • Phillips Bradley
    May 10, 2021

    Kudos Mr. Singh

    Very thoughtful and forward thinking article.
    The need for frugality embraces every aspect of life. Done well it is a life saver. Lowering the carbon footprint is just one other aspect.

    P. M. Bradley