This is one of those times when we can’t even begin to fathom the changes happening around us. It’s particularly true for design, and an upcoming exhibition at London’s Design Museum seeks to explore its future in a new and provocative way. In conjunction with the pioneering furniture retailer Made.com, the museum’s show The Future Is Here: A New Industrial Revolution will explore the potential for democratizing the design process by taking advantage of new means of production. One of the key components of the exhibition will be a publicly commissioned piece of furniture that will be market-ready when the show opens on July 24. Starting April 8, people will have a chance to vote on the shortlist of designs that were submitted last month in response to the show’s brief. We recently spoke to curator Alex Newsom about the show, its genesis and the implications for the future of design.
How did this idea for the show come about?
The idea for the exhibition came about from discussions with the Technology Strategy Board about how most shows about digital manufacturing or "the next Industrial Revolution" have tended to focus on a single area, be that desktop fabrication, open-source design or high-tech materials. Historically speaking, true transformative change only gains traction when you have a group of new ideas and innovations feeding off each other and driving growth. That is what the exhibition sets out to show . . . that there are currently a group of new technologies and ways of making things that could act as enablers for change.
One of these key areas is crowd-sourcing. MADE have been using crowd-sourcing and crowd-selection for a number of years, and the idea of developing a new product in time for the exhibition was a strong way of communicating these ideas.
How different is crowd-sourcing from old-school market research/focus groups/etc.?
They are both methods of gaining data to help develop products. In that sense they are the same, however the way that they set about doing this could not be more different. Rather than just focusing on how the data is gathered, it is also important to look at how the data is used. Is it used to sell more products, or is it used to make products better? They are not necessarily the same thing. It is important not to lose sight of the role of the designer in all this. Without an expert making sense of the gathered data, the resulting products would have very little function or elegance. Steve Jobs once commented that they would never have invented the iPod if they listened to their customers. There is truth in this, and the role of the designer will never be replaced, however, if crowd-sourced opinions can be used by designers, rather than just marketing executives, then we could see some unique results.
With the barriers to manufacturing being removed, what are the potential environmental implications? In other words, will there be more stuff in our lives and the world around us?
Potentially yes. But there is also a more optimistic perspective. If consumers are more engaged in the design and manufacture of the products they own—would they develop a stronger attachment to them? Mass-customization can lead to products so uniquely tailored to individuals that they choose to fix and adapt them, rather than just replacing them with something new.
There is also more research going on then ever before in the field of closed-loop production. Applying the same high-tech methodology to unmaking and remaking—as we do manufacturing could result in products that not only last for longer, but are easier to break down and be remake when they do reach the end of their natural cycle.
Do the masses really make the best decisions? Or is the group who will participate in this or buy MADE's products are more self-selecting and savvy group right out of the gate?
That is one of the questions that The Future Is Here has set out to answer. Would a product that aggregates the opinions of the entire world be of use to everyone or no-one? I suspect it’s the latter and that crowd-sourcing is probably of most use within smaller, like-minded groups. But without experimenting and asking questions we will never know.