The Future Is Here - A New Industrial Revolution is to open at London’s Design Museum. It’s a chance for the public to get up close to new technologies that are as significant to the future of global manufacturing industries as they are popular on Twitter and Youtube.
Beyond the array of new machines, customisable fashions and funky wooden furniture, it’s an exhibition that questions the conventional wisdom of how we make everyday objects, and what happens when they’re thrown away.
According to Kit Malthouse, Deputy Mayor of London for Business and Enterprise, these technologies are one of the reasons why the UK ranks in the top ten manufacturing economies of the world, meaning this exhibition is also a low key celebration of Britain reprising it’s Victorian role as a world leader for design and innovation.
Sustainability is a common thread in the exhibits, which explore products and manufacturing techniques designed to be less wasteful and more recyclable. Environmentally friendly “Unmaking” (or recyclability) is a relatively new direction for producers of mass market consumer items, illustrated by Puma’s biodegradable trainers and fully recyclable furniture.
Another closely related theme of the exhibition is crowd sourcing, or designers collaborating with consumers. These concepts are entering mainstream industrial thinking, increasing the lifespan of products and addressing pressing environmental issues like pollution and managing natural resources.
The crowd sourcing idea is best illustrated by a ‘democratically designed’ sofa that was created as competition run by the museum, the Technology Strategy Board and Made.com. The winning entry isn’t just the most popular entry, voters also contributed their own ideas as part of the competition process, meaning the winner is something the public helped to make, which, of course, explains why they like it so much. It’s a slightly circular process, but it creates more useful, more saleable products by involving the customer in the design and manufacturing process.
Taking the theme further is the WikiHouse Project which promises, in just ten steps, to let anyone produce a usable blueprint for a new home, free of charge. It’s an example of ‘open source design’ - free designs that we usually expect to pay for. It makes designing a house as simple as planning a new kitchen on the Ikea website, more or less.
However, we’re not living in a sustainable, crowd sourcing product Utopia just yet. An Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the museum suggests consumers aren’t ready to design their own sofa, let alone their next house. Sixty six per cent of people would rather leave design to the professionals, and over 70 per cent aren’t comfortable with the sheer pace of change.
Alex Newson, the exhibition’s curator, is testing those preconceptions as part of the exhibition. He points to a worktop decked with 3D printers and other home manufacturing kit, saying: “You can see a desktop factory in the corner of the exhibition with six of our front of house staff, who have had no experience in digital manufacturing at all. We've let them loose in the factory to see what they can create. I suppose their failures will be as important as their successes.”
You may not be keen on the idea of designing your own products, but these technologies will undoubtedly benefit the public. They give small businesses, start-ups and freelancers affordable tools to produce things that, a decade ago, were the preserve of the world’s manufacturing giants. That creates competition, which is good for consumers.
A third of those who answered the Ipsos MORI poll considered these technologies the only way to provide a sustainable future for the planet, which is good for everyone. The big picture is that digital manufacturing reduces our dependence on huge factories making and shipping goods around the world, offering alternative methods to produce and distribute the material stuff of life.
Newson doesn’t think it’s purely an invention of the digital era either. He says: “There’s a wonderful JM Keynes quote, ‘it’s easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits’, that sums it up perfectly”.
This forward-looking exhibition of the computerised industrial world definitely has a whiff of steam engines and the Spinning Jenny about it, showing us that even though technologies change, innovation never gets old.