As part of Design Manchester 13, I was asked to sit on a panel to discuss the implications of the Second Industrial Revolution. (As you can tell, I'm not sure which Industrial Revolution this is, but that's besides the point.)
I wrote a few words, which as I thought about them, raised more questions than answered them. However, they are a useful starting point for lectures I'm giving this month at the Parson's School of Design in New York and at the Norwegian Crafts conference in Oslo.
Second Industrial Revolution, DM13 Manchester School of Art. 30.10.13
Here we are at the beginning of an exciting new Industrial Revolution and there is an opportunity not only to make things that were previously impossible, but also to right some of the wrongs of the previous Revolution.
Before the First Industrial Revolution, the way things were made was essentially by craft production; the local potter would make earthenware for the kitchen and dairy; the blacksmith would make and repair tools for the garden and the farm.
Architecture was essentially vernacular, as materials were obtained locally and buildings were shaped by the limitations of stone, slate and wood.
Regional styles developed in response to local needs and were refined over time, producing architecture and artefacts that we now value for their simplicity, their truth to materials and their ecological impact.
I’m not trying to paint a rose-tinted picture of life before 1760; it was grim up north for the majority of the population. The Industrial Revolution improved standards for a section of society, however, I think we would all agree that life since then wasn’t and still isn’t a bed of roses for everyone.
And we are now facing the ecological backlash of 250 years of progress.
This time around, things might be different.
My particular interest is the creation of art craft and design using new and emerging digital technology. It allows me to make objects impossible to produce when I was a production potter. 3-D printing has enabled me to unleash my imagination and create artworks that challenge the definitions of art, craft and design.
But 3-D printing isn’t just about making beautiful, bespoke objects. It holds far more potential.
With 3D printing, ideas can be transformed into objects without the need to produce costly moulds and tooling. The only way manufacturers can justify that sort of expense is by manufacturing in large volumes. In our revolution, batch production and the one-off are ways forward, whether it’s a personalized light fitting or a replacement knee. Customisation and individualisation are not only possible but to be encouraged as an enhanced sense of ownership must mean that the product is likely to be cherished more than an off-the-shelf, generic version.
And the Internet allows for distributed manufacture. So, we don’t need shiploads of identical products crossing the oceans. Instead, you could cycle down to your 21st century version of the local blacksmith (perhaps now renamed as a Codesmith) to collect your freshly printed stuff. Or, make it at home on your own printer.
Another advantage over traditional reductive processes is that there is far less waste in Additive Manufacturing, as leftover material is re-used.
And this time the technology isn’t in the hands of an elite minority. Tinkers and hackers are busy stripping down, re-jigging the technology, and making it accessible to a wider community of makers.
This all sounds rosy, doesn’t it? If I was little less positive and little more sceptical I might be describing the risks to our revolution, from vested interests through to nasty and dangerous applications.
This revolution is still at a very early stage, but if it is going to make a positive difference we need to encourage widespread innovation.
We need a 21st century version of the Lunar Society, meeting by the full moon not only to discuss the technology, but the social implications as well.
Perhaps they could write a manifesto? It could go something like this:
1. Cloud computing will put tools into the hands of the proletariat.
2. 3D printing will democratize design; everyone will be a designer.
3. All data will be open source.
4. Hacking of technology will not be a criminal offence.
I’m sure you could all think of a few more.
Long Live the Revolution!