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As a former product designer the arrival of digital fabrication technologies like 3D printing and the maker movement was as refreshing as the first lager on a hot and sweaty day on a Mexican beach.

I believe these new movements in design can create a more prosperous world, redesign material flows and harness our collective wisdom to reshape industrial systems.

Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad or an economist.

Kenneth Boulding
Environmental advisor to President Kennedy and economist

However from a critical point of view, there are a more than a few complex problems in the world that need to be tackled before getting excited about our ability to print pink plastic rabbits.

For many of us the evidence is clear that we are living in an accelerated transition to the third industrial revolution. One of the reasons for this is the emergence of digital technologies and how it’s fast-tracking human development. Yet the current pace of development is unsustainable. Natural resources and the effectiveness of ecosystem services are in decline, driven by increasing demand from an emerging middle class, inequality and population growth.

How can we harvest the potential of technology and the collective maker’s mind-set to create a better quality of life for as many people as possible?

What could be the role of digital fabrication and design to create positive social and environmental solutions that replicate and diffuse at the speed and scale that is required?

As a critical designer I truly believe we have a role to play here.

So in light of all that, let’s do a mini creative exercise to demonstrate how this movement and these technologies can enable solutions – please suspend disbelief for a minute.

Can you imagine…

…an adaptable material that is as tough as armour when needed, but soft as silk while in movement.

…a mobile phone that is sourced from conflict-free minerals and is easy to repair and update anywhere the world.

…a self-organised platform that captures millions of data points in mere days to detect toxicity after a nuclear accident.

…a low-cost healthcare system that reaches all citizens in need through open source methods.

Sound familiar?

Luckily we don’t need to imagine, all of these solutions are being explored, or are already on the way.

Shrilk

Crustaceans' armour is both incredibly tough and lightweight. A Harvard research team has succeeded in combining shrimp shells and silk proteins into a new material: shrilk.

Fairphone

The raw materials in your smartphone are more often than not sourced in questionable working conditions. Fairphone sources from conflict-free mines, ensuring fair working conditions in the assembly factory. It also provides spare parts and repair manuals to increase the lifespan of the product.

Safecast

In response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Safecast developed a DIY Geiger counter, which it linked with GPS and open source technology. Safecast volunteers all over Japan have mapped 25 million data points. An amazing feat, and one a central government would never have been able to accomplish.

Project Daniel

Not Impossible Labs is a research organisation working to improve healthcare through low-cost open source methods. One of its projects is focused on former war zones: opening labs for 3D printed prosthetics.

A toolbox for disruptive technologies

At Forum for the Future we are working on the additive toolbox in partnership with Plan C, Autodesk, 3Dee and Sirris, to identify disruptive innovations that draw on these new design trends to find solutions for our changing world. From renewal energy and healthier homes, to circular economy models and promotion of social inclusion we have received more than 50 different conceptual design ideas. The five winning ideas will launch as new business models in October 2015.

Three principles

From that experience, I can see three ways design can create disruptive innovation:

1. The design process needs to define early how to create a Prosperous purpose.

We need to design for durability and produce to the highest quality possible. Design must embrace a culture of fixing, mending and hacking, creating a service out of the product. Design needs to fabricate products with a positive legacy.

Design should encourage imagination, creativity and technologies, creating products and services that people really need. Let’s stop making pink rabbits and other rubbish. Design should create artefacts to improve our lives.

2. Design needs to understand Material movements.

Cutting edge design is seeking inspiration from ecosystems to make products, services and platforms. There is zero waste in nature, everything has a purpose. Materials should be chosen to suit the purpose of the product and those materials should be used as efficiently as possible.

3. Design needs to harvest Collective cleverness.

Many designers are fostering collaboration and learning as never before, and also embracing diversity and inclusion. Designers love technology, but we must remember that people come first. We should work to ensure that our practices don’t endanger people’s health or livelihoods. We want to see fair use of the world’s resources. Designers should aim collectively to create more joy per person.

We are living in an era where history is in the making. This convergence of incredible opportunities and scary challenges requires us to draw on the best that design, critical thinking and humanity can offer.

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