Nov 3, 2008


Throughout human history, luxury has meant fine, expensive, or rare stuff. But "stuff" has become abundantly, overwhelmingly, common, while other things, such as time, personal space, and real nature, have become rare. In the near future, luxury will be defined less by the stuff we have, and more by the leisure we have, our access to pristine nature, the purity of our personal environment, our health and well-being, and our access to information. These, in my opinion, are the emerging definitions of luxury.

Which is more rare and precious -- the diamond or the cat?

What's desirable in this picture -- his clothes or his "landed," leisure-class lifestyle?

In our toxic, late-industrial lives we yearn for the natural... not the actual natural of wilderness (in which setting, we humans, like other animals, are mostly engaged in basic survival), but the apparent natural of sustainably cultivated nature.

Yearning for natural things is nostalgia for an intact world, when humans were just one component striving on a seemingly much larger, and still healthy, Earth. But our yearning could also be an emotional expression of a biologic and psychologic need – like when you've been eating Cheez Doodles all day, and suddenly a plate of steamed kale seems like the most delicious food possible.

As a designer, if I want to make a good and meaningful contribution at this stage in the human story, I must address the open-ended problem of how to make things that are life-enhancing and pleasing, and which support the integrity of the environment and the well-being of all people, not just the wealthy.

If, as architect William McDonough has said, a tree is the most perfect design there is – a 'machine' that makes oxygen, eats carbon dioxide, ionizes the air, makes food, supports micro-eco-systems, self-replicates, etc. – the more that man-made designs (from the macro- down to the nano-scale) behave like and resemble trees, the more advanced our technology and the more perfect the design.

A perfect design. Photo: Jen Buley

Another analogy: it is still said that the human brain is the most advanced, sophisticated computer that exists... yet it is soft (inside a hard shell), and integrated into something (a human) with myriad, flexible functions. The human brain also has two distinctly different ways of working – one analytical, skeptical and linear (left brain); the other intuitive and sensual (right brain). Thusly, in their evolution, computers are also becoming soft and flexible, adept in analysis and 'intuition', and integrated into objects with multiple functions.
Is it an infant onesie or a vital signs monitor (and skin moisturizer and transdermal vitamin doser)?

The funny thing is that futurists have traditionally embraced tropes of machined metal, hard forms, smooth-shiny, cold, mechanical, etc, as symbols for hi-tech. But, I think that Philip K. Dick, who wrote the book on which the film Blade Runner is based, had a more accurate idea. The most advanced technologies of the future will look and feel totally natural -- and if we get really good as designers and engineers, they will be indistinguishable from natural things. (I should add that, hopefully, our future will differ from Dick's creation, and we will save the Earth from total degradation before the 'real animals' are extinct and the ecology is dead.)

Instead, the technology trends point toward natural, soft, flexible, and biological:
  • Technologies and computers becoming so integrated and/or miniscule that they are, for all purposes, “invisible”
  • Incorporation of “smart" technologies into previously inert objects (clothing that analyzes body function and self-cleans; walls or roofs that store energy, clean air, and grow food)

  • Smart objects that multi-task (consider laptops today, which are typewriter, calculator, world-class library, record player, telephone, television, photo lab, drawing pad, social facilitator, shopping mall, etc, all in one). The days of appliances and objects that do one thing are over... and 3D printing also points to the end of manufacturing machines that do only one thing.

  • Softness – incorporating flexibility and the ability to morph into different forms for different circumstances (changeable textures, colors and forms, camouflaging)
  • Sensing objects that detect changes in their environment and in their user (in terms of health, state, and emotion)

  • Natural forms and natural feels

We will be getting somewhere when technology “disappears.” I'm not talking about living like cavemen and women... I'm talking about really hi-tech... hi-tech that makes our current hi-tech look like the Flintstones. The most hi-tech things will either be invisible to the naked eye, or will look totally natural. For example, man-made water and air filtration that looks and feels like – and therefore IS -- a grassy field, a forest, a mountain stream.

Mountain stream or grey water waste treatment facility? Photo: Jen Buley

Biotechnology and biomimetics, research that learns from nature, and builds or synthesizes needed man-made things in the images of nature -- in terms of function (photosynthesis, CO2 capture, metamorphosis, camouflage, tissue re-generation, and self-healing), aesthetics (softness, flexibility, color, fragrance, individuality), and total biodegradability -- will be key, if we are to design an equitable future worth living.

1 comment:

jennysue said...

dear visionary. this is an awesome and inspiring post. it is funnily apropos that this morning on my walk to the coffeeshop, i thought of you while walking atop all the newly-fallen perfect leaves on the sidewalk - all perfect specimens even in their spotty half-brown ways, some of them - and imagined how you would absolutely have collected one or two quintessential samples and drawn inspiration from the form+function, complete smartypants natural world. it made me wish you were here. this is more like an email than a blog post, but i wanted to comment directly to this really visionary and astute observation of how and who we are, where we came from and where we're headed. i actually think this kind of forward-looking assessment can give you enormous credibility in the wbranding and advertising worlds, for what that's worth. maybe submit these thoughts, in article form, to brandweek or someone, and your CRED as an in-touch, finger-on-the-pulse designer is instantly validated. anyhow. looking foward to skyping later. off to run in the beautiful bklyn drizzle. xoxo