INNOVATION ECONOMY AND THE TRIUMPH OF THE UNDERDOG

It’s not everyday that I find myself being brought to tears, but at a recent talk given by NASA’s chief technologist Mason Peck, I found myself not only left with blurred vision but also an incredible sense of unequivocal optimism.  Sitting in the overcrowded auditorium, I watched as the Curiosity shuttle metaphorically shed its skin and gave birth to the Mars traveling rover through a series of intricate S-curve maneuvers ending in a supersonic parachute gliding gently to the extraterrestrial surface.  Perhaps my reaction was a bit exaggerated, but I have recently been immersed in the history of NASA’s space technology as told through the words of Nicholas de Monchaux’s book Fashioning Apollo.  An intriguing account of the history of the development of the space suit, Monchaux talks of the bid for the suits worn in the Apollo missions and tells a classic story of the unlikely underdog heroine.  The fascinating history of the space suit begins with the bra manufacturing company Playtex.  Combining their knowledge of the human body and their specialty manufacturing skills with the then new material known as Latex, Playtex offered a 21-layer solution handcrafted by skilled seamstresses who were commonly accustomed to assembling bras and girdles.  I find this not only a triumph over the conventional rigidity of NASA’s engineers but also as a broader indicator of things yet to come.  The overarching principle here being a departure from the known, and an unorthodox approach to an existing problem.

Mason Peck calls it Innovation Economy.   Not an entirely new manifesto, the goal is to bring technology into the hands of the mass population and out of the grips of the inflexible scientists relying solely on algorithms and statistics as opposed to pure intuition and adaptation.

This title resounded in my head for the next few weeks and struck a familiar chord deep within.  For the past few years, I have been pondering the future of fashion.  As a trained designer, I understand the urgent immediacy of fashion and the constant pursuit of satisfaction ascribed to it.  Here is the problem: fashion is persistently moving forward with no clear goal and is relentlessly repeating itself in order to keep up with our instantaneous culture. The increasing temporality of the cycles of fashion leaves little room for innovation and favors instead a recycling of ideas and a dependency on the invention of new needs.  Baudrillard calls it the “consumption of signs.”  This led me to explore the true origin of innovation within design, and landed me in the abyss of manufacturing methodologies.

Let’s start with additive manufacturing, a radical departure from centuries of materials waste and cost absorption.  More commonly known as 3D printing, the process involves the building up of materials using either molten plastics, resin, or laser-sintered powder.  Created from computer generated 3D renderings, the drawing is sliced into thin layers and reproduced into physical form. Zero waste, minimal overhead cost, and the possibility for complete customization of consumer products.  So what does this mean for our existing industry?  Does this signify a rise in the creation of more dispensable products?  Or can we instead start to envision a shift towards sustainable manufacturing and a centralization of production and design.  By centralization I may even mean out of your living room.  For $2,200 you can purchase the Makerbot 2, a desktop 3D printer that utilizes spools of PLA, a biodegradable plant based polymer.  Tech savvy designers can generate their own models, while the less seasoned consumers may download designs for free through a unique platform of online resources referred to as “open source.”  The idea behind open source is also a unique approach that is perhaps vastly counterintuitive to the opacity of the design world.  Open source is like a conversation between pundits, except in this environment the EGO is removed.  Complete transparency of information is the protocol, with the intent to work cross-collaboratively within the world of technology. Programmers open source their code, removing roadblocks for designers who in turn are able to conceive blueprints for complex designs involving not only concept but also content.  This information is free and based on the democratization of design.  Simply stated, once this information becomes accessible to anyone from an 8-year-old to your grandfather, the end result encourages people to create who normally would not have the network or the resources for advanced products.  This code of ethics is a stark comparison to the concealment and canonization of the modern designer.  Fashion is based on fantasy, and an indispensible part of shaping this fantasy world is based in maintaining an air of mystery.  Shrouded in allure and glamour, the aura of the creative vision and the creator often eclipses the physical product itself.  What happens when the aforementioned 8-year-old downloads an open source file from a website, ie Thingiverse, in order to 3D print their own toy?  It immediately removes the prescribed echelon between the designer and the consumer and allows an unassuming child to become an inspiring innovator. Drawing a parallel to the conception of the space suit from an unlikely origin, open source may just be the initiate to jumpstart the naysayer’s brain and precipitate a true metamorphosis and revolution.

So what does the future look like in the face of additive manufacturing and democratized design? Actually, not so strikingly different from the beginnings of our universe, which was created through the build up of subatomic particles, layer by layer.  To the continued amazement of scientists time and time again, the answer is often times apparent in nature long before the question is even asked.  The notion of 3D printing may seem novel but in reality merely mimics the molecular processes prevalent in the development of matter. We have self-healing materials that are based on our own self-repairing skin cells.  Fabrics are embedded with microcapsules that release a bonding fluid when the surface is damaged. There are smart textiles that copy our metabolic processes and control the body’s thermoregulation through the use of micro-controllers and conductive threads.  Biomimicry is yet another form of open source available for our utilization.  Perhaps the code is more laborious to decipher than those available on Thingiverse but nonetheless it is still at hand.  And herein lies the key to Mason Peck’s Innovation Economy: a complete abandonment of our sense of self-worth and the humble acceptance of the stark reality that nature is infinitely wiser.  Well, we knew this all along anyway, didn’t we?  The fundamental difference being that now we all have the tools required to conceptualize a more sustainable future, one where the underdog is victorious and the desktop in your living room is the factory for your livelihood.

By Johanna Bloomfield

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