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The Future by Design

2011 November 13

The future has a nice ring to it.  It is fairly busting with promise.  We can let our dreams run wild, imagine that some of the bullshit we currently have to endure will subside and that cool new things will replace boring old ones.

And, for the most part, that’s been true.  Despite some novel challenges that each generation needs to face, life does get better, healthier, more prosperous.

A while back, I argued that we’re currently undergoing a radical shift toward design. Today, I’d like to take a longer view and make a more wide ranging argument: that the march of civilization itself has, in actuality, been a long march of design.  Further, it’s becoming clear that as design takes over, we’ll have to rethink how we produce prosperity.

The Rise of Products

Products are almost uniquely human.  While some primates have learned to use tools, there really is no analogue for human manufacturing.  Our products define our societies and our lives to such an extent that very few of us could survive very long without them.

The first manufactured product was the Acheulean hand axe, which looked like this:

It was the “killer app” of the stone age that enjoyed market dominance in Africa, Europe and Asia for more than a million years.  Never has a design been so dominant.  It was simple and useful, made of accessible raw materials and easy to distribute.  So much so that the pre-humans that made them never made any money from them.

That, of course, changed once we evolved a greater ability to design things.  We started having different ideas how to make things and would exchange these ideas among ourselves.  People with really good designs could accumulate a lot of stuff and their societies would become rich and powerful.

Recently, however, we’ve taken another great leap – learning how to separate the ideas from the stuff they apply to and paradigms are beginning to shift.

Software as a Service

As the Industrial Revolution got going, products became easier and cheaper to make. Factories could churn out millions of goods and sell them to the masses.  People got richer and began worrying about taste, rather than necessity.  Design came to the forefront in areas ranging from clothing to cars.

Then something interesting happened.  Products started to come out that were purely idea driven, such as media and computer software.  At first, they were shipped and packaged on shelves just like any other product, but soon they were transferred electronically, plummeting the cost of the product and distribution to effectively zero.

The design, however, became priceless.  Today’s paragons of industry, such as Google and Apple, are almost entirely driven by intellectual power.  They don’t covet valuable commodities like oil, gold or diamonds, but mathematicians, engineers and designers. Whatever manufacturing they do, they outsource.

Software as Products

We are now adding a new twist – creating physical products out of software.  The technique, called 3D printing, has been around for a decade or so.  To this point, it has been mainly used for the building of resin based prototypes.  CAD software is used to create a design, which is then sent to a printer and presto! in a few minutes you have a full size model.

Many companies use 3D printing extensively because design has become such an important part of the product.  Ever since Don Norman published his classic, The Design of Everyday Things, the field of user experience has become recognized as an essential component of product value.

Moreover, as this Economist article shows, things are progressing rapidly.  Using titanium powder, airplane parts are being produced to much higher specification than they could be using other technology.  Another use being researched is organ printing, where your own cells can be used to make new body parts.  So go ahead, wreck that liver.  They’ll make you another!

This represents a sea change in how money is made.   In the industrial age, profitability was mostly contingent on the ability to produce things efficiently.  Increasingly, manufacturing has shifted to become a low value-added endeavor while high margins go to the firms who figure out how to design products for maximum use.

Programmable Products

In the movie Terminator 2, John Conner was pursued by a new generation of robot that could alter its own shape.  That, of course, was science fiction, but similar technology is now in the works.  While things like CAD design and 3D printing are impressive, the next generation will see something even more incredible: programmable matter.

Organizations like Intel and DARPA (the same defense agency that brought us the Internet) are currently researching products that can transform their own shape and function.  Don’t believe it?  Watch this video:

In the coming decades, design will, in fact, become the product.  We will be able to download the hot new thing electronically and transform what we already own to what we want.  “Software as a service” will become “product as a service.”

The Creative Class and Prosperity in the 21st Century

While it’s fun to look at the the amazing things going on and dream about the future, the emergence of design has serious consequences for the present.  We are, as I’ve argued before, increasingly functioning as a passion economy.  Where before we were mostly concerned with transforming atoms, now we are transforming ideas encoded as bits.

As Richard Florida noted in The Rise of the Creative Class, that means that in order to compete in the 21st century, we will need to rethink how we organize our companies and our society.

While old industrial centers like Detroit and Pittsburgh owed their prosperity to their proximity to raw materials, the new ones like Silicon Valley and Austin owe theirs to tolerance for diverse lifestyles, cool music and art scenes and top notch universities.  In other words, all the things that attract innovative people.

The future, after all, will not be made.  It will be designed.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011

    Great post Greg

    I have some reservations about this optimism- I seem to be in a post modernist frame of mind

    1. Does a designed future amplify inequality
    I fear this designed future may be the one H.G.Wells saw – the Eloi and the Morlocks = the Eloi being the create class.

    2. Are we deceiving people – especially our young
    Is this a future without jobs – are we destroying more jobs than we create

    3. Have we any choices about how we move into this future
    Ethics, Equality, Fairness

  2. November 13, 2011


    Excellent points! Here’s my POV.

    1. I agree, this is very dangerous. In the US, the Tea Party and Occupy movements are an indication that this is a very real danger indeed.
    2. I don’t see this as a problem. Prosperity creates jobs, it’s just a matter of where. The third world is catching up in education must faster than in wage levels.
    3. Yes, as I’ve argued before (, technology creates expanding choice. In the West, we just seem to be making bad ones.

    Thanks for a great comment.

  3. March 7, 2012

    Great post Greg.
    Just about everything you speak to is spot on. I personally love Herbert Simon’s definition of design: “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones”. This addresses Martin King’s concern about design amplifying inequality. Design is about improvement/making better/augmentation. If something is failing or not optimum, design (thinking) can incrementally/dramatically/or radically improve it. Design, as I see it, is about process – deconstructing a space/problem/issue and then seeing how to maximize value/effectiveness/efficiency.

    Always love your stuff my friend.

  4. March 7, 2012


    Nice to see you again. Love the point of “transformation of existing conditions into preferred ones.”

    – Greg

  5. Lwjkeith permalink
    June 3, 2012

    The key insight here is related to greg’s post but inbetween the lines… What I think he is saying is more related to the cultural/economic/subjective/objective dichotomy of understanding the relationship between humans and the value we impose on our perception OF the values we place on our interactions between us amd the products we interact with. Essentially we are all victims to our own value Sytem,.

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