Why the Third Industrial Revolution is about Resources

To date, the importance of open and do-it-yourself (DIY)materials, as well as the sharing of knowledge about them, has been greatly underestimated. Catarina Mota’s work has shown the large innovation potential of this field.

Open Materials and resources for the future were the subject of a great talk hosted by FabLab Barcelona in the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia with Catarina Mota and a panel with myself, Fablab manager Tomas Diez and moderator Ben Tincq. For those not familiar with Catarina Mota, she’s one of the most eminent representatives of the hacker movement, founder of, among other things, OpenMaterials.org, co-chair of the Open Hardware Summit, co-founder of AltLab (Lisbon‘s hackerspace) as well as a recent TED Global Fellow.

By hosting this talk we wanted to give Catarina the opportunity to share her valuable work with us and help draw people’s attention to this topic. You can watch the whole talk here:


Innovative materials

There is a clear and obvious relationship between smart materials and our ability to innovate in the field of interaction design. In fact, these materials have led to a breakthrough in creating technology that, in the words of Amber Case, “disappears from our view and becomes simply an enabler.”

Catarina’s experiments with conductive ink, paper circuits, muscle wires or even thermochromic paint are only the beginnings of the large innovative potential the sharing of knowledge in this field has.

Catarina Mota

Catarina Mota at work. Source: CatarinaMota on Flickr, Creative Commons license.

While the role of DIY for the generation of innovative materials is still unclear, there have already been some encouraging results. Maybe you have heard of Graphene, a new material that is likely to be used for a myriad of innovative applications in the future. It turns out that graphene supercapacitors have already been produced in a DIY way by using DVD burners (see how this was done in this video).

As questions from the audience showed (for example when the panel was prompted to give their opinion about sourcing recycled materials), the biggest challenges in this area are environmental goals. The new approaches to materials that were discussed will without doubt play a crucial role in creating self-sufficient production systems that operate on a local scale and no longer depend on external resources.

Speaking of being sensitive to resource use, we also had a chat with Tomas Diez before the panel, who introduced us to the Green FabLab project. Green FabLab is an IAAC initiative that aims to create production systems that are inspired by natural processes from a sustainability as well as bio-mimicry perspective (you may recognize this approach from Gaudi’s thinking!).
Since Green Fablab will produce the food and energy it needs locally, the project embodies a vision of a system that is truly Data In – Data Out: it imports and and exports common shared knowledge.

New ways of relating to production and consumption

Not long ago, a fascinating article appeared on PloS Biology (I also mentioned it in my recent presentation about innovation in Glocal Communities) called “The Macroecology of Sustainability.” It emphasized that it will be impossible to derogate from the principles that govern physical systems. An honest look at current production systems (such as our cities) shows how highly unbalanced they are in terms of resource consumption.

We can only hope that manufacturing processes will be transformed and become more decentralized. We need a new model in which goods are produced Just in Time (in contrast to mass production) in a distributed manner. To enable this we have to change our approaches to design to make them more collaborative and, more importantly, more tolerant and adaptable to the materials and workers that are locally available.

While sharing knowledge will help us find the skills we lack, we need to find new ways of accessing the supply of raw materials we need. The design of everyday objects will become more “invariant” to available materials, while at the same time we will be able to produce these same materials locally. Materials will be defined by their properties, not by the raw materials they consist of.

While projects like Open Materials, Open Structures or Open Source Ecology are making great progress in designing a (physical) commons, other approaches for creating everyday objects are emerging as well.

Ambitious projects such as CustomMade, or the great Italian Slowd.it (soon to launch its international version on Slowd.eu, aiming to create a network of designers and places for handicraft production) hold the promise that a different way of relating to production and consumption is possible, and, from a certain point of view, inevitable.

Header image: CatarinaMota on Flickr, Creative Commons license