“I FELT cruel when I turned it off,” says Paola Antonelli, senior curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The “it” in question is a tiny coat that has been grown in a test tube using cells around a biodegradable polymer structure. The coat had flourished to such an extent that its “life support” system had to be switched off to stop it getting too big.
The coat, now preserved, is on display in the Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) wonderful new exhibition about the future of innovation, “Design and the Elastic Mind.” Titled “Victimless Leather”, the coat points to a time, not far off, when science may put an end to ethical quibbles about wearing leather—or furs, or eating meat—by removing the need for an animal to die to produce them. Another exhibit looks forward to the perfect steak, which will also be grown in vitro without inconveniencing any poor cow.
The exhibition is a tribute to the role that designers play in the innovation process, by turning the insights of science into things that are easy, and, ideally, attractive, to use. “Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life,” explains the exhibition's introduction. “Without design, instead of a virtual city of home pages with windows, buttons and links, the internet would still be a series of obscure strings of code, and the things that populate our lives—cars, chairs, music players, computers, cash machines—would work, but none would be truly efficient or give us a sense of pride, liveliness and pleasure. Some would not exist at all.”
Indeed, with the growing complexity of technology, the designer is evolving from someone who gives form to an object into a figure more central to the process of innovation, an “essential interpreter of an extraordinarily dynamic and crucial moment in the history of humankind.”
Key to the success of design in the future, says Ms Antonelli, is what John Seely Brown, former head of Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Centre, calls “thinkering”—productive tinkering through experimentation that involves engaging with the world and open constructive collaboration with colleagues and other experts.
The interaction of science and design has been especially fruitful recently in the field of consumer electronics, giving birth to cool, iconic products like the Apple iPhone and Nintendo Wii, both of which employ innovative technology based on touch and movement to make them easier to use.
The MoMA exhibition shows that this is the tip of the iceberg, and not just for humans. For example, the near future promises such delights as the LED dog-tail communicator, whereby Rover will be able to tell his owner his needs (food, walkies) via a device that interprets his wags.
The exhibition begins with a fascinating glimpse into the highly fashionable world of nanotechnology – the manipulation of materials at the molecular or atomic level. Designers and scientists are now combining to build structures one atom at a time. They seek to use the natural world's principles of self-assembly and self-organisation—inherent in cells, molecules and galaxies—to design buildings, remote controls and cars, among other things. If traditional design shapes and adapts existing materials, this sort of nanodesign creates objects and lets them adapt themselves to different conditions.
This might result, for example, in cell-sized machines that can be injected into the body to heal it, or self-assembling electronic components that behave like organic structures. Among other things, this nano approach has generated a paradigm shift in, of all things, the ancient craft of origami, with sophisticated computer programmes designing folded structures of unprecedented complexity. One exhibit even folds DNA.
Most entertainingly, however, the exhibition illustrates this theme with a screen-based system that projects silhouettes of visitors and then mutates them into sci-fi monsters. This is hugely popular with children (and journalists) and if nothing else would make a perfect executive toy.
Many of the other exhibits would also make great wall art, especially the genuinely beautiful flat-screen displays showing, among other things, all the planes in the air over America at any given moment and different aspects of internet-dating sites (best first-date ideas, say, or top turn-ons for single women in their 20s).
If the MoMA exhibition is even half right, the coming waves of innovation will far surpass even the remarkable breakthroughs and changes of recent times. Printing in 3-D, for example, is already underway: the exhibition shows how products like chairs can be customised and produced seemingly out of thin air.
Genetic manipulation also got the designer-juices going. Coming soon to a pet shop near you is the “utility pet”, which takes being man's best friend to a new level by growing spare body parts for its owner as well as providing the usual companionship.
Of course, such innovation may not be without its darker side. One exhibit explores the idea that what people miss most after a relationship ends are the annoyances, and so envisages a system that steals the duvet at night, blows smoke in your face, and so on. A particularly disturbing video posits a potential divide between wealthy buyers of replacement body parts and an underclass of people who turn their bodies into farms that grow those parts.
But enough of such downbeat thoughts. This show is a celebration of what can happen when designers and scientists get together, and for the most part it is inspiring. Your correspondent's favourite product idea? A robot called an “Element” that follows you around, ensuring that your personal environment is always just how you like it. Each Element works autonomously and is always alert, monitoring conditions—air quality, light, body temperature, background noise, and movement—and instantaneously acting to keep them in ideal balance. Sitting in an overheated office, breathing stale, probably germ-infested, air, it is hard to imagine anything better.
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