DDMP Blog: Boosting the impact of Distributed Design

Put designers, researchers and makers in one room and this is what you get.
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On Wednesday February 12, a group of selected creatives came together in Pakhuis de Zwijger. For those new to the game, you might wonder what Distributed Design actually is all about. It’s the outcome of the intersection of two global trends: the Maker Movement and the digitisation of the design discipline. This convergence has led to the rise of a new market, in which creative individuals have access to digital tools that allow them to design, produce and fabricate products themselves or easily connect to a global network of collaborators to undertake aspects of this process with them. We call this process and the subsequent market which is emerging from these trends, Distributed Design.

As part of the global network Distributed Design Market Platform (DDMP), an exchange and networking hub for the European Maker Movement, we aim to showcase and promote the connection between designers, makers, and the market. With a future of unprecedented resource scarcity and environmental change, it’s time to explore alternative infrastructure and design models. How do we create and manufacture alternative designs that decrease our footprint? An excellent question to put on the table today.

Values of Distributed Design

The group consisted of inspiring researchers, students, product-and industrial designers, and makers. What is the first thing that came to mind when thinking of the term distributed design? Their answers varied from ‘accessibility’, ‘cooperation’ and ‘circular’, to ‘openness’, ‘on-demand production’, ‘moving towards a new economy’ and ‘reclaiming the power of production for people and consumers’. Strong associations that immediately show the broad possibilities for Distributed Design to increase circular thinking and democratise manufacturing.  

What’s happening in the field?

After pinpointing the first qualities, we challenged our group of experts to discuss the newest developments they see emerging within the field. What’s happening, socially, economically and environmentally, that is important to act upon and to address within programmes an activities on Distributed Design? Here are the main developments that surfaced:

  • #1 The concept of ‘un’designing: Designers – especially product designers – have a major challenge to face, as creating new physical products like chairs, lamps or fashion items, is inherently adding to the current problem. That is how the concept of reimagining design or ‘un’designing came to mind. Isn’t it time to stop making physical things, and instead use creativity as a tool to design new systems? These can also be customised, just like products, and tailored to the needs of the consumer and society.

I am fascinated by the art of not designing. If we don’t design stuff, what do we design: laws, policies, relationships, skills? Let’s talk more about this alternative designer mindset and discover what it could be.

  • #2 The rise of a new sustainable mindset: All the participating creatives agree: the word on sustainability and circularity is out. With climate change – or crisis being the hype word of 2019 – becoming more of a discussed topic, society seems to embrace and demand sustainability more and more. Everybody wants to re-, up-, or down-cycle. However, the question is: how can we enlarge this movement and make sure that it goes further than a hype? Recycling is just one of the solutions, but consuming less would still be the number #1 solution. Less sexy, but more urgent.

Nowadays stuff is delivered to our house in no time, but after the delivery there is no control over the products. How can we encourage people to think about the lifespan of what they’ve bought? Or re-use the waste material?

  • #3 Democratising tools, access, and information: With open-source material libraries popping up online and sharing recipes for DIY materials, important information is democratised and accessible for everyone (that knows how to use a computer). By designers working together on an open-source project, ideas and plans can flourish using the wisdom of the crowd and keeping older versions of the product intact. The same goes for generative design with computer programmes suggesting different iterations that improve the design during a collaboration between man and machine.

My challenge is to find the right connection with the market for my start-up. We created a machine for makers, but by the time our machine was ready for production, the makers had switched their production process because they lacked the right machine. What is there first: the machine or the question of a designer? How can we adjust these to another and work together more?

  • #4 Educate the people (and the youth is the future!): There is a generation growing up to whom living with technology is self-evident. With the rise of Maakplaatsen in public libraries throughout Amsterdam, kids and other youngsters are encouraged to work with digital tools, fabricate their own products, and bring ideas to reality. By offering low-tech solutions accessible for a large audience, we are creating a next generation of designers that adopted the maker movement at a young age. How great would it be to make sure circularity, sustainability, and distributed design are incorporated within the curriculum of all Dutch Art-and Design Academies, universities, and higher professional education? The truth is that knowledge still is very limited, especially on how to adjust designs to a new (and fast-changing) reality.

What if you design only for yourself? I design out of a hobby. This means that when I 3D print something, I automatically focus on what I need, not on what I want. So what would change if more people saw it as a hobby?

  • #5 Step up your business: With on-demand production being a realistic option, this seems to be a new commercial strategy for many large businesses. By customising special pieces on demand and producing only when requested, they can diversify their products. Awesome! This means however more flexible machines will be needed in the future that can adjust to this growing market. What is already noticeable is the emergence of micro-factories: small factories that can produce quite a lot, but that still work on a small scale, focusing on one specific product and minimising waste. Lastly, digital tools, such as 3D-visualisation within the fashion field or digital cloning, promise to reduce waste during the production process and stimulate conscious fabrication. Is the world ready?

I would love to have a way to convince large companies that create machines to create more access for designers and small businesses and lower the barriers. How can we involve them in the maker movement?

What will the future hold?

This meetup just gave us more backing for the alternative models Distributed Design has to offer. existing systems. We are entering a future practice for creatives, makers and designers, and places to discuss, learn from each other and experiment as DDMP can work as a stimulating accelerator. Expect open workshops, talks and expert meetups addressing above themes in the near future, not only in Amsterdam but also throughout the rest of Europe. In case you would love to collaborate and share ideas, don’t hesitate to become a part of the growing Distributed Design community!

More knowledge is needed on these topics. Create education on Distributed Design, as well level zero as up to an advanced level. We should connect them to the Sustainable Development Goals, to emphasise the urgency. 

Share the wisdom

Put a group of design enthusiasts in one room with drinks and snacks for a solid two hours, ask them to talk about their daily practice, and you can’t avoid being spoiled with more food for thought than we even asked for. Let us practice what we preach, and democratise this knowledge for you – we don’t want to withhold you the following comments, observations, and wise lessons:

  • Cooperate with others to develop alternative scenarios and discover ways to redefine who we are. If stuff, clothes and objects do not define us or shape our image, who are we?
  • Make consuming interactive. If you have a 3D printer at the office, work with a voting system every time; to print or not to print? (that is the question)
  • Use your work as a radical way to destroy the system. Use it to create real disruption and challenge the power to produce. Who decides what’s created and where? Can we redefine the power system?
  • Think of ways to distribute knowledge (about ourselves and the business)
  • Think 52 years ahead (yes, exactly 52 years 😉)
  • Design ways to manipulate behavior and nudge consumers into making better choices
  • Create more sense of urgency around design and involve consumers along the way
  • Create new, more mature financial models that are adaptable for Distributed Design
  • Involve large companies to achieve more impact and scale up successful concepts
  • Support the movement towards more open source designs, codes and ideas
  • Redistribute what’s already here. There is enough plastic for 600 years. What role can we as designers play to reuse, redistribute and recycle this instead of using new raw materials?

A big thank you to the participating designers, makers and experts: Joris van Tubergen, Robert Shepherd, Bas Froon, Ed van Hinte, Yassine Salihine, Jeroen van Vorsselen, Anne Vlaanderen and Roelof Pieters.