Can design be separated from production?

This entry is inspired by the following spanish-language comments.

One of the key arguments in my presentation, when I talk about the extension of peer production to the physical field, is that design can be separated from production. The reason is that design is knowledge production, and can be more easily configured in a context of distributed resources and abundance, than can the more centralized production of capital-intensive physical goods.

A recent article in the New York Times, reminds us however, that design is an embodies process, strongly linked to production.

See the following quote:

But over the long run, can invention and design be separated from production? That question is rarely asked today. The debate instead centers on the loss of well-paying factory jobs and on the swelling trade deficit in manufactured goods. When the linkage does come up, the answer is surprisingly affirmative: Yes, invention and production are intertwined.

“Most innovation does not come from some disembodied laboratory,” said Stephen S. Cohen, co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy at the University of California, Berkeley. “In order to innovate in what you make, you have to be pretty good at making it — and we are losing that ability.”

There is a certain truth to that. For example, one of the reasons for the success of free software in projects such as Linux, is clearly that design and production are one and the same in software, and that there is no hard frontier between developers and users, so that user insights can be integrated in the production process.

Would that mean that a project like the OSCAR open source car is doomed?

The answer would seem to be obvious: to succeed, its needs some kind of embodiment with production, which would suggest that the production process itself would need to be open as well, and that is much more difficult to achieve, as long as physical production is proprietary. Unless an enlightened physical producer opens up to the designer community. A precedent would be how IBM is opening up its patents, and supporting the open source community.

Another possible answer would be in the further “distributing’ (meaning more fully conceived as distributed networks) of physical production itself, through Fabbing, i.e. the ability to model close to home, and of course, deskop manufacturing. The good news is that a minipreneurial ecosystem is emerging.

However, I must admit that this argument is a serious challenge to the expansion of peer production.

4 Comments Can design be separated from production?

  1. AvatarSam Rose

    I really don’t think that peer production is doomed. I think it is hard for us to wrap our heads around now, on this side of future-history. Just as, i am sure it was hard for people to wrap their heads around the possibilities of highly connected personal computers back in 1981, for instance.

    The fact is that the barrier is being significantly lowered in design, rapid prototyping, distribution, fabrication, manufacturing, finance, and marketing.

    We are not yet at the point where people can put all of these pieces together to make a “car”, or other mass-produced consumer product.

    However, I think that we are going to see something different than a 1:1 replacement for mass production.

    What I think we are going to see emerge first are tested useable design technology “foundations” that will be Open Design oriented. These will emerge from designs that hobbyists are playing around with right now, like the open source car, open source controllers, open source house designs, etc. Lead users, Pro-Ametuer, enthusiasts, etc, are right now starting to create these open designs. I think that they will begin to use rapid prototyping technology more and more to test their designs, all the while sharing the evolution of these open technologies online.

    The “heavy manufacturing” that we see in huge factories could emerge from this in at least a couple of different ways:

    * It could be easily be replaced by many smaller custom-crafting shops who have the abilty to quickly retool and manufacture based upon the open design base, and open design standards that will inevitably emerge.

    * Large industries could also emerge based around open designs. Think about the origins of Apple Computer.

    I think that both of these will happen. The first possibility is something that I am going to explore here locally in Michigan, where traditional mass manufacturing jobs (like Automobile manufacturing) are leaving. This leaves a large technically-skilled work force who tend to leave the area to find similar work elsewhere. I believe these people could find employment in smaller fabrication speciality shops that are increasingly in-expensive to create and mainatain, and could base their fabrication around open design. We are still a little far off from this, but I think that just a few examples could really show how workable it is.

    I think that this will start to gain a critical mass of enthusiasts over time, for different areas of design and prototyping. I think this will eventually start to attract people who can envision putting together teams of people in “value chain” networks, that can create many short-run or medium-run versions of different technologies. This will allow people to have the exact kind of car they want, the exact kind of furnace they want, the exact kind of furniture, computer, etc etc etc, within the bounds of the design bases and fabrication limits of the teams or groups that are out there. So, ther will still be real limits, but if I want a 3 wheeled super aerodynamic vehicle that is electric/diesel/solar/bio-fuel with satellite radio, bluetooth, mp3, gps, for around 30,000, then this might be the route for me to go to get it.

    Plus, you would have the possibility of p2p financing, etc.

  2. AvatarKevin Carson

    I fully agree with your observations about opening up and distributing the production process itself. I’m just having a hard time understanding why any of this should come as a surprise, or why it should be discouraging to advocates of peer production.

    Of course old-style manufacturers (vertically integrated oligopoly corporations) are going to keep their production processes closed and proprietary.

    And of course peer production will have to develop outside the old hierarchies, through an alternative system of bottom-up networks.

    Isn’t that the point? To borrow terminology from the old Wobbly slogan, peer production is part of the “new society” we are building, and the corporate dinosaurs are the “shell of the old.”

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