Tuesday, February 21, 2012

TEDx Talk: Make Better Stuff

Back in November I had the privilege of speaking at TEDx Rochester about the convergence of two of my favorite topics: social business and rapid prototyping. Here's the video with transcript below. Enjoy!

Hi, I’m a designer, and I want to talk to you about making better stuff. When designers make stuff, we don’t just make one thing; we make thousands of copies of it. Often these things are manufactured abroad, using poor labor practices under substandard environmental regulations.

Then the stuff gets shipped to big box stores all around the world where we buy it cheap. To top it off, this stuff that we make and then buy isn’t even making us happy. Research shows that once we reach middle class status, the stuff we buy doesn’t add much to our happiness (Gilbert). There has got to be a better way.

As a designer and a want-to-be anthropologist, I believe that objects & products--that STUFF--mediates human relationships in both negative and positive ways. So when I say MAKE BETTER STUFF I mean stuff that strengthens our relationships with people in our communities and stuff that creates local jobs.

It’s NOT easy to do. But it IS getting easier. So I want to point out to you two encouraging trends. One is about meaning. The other is about means.

Businesses increasingly want to offer meaningful products for two reasons:

1. more customers want them

2. creating them is rewarding for employees

Tom’s Shoes, Method Soap, and Patagonia are large firms that make meaningful stuff. But I want to illustrate this phenomenon of meaning closer to home using one of my favorite examples: the local food sector.

The number of farmers markets in this country has doubled in the past five years. Not because the food is cheap or convenient, but because more customers now want relationships, both personal and economic, with the people making their food and their stuff. And the farmers and makers? They aren’t getting into these businesses to become millionaires. They do it because they want to do work that is meaningful. Now, the business model of the farmers market is not fully evolved, but it’s a good start to building an economy around better stuff that builds meaningful relationships.

Which brings me to my second point: THE MEANS.

I cite the local food sector as a venue for better stuff, but meaningful markets can be hi-tech too. Engineers here are probably familiar with rapid prototyping tools like “3D printers” and “laser cutters.” Having these tools is like a having a mini-manufacturing plant on your own desktop or garage. Engineers have used them for years to make and test prototypes of their designs.

What’s new about this technology is that it’s becoming remarkably accessible. Just as music production software is readily available now, anyone with an internet connection and a camera phone can now upload a drawing of a product to a manufacturer in the location of their choosing that will manufacture that product on demand.

And then of course the internet is an effective tool for marketing, selling, and distributing product. Ponoko is one of several platforms where we can already do this. When I want to buy a gift for my friend in California, I no longer have to go to the big box store and buy her something that was made halfway across the world. Instead, I can get online, design something of my own or pick something out, and that thing can be “printed” by a small manufacturer in her neighborhood and delivered a short distance to her home. The product is meaningful because it’s made just for her, by a small manufacturer and business owner who lives in her community who has the means to make and deliver product.

Now that’s a simple example but the last industrial revolution started in a simple way too, with textiles. So I’m here to ask of you, when this technology becomes ubiquitous, let’s not mess it up. Let’s not repeat the 20th century mistake of manufacturing ourselves out of jobs. Instead, let’s make stuff that creates jobs and strengthens the relationships between makers and customers in our own towns and cities.

We live in a time when there’s an increasing demand for meaningful products. And we live in a time when more and more of us have the technological means to create and distribute these products. So please, MAKE BETTER STUFF.  

MAKE BETTER STUFF by Xanthe Matychak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

NOTE: I used a photo by Ed Burtynsky in the slide presentation for this talk.

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