Industrial Design in a post-industrial era

“(…)post-industrial design questions the product as an output of the design process (do we need a product for what we are trying to achieve?)”

The post-industrial Society

What does ‘industrial design’ mean in a post-industrial era? I can’t answer to that question in a concrete sentence, but I must start clearing that we have to asume Industrial Design through the eyes of a changing world. For doing that, let me start by clearing up some aspects of the society we live in, through the eyes of multiple theorists who have spoken about the issue of the changing economy and society. The starting point is Daniel Bell, a great american sociologist who became famous for his studies on post-industrialism, and who wrote a very important book called ‘The Coming of Postindustrial Society‘. One of the starting points for Bell is stating the difference between a pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial society (taken from the essay ‘Bell’s ‘Post-Industrial Society’: Visions and Realities’):

A pre-industrial society is characterised by primary economic sector occupations and extractive industries such as agriculture, fishing and mining which dominate the economy. Raw material is the main source of technology. (Waters 1996:108)An industrial society is based on the secondary sector which ‘centres on human-machine relationships’ and the application of energy to mass manufacturing and processing of tangible goods. The key occupations are the engineer and semi-skilled factory worker. (Waters 1996:109)A Post-Industrial Society is dominated by the service sectors and professional and technical occupations. It is marked by the centrality of human relationships and ‘intellectual technology’, based on information and information and computing technology (ICT), which ‘rises alongside of machine technology’. (Bell 1974:116,117).

Here, the author tries to summarize Bell’s thinking on how have we gotten to the ‘Post-Industrial Society’ we are actually in, by focusing mainly on the industrial sectors (primary, secondary and tertiary), each of them representing one of the industrial eras we have surpassed. Here is an infographic I once made trying to express this different sectors as layers, but understanding there must be a foundation (as a building) of the whole system, made by the primary and secondary sectors; most people want to enjoy the benefits of the tertiary -or service- sector (like entertainment), but denying or not recognizing that it would not be posible without the existence of primary and secondary industries behind (or below) them. So, one of the key concepts of the post-industrial society is the rise of the tertiary sector, which is mainly represented by services.

Now, as well as the industrial revolution, most of the changes of what we today asume as post-industrial society has very much to do with the societal changes, rather than changes in manufacturing processes and technologies, and this changes are represented by the transformation of economy, starting by a new definition of value.

The knowledge and information economy

The concept of knowledge economy became popular in the late 80’s, for its use by Peter Drucker in his book ‘The age of discontinuity‘, but Drucker itself attributed the concept to the austrian-american economist Fritz Machlup, in its book written in the early 60’s, ‘The production and distribution of knowledge in the United States‘. But beyond the asbtract concept, I would like to conect this concept with the 3 industrial eras by its workers: in the pre-industrial society workers were valuable for its technichal skills, in the industrial society they were wanted for their technological abilities (to merge with the tools and machines) and in the post-industrial society a new breed of workers have become more important than any others: the knowledge workers. This shift implies, also, the recognition of value (in productive terms) in areas which were before ignored; “In order to be productive, the knowledge worker requires to be seen as asset and not as a cost” (Drucker, 1999). Some (Machlup & Drucker) called it knowledge economy, while others called it information economy; Marc Uri Porat, as his doctoral thesis in Stanford, researched about this so-called information economy, closely linking it to the knowledge worker (in fact, his research appears in a book called ‘Rise of the Knowledge Worker‘); Porat himself, even creates a set of sub-sectors of the information economy, and proposes a new set of industrial sectors. The rising importance of information and knowledge as valuable concepts and necesarily linked to productivity, and which could be assumed in the same scale of value, is the most important characteristic of the post-industrial society we are speaking about; when we have certain clarity on this, we see a new perspective of production in economy: social production (which must not be confused with collaborative production, for its directed towards the product, which is defined in social terms, rather than the process); the best place to watch the evidence of this kind of production is in academy, specially in universities, for the ‘learnt’ is an intangible product or outcome of the education process. But the graphic below is important to understand the difference (in level, rather than category) of information and knowledge, which is also valid when using them as types of economies. (Mind note: a ‘social product’ may be, perhaps, a service or an experience?).

And talking about the knowledge worker it seems relevant to remember that phrase quoted by Kjell A. Nordström and his colleague Jonas Ridderstråle on the book Funky Business – Talent Makes Capital DanceFord regreted himself at his time: ‘Why when I want a pair of hands I have to take a whole human being? While today, thanks to the knowledge economy, it is more likely (and desirable) that a CEO asks himself: Why and what for do I need a couple of hands? 

Post-industrial Design

Almost every design theorist and historian have studied design through the lens of an industrial paradigm but have lacked to assume a critical possition on these changes, and here lies the key to connect the concepts of post-industrial society and knowledge economy to design. ‘It is called industrial design, reason why only the industrial paradigm has been taken into account’ some may say; but as industrial design appeared in an industrialized world, and had to study the previous realities (in that case, the pre-industrial society), it has moved to a post-industrialize world, were it has to understand the context on which the transformation has occurred; this is very important, for a good post-industrial designer must have clarity of the pre-industrial and industrial reality on which the world lived and that still hold the world together, in order to shift design to a new paradigm of post-industrialism. As Dan Saffer from Kicker Studio in London puts it: Whatever age they might have imagined via their use of that term (rapid manufacturing? 3D computer modeling? dematerialization of products?), I’m pretty sure it’s arrived by now”. Reading Berndhard Bürdeck’s matserpiece was enough before but, being still valid, it is just not enough for the present reality; design today must embrace the knowledge economy (and vice versa), so that new type of products (non-material, intangible) and processes (open source, collaborative) come in the scene. A clear example of post-industrial design, delivering social products, is design for education, which has been quoted in a previous post. Industrial design in the 20th century said form follows function, while post-industrial design questions if there is an actual need for ‘form’ or questions itself the usual meaning of it; post-industrial design questions the product as an output of the design process (do we even need a product for what we are trying to achieve?).

Immaterials by Berg:

Jamer Hunt, by 2005, had already spoken about post-industrial design and had, in fact, writen a manifesto for postindustrial design, which was published in the same year in I.D. Magazine, and in which he started to point out the important changes that design would have to face in the change of the worlds towards a post-industrial society. But, wait, we are missing something: what does knowledge economy has to do with post-industrial design? Basically, by assuming knowledge as an asset, and taking into account the possibility for design of producing knowledge (beside of tangible products), a whole new field for design appears, but also a new set of challenges on defining new strategies for the design processes. And, also, designers used to be technical workers, while today they may be considered knowledge workers (ask Apple, Nokia or Sony). (Mind note: how about knowledge design?).

Would post-industrial Design be the same as service design?

Saying that post-industrial design is the same as service design, would be assuming that a post-industrial society is only recognized for shifting from a primary and secondary sector-based economy to a tertiary -or service- sector-based economy, which we have cleared it is not the only condition. But, as that shift is one of the conditions, service design can be considered as one of the many fields for post-industrial design. Jhon Thackara himself has given the arguments to embrace service design with a social innovation lens, in order to face the problems present in today’s reality, focusing on a sustainable world; this is extremely coherent with post-industrial design but, in my opinion, it is merely one option for it.


Post-industrial Design in unindustrialized economies

Latin America (and the emerging economies -which are commonly unindustrialised) need a boost in innovation, and this boost must be powered by Design in its multiple faces. But the reality in a world which has not lived an authentic industrialisation process is quite different, and is the one of Latin America. We cant ‘skip’ a step in the process of industrialisation, but neither can we stay focused on an industrial (sometimes, even, a pre-industrial!) paradigm, ignoring the infinite possibilities that post-industrial (and gobal) society gives. So, the solution, as many things, is pretty simple to say, but very difficult to put in practice: we must keep working as designers on industrialisation processes, but some must try to keep up to what the new reality offers, and helping shift the previous process; but this must all be done simultaneously, for this times require us to do it.

“Latin America (…) needs a boost in innovation, and this boost must be powered by Design in its multiple faces”


Further Reading

Post-industrial Design Workshop.

Bell’s ‘Post-Industrial Society’: Visions and Realities.

Ahead of the Curve (by Schumpeter).

Information Economy (by Roberto Verzola).

Exploring Social Production in Education (by Anna Davies).

Postindustrial Design (by Dan Saffer).

Manifesto for postindustrial design (by Jamer Hunt).

Bibliography (linked to Google Books):

*Daniel Bell – The Coming of Post-industrial Society

*Peter Drucker – The Age of Discontinuity

*Peter Drucker – Management Challenges for the 21st Century

*Marc Uri Porat – The information economy: definition and measurement.

*Fritz Machlup – The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States

*Frank Webster – Theories of the Information Society

*Bernhard Bürdeck – History, theory and practice of product design

*Jhon Thackara – Wouldn’t it be great if…

*Kjell A. NordströmJonas Ridderstråle – Funky Business – Talent Makes Capital Dance