Disruptive Technologies

How might disruptive technologies, which by accident or intent transform our economic and social life, influence our design practice and our existing notions of craft and making? The question was central to a Restless Futures conference session introduced by Carole Collet, Professor of Design for Sustainable Futures, and Director of the Design & Living Systems Lab at CSM.


- Amy Congdon, designer, critical thinker and part-time PhD student at CSM
- Peter Gregson, cellist and composer
- Serena Kutchinsky, Digital Editor, Prospect magazine
- Usman Haque, founder of Umbrellium, Pachube.com and the Internet of Things

Session Report

‘Can we speculate on where the next big disruptive technologies will come from?’ asked Carole Collet in her introduction. ‘And how might we as artists influence them?’ 

For the past seven years Carol has been investigating biology as a disruptive technology, with a focus on issues of sustainability. ‘We are in a transition,’ she argued, ‘from the linear approach – the heat it, beat it, treat it of the last century – towards a more circular process. Part of this shift is a movement from manufacture towards biofacture.’ 

Through her work at CSM’s Design & Living Systems Lab, Carol speculates on disruptive tools and protocols for designers and for manufacturers, including large corporations like Microsoft and Airbus, operating at the interface between biology and design. 

‘Biology,’ she said, ‘has become a living, self-replicating technology. We already have genetically engineered silk for use in the fashion industry. Looking ahead, we envisage programming plants to produce food and other materials, disrupting manufacturing modes on behalf of sustainability.’ 

Human interventions

Also exploring the sustainability potential of disruptive technologies at the interface with biology, Amy Congdon adapts and extends tissue engineering procedures to create materials for further design outside the laboratory. ‘If you can grow leather or meat without taking them from the cow,’ she said, ‘what does that mean for the industries concerned?’ 

For cellist and composer Peter Gregson, the focus is on putting disruptive technologies to work in the context of musical, often orchestral, performance, with the aim of persuading computers to recognise subtleties of pitch, rhythm and tone. The prize is an intelligent digital instrumentation that goes beyond the mechanics of the backing track to replicate a more human intervention. 

Industrial revolution

In suggesting the role of disruptive technologies was to supplant the status quo with something easier, cheaper and better, Serena Kutchinsky invoked the Sid Vicious injunction to ‘undermine their pompous authority.’ 

‘Disruptive technologies,’ Serena said, ‘are sparking a new industrial revolution in which the collaborative economy is helping us rent our flat, share our car, or conduct our romance.’ 

Tensions exist, however, between the idea of open source and the common good. Serena cited the example of the 3D gun invented by Cody Wilson, its blueprint posted online and downloaded over 100,000 times before the US authorities filed arms trafficking charges against Wilson. 

So who profits in the end? Will open source do for design what it did for music and film? What about regulation? If you print something out and it goes wrong, who is culpable? ‘Copyright and regulation,’ said Serena, ‘will define the open source debate for years to come.’ 

Moral ownership

‘I don’t believe in disruptive technology,’ began Usman Haque. ‘It’s a fundamentally reactionary concept.’ 

In a presentation that ranged across his pioneering work with Pachube, thingful, and the Internet of Things, Usman championed the role and value of participation, connectivity, moral ownership and, above all, trust in the context of access to, and control over, data. ‘Things don’t just happen,’ he said. ‘Disruptive technologies are actually built on a series of micro-steps.’ 

In the financial world of arbitrage, traders and dealers benefit from knowledge others don’t have. ‘My work,’ Usman said, ‘is about shaping the agenda before the corporations get hold of it. I want people to be able to reach decisions together without hearing about it first from big business.’ 

In the debate that followed, speakers and audience asked whether truly disruptive interventions are marked by their commercial success. There was also the recognition that, because disruptive technologies don’t necessarily lead to social progress, we shouldn’t put them on a pedestal.