Massive Change

Philip Ball‘s column in the March edition of Nature Materials (subscription required) draws attention to the designer Bruce Mau‘s Massive Change project.

Massive Change is an exhibition, currently on show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, a website, and a book, all with the ambitious aim of showing how design can change the world for the better. Design here is interpreted broadly, to encompass town planning, architecture, and above all technology, and the aims are summarised in bold, manifesto statements. These three examples give the flavour:

  • We will bring energy to the entire world
  • We will eradicate poverty
  • We will eliminate the need for raw material and banish all waste
  • Nanotechnology, in various guises, makes frequent appearances in support of these goals, though it’s the incremental and evolutionary versions rather than the Drexlerian kind that are invoked. Nonetheless, advances in materials science are described in these visionary terms:

    Material has traditionally been something to which design is applied. New methods in the fields of nanotechnology have rendered material as the object of design development. Instead of designing a thing, we design a designing thing. In the process we have created superhero substances endowed with superlative characteristics, from the hyperbolic to the almost human. Materials now have strength, agility, memory, intelligence. Mere matter no longer, materials have become active carriers of meaning and program.

    One can quibble at the hyperbole and the lack of detail, but I can’t help applauding a project which is both idealistic and assertive, in the sense that it stresses the view that we aren’t simply helpless victims of the progress of technology, but that we can imagine the outcomes we want and decide how to use technology to get there.