When industrial designers think about ways to make products more sustainable, they often focus on small tweaks: removing BPA from plastic, or making a product that’s slightly less toxic than previous iterations. But these are bandaids on the larger problem: materials that aren’t biodegradable and that are mass-produced in central locations (so supply chains can be easily disrupted).
When Dominic Muren, a former toy designer, started the Humblefactory design laboratory, he decided to address systemic supply chain issues. "What if instead we thought about the way slow food thinks about food? Slow food isn’t trying to be a healthy alternative to a TV dinner," he explains. "It’s asking people to completely reexamine the way food gets delivered to them in a local context."
Humblefactory has worked on a variety of projects, including a skin-based method to hold assemblies of objects together and a way to use waste paper to make durable 3-D objects (the vacuum-powered molding process can be seen in the slide show above). But Muren’s latest is his most ambitious. Alchematter, a site that will launch in closed alpha this summer, will be a crowdsourced guide to making things from scratch—or, if you like, a Wikipedia for makers.
Says Muren: "We don’t have a good place to have conversations on what’s possible to make on a small scale in your local community and how you do that making. There’s Instructables and Make:Projects and a couple of websites that allow you to share instructions, but nothing that allows you to share the whole chain from the ground up."
A sample project on Alchematter might contain instructions for making a sweater. But it won’t stop there: There could be variations on a single procedural step that change the pattern, or even instructions on how to make a knitting machine that creates the sweater for you. The sweater instructions could also be embedded into a larger project, like a knit cushion that goes on a couch.
Muren is also excited about the prospect of DIY bioengineering projects being included on the site (see this video on how to make DIY antidepressant yogurt to see what he means). "There’s little small-scale support infrastructure," he says.
Each project can be adapted to a local context by contributors. In New York, makers might have the cash to buy tools from McMaster Carr, a massive industrial supply company. In Detroit, makers might not have the funds for that—but they may have access to scrap, because they live in a place where industry is in decline. A savvy contributor could make a note on a project for locals living in places that have an excess of trashed microwaves: Go find a dead microwave and take a particular chunk out of it to use in XYZ project.
"The reality of small-scale making is that there are a lot of different situations," says Muren. "It’s not just you either live in New York and you’re a hobbyist or you live in rural Ghana and you’re a farmer with nothing."
By the time the public gets to play with Alchematter, there will probably be plenty of projects to look through. Humblefactory is teaming up with Open Source Ecology, an organization working on a toolkit containing 50 components that can build a civilization from scratch (we’ll believe it when we see it) for the closed alpha. "They’re missing a good way of sharing these designs," says Muren.