I was recently given a behind the scenes visit to the anthropology archives at the American Museum of Natural History in New York by Paul Beelitz, director of collections and archives in the museum’s Anthropology Division. One of the drawers in the Hopi Indian section housed a pair of moccasins in a particular hue of green that couldn’t possibly have come from a plant or insect shell. Beelitz said this unique color was a perfect example of what anthropologists like to call "culture contact." During the tour, I knew when I saw chemical-based paints, or further back, glass beads, that Europeans had come in contact with the native peoples and influenced their creative process.
What will anthropologists of the future think of the swath of time that encompasses the advent of the geodesic dome, the Shinkansen train, and Judith Jones’s soufflé recipe; but also the popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs as we near peak oil? Will they notice that in the 2010s, due to public outcry, many products began to tout claims of being BPA-free? Will they be able to chart exactly when electronics companies began to change production practices after Foxconn’s operational dirty laundry was exposed? When garment manufacturers pushed on their value chains and improved factory conditions in Bangladesh?
I asked a handful of colleagues what cultural imprints they hope to see reflected in future product designs.
Janine Benyus, co-founder and institute board president of Biomimicry 3.8, hopes that in the next five years, the meme of the circular economy will take over in product design. "Soon, the products will be sold on shelves alongside their byproducts and next-life descendants to give people a sense of how product form changes throughout a lifecycle to extend material use. You might see a display in a grocery store that places all the foods grown on a shade-grown coffee plantation next to the beans—the herbs, medicinals, fruit preserves, nuts, etc. Consumers will buy them all to show their support for whole-system farming."
Jamie Gray, owner of my favorite New York design shop Matter, feels that the past is the future: handmade, all about knowing the producer—what was true in the atelier of the past is even more true today. "Locally sourced, locally made, locally purchased; we’ll have greater transparency into who made the product and what it was made from. I also think the products will become increasingly smarter. The designs we see on display will undoubtedly be part of the internet of things and will help us have a more personal experience with the products we buy, versus the design for the masses."
John Viera, Ford Motor Company’s director of Sustainability & Vehicle Environmental Matters thinks that soon we’ll see sustainable materials as central design elements. He says: "There is a big movement towards more sustainable materials, particularly from recycled and renewable content from plant-based materials. As we explored sustainable fabrics in the past, as an example, we were inhibited from using them because we wanted repeatable patterns for our interior fabric designs, which wasn’t always possible with recycled yarn. Our designers took a creative leap and said ‘why don’t we change the design to reflect the sustainable materials and do away with the need for repeatable patterns?'"
Lorrie Vogel, general manager of Nike’s Sustainable Product R&D, thinks products of the future will be engineered at the molecular level to enable closed-loop recycling. "There will be a new breed of sustainable materials created from renewable feedstocks like crop waste or CO2. And the products created from these materials will be designed to be infinitely recyclable, where the polymers can be unzipped and reassembled into new products."
Lewis Perkins, senior vice president at the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, believes that the vast amount of information available to consumers will change the way they choose the products they use and interact with every day. "They want to know, ‘is this product safe and healthy? Where do the ingredients come from? Are the factory workers treated fairly? What happens after end of use?’ As a result, the true cost of making products and using their materials in future lives will influence both manufacturers and consumers in their production and buying decisions."
Though it may not seem so with our mass-produced products, over-Instagrammed lives, and FaceTime sessions with friends all over the world, cultural contact comes into play today just as it did for peoples that existed before photography or widespread pictorial documentation. Product design still begins with an idea articulated in raw materials and processes—be it a sap-covered basket that moves water, or a glass bottle with a colorful silicon sleeve. And if these design innovators’ predictions come true, sustainability will be a foundational imprint of products in our shared future.