Megamaterials to Propel Human Civilization Into 'the Fiber Age'

In the future, even stoves are stylishly designed.
In the future, even stoves are stylishly designed. (Image credit: Merrell Publishers)

Materials define the progress of human history. The Stone Age was defined by our earliest technologies, and moving from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age marked a fundamental shift in humanity′s capacity to build.

As Bradley Quinn sees it, we′re about to move into another age, this one defined by lightweight, interactive, yet resilient materials finding their way into everything from smartphones to urban infrastructure.

With his latest book, "Design Futures" (Merrell Publishers), Quinn catalogs a wide range of advances across home-furnishing design, monumental architecture and fashion. Quinn imagines a future in which materials like carbon fibers, graphene and biopolymers create an integrated environment where everything from large buildings to small personal items retains enough strength to withstand a tornado but remains light enough to barely affect the environment.

In our exclusive interview, Quinn, a London journalist whose previous books on fashion and design included "Textile Futures," talked about what designers can learn from nature, why durability equals environmentalism, and new ways of building just about everything.

InnovationNewsDaily: The big theme in your books seems to imply that design on a large scale, buildings and cities and such, and design on a small scale, clothes and personal devices, have begun to converge. What links design at those very different scales?

Bradley Quinn: One interesting thing that links these different sizes and scales is the proportion to the human body. We needed a certain amount of free space in cities and buildings to allow for entrance and egress. Door frames, counter tops, cutlery, the furniture we sit on, are standard sizes because they were designed with the proportion of the human body. The size of the human body links together everything from the city to hand-held objects.

InnovationNewsDaily: The designs in your book don't just work in harmony with nature, they seem to draw from natural designs as well. How is this different from current "green" design?

Quinn: Technologies are enabling us to use nature in a new kind of way, to interface with nature on many different levels. The bio buildings [buildings with elements that are grown from living things, not manufactured] illustrate how a home can behave like a naturally occurring ecosystem, taking materials and converting them into other things. But technology is also still distancing humans from nature. Nature needs none of the electricity that runs technology, and technology doesn’t use the communication that happens through the release of chemicals in nature. Now, if you could take that chemical communication and apply it to technology, communications technology as we know it would cease to exist.

InnovationNewsDaily: Growing a house as opposed to building it certainly seems like an important change. What happens to manufacturing when putting something together doesn′t necessarily happen in a factory?

Quinn: Self-replication. We’re already beginning to see this in terms of rapid prototyping, now rapid printing. You’d have machines that are able to self-replicate. You can just download a design and print up the item at home. The machine may not need to replicate entirely, but it could make its own replacement parts as things wear out. This could be everything from architectural components to the things you wear.

InnovationNewsDaily: What′s the net effect on nature, then, if your machines can build new machines? That seems like a lot of additional consumption. Can we use these futuristic materials and still reduce waste?

Quinn: Within design, there are people who are designers themselves, but who are the antithesis of design. They say, 'Why do we need more objects? We live in a world full of objects; we should just reprocess them.' Architecture is no different. I think there’s an argument for just reusing and recycling those things. But something like carbon fibers, that are so complex and so expensive to build, are being built with the idea of a long lifespan, just to make up the cost.

[See: Futuristic Materials Could Build Tornado-Proof Homes ]

InnovationNewsDaily: 'Design Futures' has page after page of reactive walls, clothes that process scents, and lists of new materials. What′s the one technology that you think will transform the future most profoundly?

Quinn: The single material that has the ability to change more lives in the future is fiber, the simple fiber, that we use for nearly everything. Fibers are now starting to form the material basis for very complex parts. Something like a carbon fiber has incredible strength and is incredibly lightweight. Other fibers are used for aircraft construction. Fibers are also used to recreate the human body, since lot of reconstructive surgery uses fibers. These fibers have been with us for thousands of years, but science and technology allow us to transform their abilities.

InnovationNewsDaily: So many of the technologies in the book involve networking and interaction. Why do you think connectivity in everything from your house to your shoes appeals so much to people?

Quinn: In another 10 years, I will put on my jacket, and my iPod and my iPad are all interwoven into the fabric. I have a phone call coming in, I just touch the fabric, and the collar becomes the speaker and the microphone. I touch another part, and the sleeve turns into a screen. I know people in New York who are working on this right now.

Buildings, cars, everything will be networked. It's very comforting to humans to be part of the network, or to know that there's an entire network supporting them. A lot of people say we live in uncertain times, and I ask them, 'Why?' We don’t have confidence in our government anymore, freelancers are leaving the corporate structure, the model of the traditional family is breaking down now, so people don’t have the support of institutions that they did in the past or they did when they were in school. So what happens is the consumer is looking for other things to look for a sense of protection, a sense of support. These interactive objects do bring more things under our control in a way.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.