Friday, January 28, 2011

Alvin Toffler Foresaw Mass Customization

While studying economics at university in the early 1980s I read a book called "The Third Wave", which was written by a sociologist and futurist by the name of Alvin Toffler. "The Third Wave" was a sequel to Toffler's earlier book "Future Shock", which was first published in 1970.

"Future Shock" contended that humans and societies were about to experience massive structural change, as part of a revolution from being an industrial society to a super-industrial society. "The Third Wave" expanded on this analysis by describing three types of human societies in the form of waves.

The First Wave is the settled agricultural society, which replaced most earlier hunter-gatherer cultures.

The Second Wave is the Industrial Age society, which first began in Western Europe with the Industrial Revolution. Key elements of the Industrial Age are the nuclear family, and the factory-type education system and the corporation. Of this, Toffler went on to say:

"The Second Wave Society is industrial and based on mass production, mass distribution, mass consumption, mass education, mass media, mass recreation, mass entertainment, and weapons of mass destruction. You combine those things with standardization, centralization, concentration, and synchronization, and you wind up with a style of organization we call bureaucracy."

So far all of this sounds very familiar.

The Third Wave is the post-industrial society. Toffler says that since the late 1950s most countries have been transitioning from a Second Wave society into a Third Wave society. He coined many words to describe it and mentions names invented by others, such as the Information Age.

The one thing that really stood out from me when reading this book was the term "mass customization". And as part of the shift from mass manufacturing to mass customization Toffler said we would see greater personalization, customization, informationalization, democratization and humanization of everything.

Mass customization enables cheap production of personalized products catering to small niches. In other words, production runs of one-of-one will become ever more viable and prolific every single day.

In my mind there is no question we are seeing more and more evidence of this, as the large scale factories and assembly lines of yesteryear are progressively shuttered and mothballed while small-scale entrepreneurs such as artisans and solitary craftspeople use information technology to leverage their way into competitive niches in the marketplace.

At this year's Interior Design Show (IDS11) it is clear that the future of design and craftsmanship will not be found at the big box retailers selling mass manufactured "stuff" from places like China. Instead, it will be found with the kind of work that innovative artisans and craftspeople are currently exhibiting at niche displays such as Prototype and Studio North.

Come to IDS11 to see the future of design and craftsmanship.

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