Imagining the Future of 3D Printing at Fractal

Ever since I started doing research on fashion design and copyright, I’ve been tracking the progress of 3D printing technology. The disruptive possibilities of this technology are abundantly clear in the fashion sector, and so I was thrilled to receive an invitation to attend fractal, a very unique conference in Medellin Colombia, where a diverse group of experts was asked to facilitate conversations about 3D printing, synthetic biology and other bleeding edge topics.


Hoping to shake-up the typical conference format, the instigators behind fractal – the intrepid Viviana Trujillo and Hernan Ortiz – decided to invite the audience to use “design fiction” to spin stories of the future that would reveal the key social, cultural, political and ethical quandaries that accompany the adoption of new technologies. The facilitators were a fascinating group: Reshma Shetty, an MIT-trained synthetic biologist; acclaimed artist and director Keiichi Matsuda, whose augmented reality installations have been featured at MOMA and the V&A, and Paul Graham Raven, a speculative fiction practitioner who uses narrative to solve engineering problems in the UK.

In addition to telling stories about how homes might be made out of living things and how augmented reality applications will fundamentally change the contours of our self-presentation to the world, we tackled the topic of 3D printing.

3D printing has been around since the 80’s – mostly for rapid prototyping – but lately it’s become much more affordable and businesses have begun to blossom.

Fashion designers have always existed on the outskirts of the intellectual property frontier, denied the shelter of copyright protection for their designs. Instead of destroying the industry and the creativity that fuels it, it turns out that the lack of copyright protection has fueled the development of a de facto creative commons, where all designers can quote, remix and outright rip-off from the complete history/archives of fashion design. While the music, film and publishing industries still cling to the fading promise of copyright, the luxury fashion industry continues to prosper, and customers continue to benefit from a highly fragmented marketplace, where knock-offs may be purchased for pennies on the dollar.

Whenever I would claim that the traditional media industries – which have generated revenue by monetizing copies of creative work – need to look to the fashion industry for strategies to make money without depending on copyright protection, skeptics would occasionally suggest that the goods that these industries generate are fundamentally different. Because the fashion industry produces material goods, they would never be at the same risk as the music industry (for instance) where the primary product is a digital file that can be endlessly reproduced at virtually no cost.

With the rapid adoption of 3D printing we are taking a significant step toward the blurring of the lines between digital and material goods. How different is an mp3 file of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” from a 3D blueprint of a little black cocktail dress from Calvin Klein? Well, one difference is that the mp3 file is protected by copyright and often some kind of digital rights management (DRM), which makes it more difficult for fans and pirates to make copies of the song. The blueprint for a dress is a lot like a pattern, which is not protected by copyright (despite the claims of most pattern companies) because it produces a utilitarian design. It would most likely not qualify for patent protection, either, because apparel designs rarely pass the “uniqueness” test (has anyone made a little black dress before? Um, yes they have.)

At the fractal conference, the facilitators were asked to incite and encourage hundreds of people in an all-ages public audience to use storytelling to grapple with the complex moral, ethical, social, creative and business issues that arise when the masses have easy access to 3D printing technology. Paul, the in-house futurist and speculative fiction writer, provided a story prompt: what happens when an artist discovers that his fine hand-blown glass orchids are being replicated with a 3D printer and sold at a fraction of the cost? It was up to the audience to figure out the next steps in the story.

They quickly realized what savvy fashion designers in the knock-off economy have discovered: they need to offer something that is too difficult to copy. The artisan glass blower in the story, Mauricio, gravitates toward luxury materials that couldn’t be cheaply copied. By offering a specific scenario to the audience, and complete creative control over the narrative, they were able to get beyond hypotheticals and think about how real people respond to technological innovations that disrupt their lives.

I think I speak for all the facilitators when I say we were awestruck by the clever narrative turns, the melodramatic romantic intrigue, and the distinct magical realist flavor of much of the storytelling. Let’s just say our glassblower is found quite dead, and the distinctive properties of his art work reveal the killer.

This story, and two more that were generated by the audience that day are captured in an e-book called “Memories of the Future”. It includes the artwork generated on the fly, as the audience invented the stories, by the infamous webcomic artist Obsidian Abnormal.

Also included in “Memories of the Future” are some pictures of 3D printed fashion designs that were showcased in a runway show at the conference. Colombian designer Camilo Alvarez included several 3D printed designs in his Spring/Summer collection which you can see here.

I’m thrilled to see that the next edition of fractal (June 4-7, 2014) will build on the collaborative storytelling we did about future applications for synthetic biology. All of the facilitators were worried that this topic was too technical, and too strange, for a general audience, but I must say, I thought that story was the most creative: it’s called “La Mejor Carnicera del Mundo” (“The Best Butcher in the World”). As always, the fractal crew is bringing together an international, interdisciplinary crew, including a synthetic biologist who composes soundtracks to science fiction. If you want to know what the zombie apocalypse might sound like, tune in here.

Related Posts