On the occasion of the project to write his next book, "Conceiving Differently. What design for an uncertain future? "UP' Magazine was received for an exclusive interview with Jocelyn de Noblet, Professor and Researcher in Material Culture, Founder of the Centre de Recherche sur la Culture Technique (CRCT).
This Doctor of Letters is one of the most brilliant French theorists of his discipline: a restless proselyte, Jocelyn de Noblet shakes up preconceived ideas. For more than 40 years, through his books, courses at the Ecole nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs and the publications of his Research Centre for Technical Culture (CRCT), he is trying to unravel the semantic quarrels that are hindering the breakthrough of design in France.
This interview is an alert launched on a planet that is running out of breath, and for which he proposes several solutions, in research areas that are a priority.
"The only sustainable phenomenon is change"
Jocelyn de Noblet believes that global warming is a serious phenomenon and that it needs to be addressed now.
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"It is not enough to say, as Jacques Chirac said in the Johannesburg conference in 2002 "The planet is in danger, our house is burning down,… ». It's as if after confessing to a priest, and being reassured, you start all over again ... as before.
Material culture, as it exists today, is not compatible with pollution on the one hand and the use of the raw materials it uses on the other. Whether we like it or not, we are obliged to change our material culture. Material culture being the set of objects, from the machine tool to the Coca Cola or champagne bottle, the screw, the tool or the watch".
- FM: So it's high time to review the design of all these objects, faced with a planet in danger?
- Jocelyn de Noblet: Yes, but not only that. The technical system, from which this material culture has been constituted since the industrial revolution, has exhausted its potential for development; that is to say when the industrial revolution becomes effective, either when the technical infrastructure allows the production of objects industrially and no longer by craftsmen, or around 1828/1830. From then on, we have machine tools, steam engines, we have something else to manufacture. Craftsmanship has been an extremely relevant technical system that worked from prehistoric times until the beginning of the 18th century. But from the moment when it required watchmaking, military precision, etc... However, from the moment when watchmaking, military, etc. precision was required, human beings could no longer make objects with their eyes and hands that were accurate to more than a tenth of a millimetre. We needed machine tools, we needed something else.
The craftsman is the extension of the hand. The industrial revolution is the transition from the hand tool to the machine tool. In the field of the craftsman, there are two things: soft materials, such as making a dough or a pie. Only the hand works. Then hard materials where a tool is needed to extend the hand, such as a serpent, a saw, a knife,...
So we entered the industrial revolution with a technical system that is electromechanical and chemical. This system in 1830 had a fantastic potential for development which manifested itself in an extraordinary acceleration of means.
Let us take the example of transportation. In the 18th century, you needed a good horse-drawn carriage with a well-maintained road to reach 12 or 15 km per hour. At the end of the 19th century, with the railway, we reached 60 to 100 km per hour. Then, with the invention of aviation, we reached 1000 km per hour. So there was a fantastic acceleration. The Saint-SimoniansIn the 1830's, they were convinced of the importance of the railway, the most fantastic invention of the company. Numerous texts have been written on this subject, showing how technological utopia was going to transform the world: acceleration, speed, change of distances were going to upset the world. This is what we experienced until 1975, 1980.
Today, we can see that this technical system has finally exhausted its development potential and that there is no more acceleration. Let's take the TGV as an example: we know perfectly well that it runs at 300/320 km per hour and we can't do much better. But if you want to do even better, you will discover problems with the wave systems that get out of balance between the catenary and the pantograph. When the SNCF did its tests at 550 km per hour, they had to spend a fortune on a 3 km line by building concrete tracks, with taut wires,... So we reached the limits from the small locomotive... "Rocket" from 1830 that went 50 km per hour, to the TGV that went 350 km per hour!
The car, from 1906 to 1970, is in the same case. Despite electronic gadgets, city traffic jams and accidents mean that speed is finally limited. In the field of aviation, innovations were dazzling until the invention of the Boeing 747, which reached 900 km per hour. As for the Airbus 380, it has impressive computer technology, but it is in fact a revised Boeing 707 carrying a little more passengers, but not more than 900 km per hour.
There was of course the Concorde: it is now in the museum! So we're going at the same speed by plane as 50 years ago... As for the space shuttles, they're all in the museum as well. So if you take these three areas, the development potential is now exhausted. And that has consequences for society.
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- FM: Your observation seems to be objective: the uses would have stopped with the speed limit?
- JN: Yes, the technologies we have don't allow us to go any faster.
Let's take the field of household electrical appliances: as early as 1900, we started to have electrical resistors in irons, electric fans and miniaturized motors, the famous "motor of Tesla. Around 1955, plastic materials appeared and were at the origin of Italian design; they contributed to the creation of hair dryers, toasters, etc. There was an incredible evolution of Western society. Today it's over.
- FM: But where are the innovations today?
- JN: Today we live at the interface of two systems. On the one hand, we have the electromechanical and chemical system ("strong technical system") on which we still live when we take a locomotive, a plane or a car and then, what I call the "weak technical" system which has developed since the invention of the transistor and which became effective from 1980 onwards with the internet; these are the new information and communication technologies (NICT), nanotechnologies, genetic engineering, biotechnologies, genetically modified organisms, etc.
- FM: These are important accelerations?
- JN: Yes, in the virtual realm: we communicate at the speed of light, but the body doesn't move. In the field of NICTs, there is a tremendous potential for development. It's based on the law of Gordon Earle MooreThe power of a microprocessor is going to double between every 18 months and every two years," said Intel co-founder and vice-president in 1966. It is believed that this law will be valid until 2020 and then move on to quantum computers and other developments.
This weak technical system has incredible development possibilities but it cannot replace the strong technical system.
- FM: But can he improve it?
- JN: Yes, indeed. If you take the Normandy Bridge, on the voussoirs there are electronic sensors that make it possible not to oversize them: instead of having a voussoir that weighs 20 tons, it now weighs only 15 tons, but it will never weigh 3kgs.
Whatever the advantages of this weak electronic technical system, it does not replace a strong technical system.
- FM: Or you have to accept changes, don't you?
- JN: Yes, but changes that are revolutionary. We can change things, but we have to make brutal changes to our knowledge, to the way we operate. Whether we like it or not, NICTs are mature enough to make it possible to eliminate 95 %s from business air travel and replace them with TV conferences.
- FM: Aren't we here again in a new form of speed, of acceleration?
- JN: Saving time is a new form of virtual speed. It may not be a culturally ideal form of evolution, but given that there are now 9 billion of us on Earth, we have no choice.
Let's take the example of a pea consumer who wants to consume peas all year round: he buys peas from Kenya and therefore consumes four kilos of CO² more. The radical position is to advise him to wait until June to have some in his garden!
In order to get out of the situation we find ourselves in with global warming and energy shortages, we are going to have to accept change whether we like it or not.
- FM: What changes could we implement? What new design methods?
- JN: There are many areas where there are opportunities for intervention:
1) Designing objects solely with a view to their functional and symbolic use by the potential buyer without concern for their future - as is still the case today and since the beginning of the industrial revolution - is no longer acceptable.
There are many changes of all kinds to be made, in the field of material culture of objects, the first of which can be taken from the American book " Cradle to cradle "("Creating from Cradle to Cradle") of William Mc Donough (2002): American researchers assume that an industrialist designs an object today, you buy it through a reseller and once you have it, you throw it away. It is therefore essentially designed to please consumers and to make money with it. In other words, the object goes from the cradle to the grave. The idea would be to design an object, no longer according to the user who is going to buy it, but according to its recycling and recovery: you would no longer buy a washing machine, but you would be lent a machine for 10,000 hours of washing, and when it's used up, you would buy it back. In the design process, it is designed with materials that can be deconstructed.
It therefore becomes mandatory to introduce into the design process the possibility of deconstructing objects at the end of their life, on a dismantling line, with the least possible damage to the various components so that they can be reused with the least possible nuisance.
In fact, in the medium-term future, the aim is to sell only the services and recover the objects to do something else.
2) Design durable objects and prohibit programmed obsolescence.
The society in which we are, the hyperconsumer society, was born around 1927 in the USA. When we moved from the artisanal system to the industrial system, the objects produced between 1830 and 1930 were designed to last, in the artisanal philosophy: the Singer sewing machine, the Ford Tproduced between 1908 and 1927 to 15 million copies (at a price of $250), of which Henry Ford thought you had to use it for the rest of your life, the Kodak camera, the typewriter... Remington...All mass-produced industrial objects (the Colt was the first to be produced in 1830).
In 1927, an astonishing Harvard graduate appears, Alfred SloanCEO, CEO of General Motors, with the following reasoning: "these products were designed with great technological success; now we can give the technology to people for free. So, if we want to trade and make a lot of money, we have to design products obsolete". Aesthetic obsolescence was born: you have to disgust people with their own choices every 18 months! This is the beginning of marketing, a form of disguised totalitarianism, because Alfred Sloan says "if we can do well-designed marketing and design products according to our method, there will be no more buyers, but people trained to buy what will be the most profitable for us to sell".
Almost all utilitarian objects must become symbolic. You have to be able to design shapes that are attractive enough to make people want to buy.
On the other hand, companies such as Philips or General Electric have introduced technological obsolescence. Around 1915 /1920 they technically developed the programmed obsolescence of a light bulb: in a fire station in New York City, light bulbs from 1910 are still working today! A light bulb today should not work beyond 5000 hours.
This has taken us from a consumer society to a society of hyper-consumption and we are still in that pattern. Let's take the example of Apple: the iPhone and iPad were designed in a perfect way a few years ago. But these "perfect" products were not immediately put on the market, because a number of imperfections were introduced over the years. They were made to look like incremental technological innovations to sell more, when the ideal end product already existed.
An American economist, Alfred London, at the end of the 1929 crisis, even wanted to include the programmed obsolescence of products in the constitution!
3) The energies of the future. If we want to reduce our energy expenditure, because there is a depletion of resources and if we do not want to pollute, we must take radical solutions. From an energy point of view, nuclear power is a necessary evil, despite what environmentalists say: we have to promote the use of nuclear energy. 4th generation nuclear powers, promote thorium nuclear reactors that allow for a better split between military and civilian. It is a material four times more abundant than uranium, so we can use it until renewable energies have proved their worth.
One of the world's leading climatologists, James Hansenwhich founded and directs theNASA's Godard Institute for Space StudiesThe largest American climate research laboratory is particularly pessimistic about climate change and all the damage caused by the greenhouse effect: "Today, we cannot do away with all fossil fuels and be content with renewable energies. Of course, we need to research these renewable energies and nuclear power while waiting for something better".
4) The city: it is possible to conceive the city without a combustion engine (Law of Yacob Zahavi). This is technically possible provided that the phenomena of "neighbourhood offices" are developed. It is originally an idea of Fulgence Welcomethe origin of the metro in France. He said that "in a modern city, one must have a metro station within 10 minutes walking distance of every inhabitant of a city". The development of NICTs should make it possible to create "neighbourhood offices" less than 10 minutes walk from any individual. In Europe, more than 100 million people work in the tertiary sector and these neighbourhood offices could be an innovative solution: they would be buildings made up of 200 individual offices equipped with 2 or 3 TV conference rooms, 2 or 3 "nice organisers", computer assistants available to employees, a cafeteria, etc. This would eliminate the need for transport to work. Moreover, the buildings must be made self-sufficient: when we are away, what can we receive at home, apart from the mail in the mailbox, the message on the answering machine or the e-mail on the computer? Why not imagine individual private containers where internet-ordered shopping could be delivered at any time of the day or night?
We should promote electrified public transport, trains, trams, buses, escalators, treadmills,... But this requires a change of mentality, behaviour, habits,...
5) The development of domestic homes for the elderly and dependent persons in the creation of public places to accommodate them.
Will there be room for specialized domestic robots? It is a question of taking into account the needs of more than 70 million people in Europe who are prepared to accept sacrifices, so that they can end their lives at home, rather than "dying" in hospital or in a retirement home. To carry out this type of project, it is necessary to consult an occupational therapist and a geriatric doctor.
Other areas of research are being studied, which we will soon be able to discover in Jocelyn de Noblet's book, such as the theme of educating children before puberty (what function do computers and the internet play in education?), or the transport of goods around the world, ...
He will take up his pen again to convince us that solutions exist. And what a feather: a Parker 51It is the same one with which Churchill signed peace!
To know more about Jocelyn de Noblet :
– Design Mirror of the century / Editions Flammarion. APCI. 1993.
- Technical culture : http://documents.irevues.inist.fr/handle/2042/28357
– Design: the gesture and the compass / Editions France Loisirs 1988