A 50-year leap into the future carries you far beyond extrapolation, even
beyond the range of applicability of wisdom from the past, into a world glimpsed
but dimly in a cloudy crystal ball. Engineers/scientists are likely to guess
conservatively about the future world because, although aware of potentials,
they are also aware of realistic constraints.
In 50 years, hindsight will probably show that some science fiction writers, ignorant of--or at least disrespectful of--constraints will have made the best predictions. Unfortunately, we cannot now identify the successful prognosticators among the multitude of futurists. At least we can use them all as role models to coax us to raise our sights higher, to consider barriers and problems as opportunities.
Some features of the next 50 years can be predicted with confidence--features that lead to dramatic change in the design of products. Functional design (materials, mechanical, fluid dynamics, energy, optimization, producibility) will be provided by computer servants having skills far beyond the capability of any human. These computer servants will be available to and readily usable by almost everyone. Designers will be left emphasizing those things that are strongly human, such as setting goals, choosing style, art, marketing strategies, seeing the big picture, and looking at total systems--incidentally using computers to facilitate but not dominate each process. The beginnings of this design revolution are already apparent, and the revolution will be won long before five decades. The big question for the designer becomes not "How shall I handle a specific design task?" but rather "Now that we all can do everything, what do we choose to do?"
Here are some other predictable features, some involving concepts that have a bearing on answering questions about what we choose to do:
A huge increase in global population, probably adding to our 5.7 billion people another 2 to 6 billion. There will also be an associated decrease in wild nature, which has already dramatically shrunk in numbers and diversity. The population increase can be thought of as a great opportunity for bigger markets for designers, but there are obvious negatives associated with overcrowding and overuse of limited resources. Efficiency, conservation, and recycling will be emerging as themes of ever-higher priority.
A fantastic increase in technology. The capability of information technology, and the proliferation of its application in computers and in information dissemination, has for several decades been surprisingly well matched to Moore's "law" that digital data density doubles every 18 months. Fifty more years of growth at this rate means almost an 11-billion-fold increase! If our population then is also about 11 billion (a result of a sustained 1.33%/yr growth rate), on average every person could have at his/her disposal the integrated computing capability that now exists on the whole globe! Quantitatively such predictive numbers cannot be taken seriously, but qualitatively they support the conclusion that computer tools for product design will let virtually anyone handle the functional elements of design, and virtually everyone will be in easy communication with everyone else and with all information stored anywhere on Earth.
Advances in bioengineering. Examples include life extension, genetic selection, im-proved learning, and probably the mingling of technological devices with mind and body to the point where the distinction between human and machine becomes blurred.
Inevitably, there will be unpredictable breakthroughs that change the world more than the transistor/microprocessor/computer, DNA and the double helix, bioengineering of humans,and space flight did in the last half century.
Of course, many things will not change. As an example, note that today's bicycles are essentially the same as when the first bikes were built inthe present form over a century ago. Accessories, tires, brakes, seats, and shocks have continually improved, but bikes serve as a metaphor for elegant design. From the start, nothing more could be removed. Basic bikes, with more features, will continue to be produced fifty years from now. There are many ways of traveling with-out human energy, but a mechanism whose essence is its relation to human health, enjoyment, and convenience connects to humans in a fundamental way that withstands the lure of substitutes.
The Earth will be no larger than it is now, and will have fewer resources. The sky is not the limit; the Earth is.
As an example of designers moving toward larger issues, consider cars. As the decades advance, the car designer's strengthening tools will facilitate the development and use of attractive, economical vehicles with improved performance, environmental compatibility, and low-cost producibility. But the improved vehicles will not help personal mobility when that is limited by traffic, parking problems, and time wasted commuting. The total system designer then comes to the fore, exploring multi-modal transportation, multi-use schemes, changes in land-use planning, decreasing transportation demands, even incorporating telecommuting as an ultimate cure. The system designer will become a psychologist and philosopher, whether prepared or not.
The airplane designer will continue to design airplanes, with computers doing virtually all of the work. The systems designer will again become prominent, grappling with challenges of airport and air traffic overload, safety from terrorists, and--the biggest challenge of all--which liquid fuel will power the airliners of the future when oil is no longeran option.
Designers, engineers, and scientists will be found crossing into each other's disciplines. Nanotechnology will equip us with robotic analogs for bacteria and ant colonies. Robots will be our servants at home, as well as our drones in factories. Computers with insights about molecular structure will tailor new materials to new tasks of structures or recycling. Remote learning, remote exploring, virtual reality, stereo visualization, and fabrication at a distance will be routine.
Designers have unusual skills. More than average people, they are creative; proactive; comprehend reality in the mechanical, electrical, and chemical areas; appreciate art and style; are aware of human capabilities and human motivation; are comfortable with change and with treating a wide range of subjects; and are capable of seeing the essence of broad, complex topics. They are excited about what they do, preferring work that is motivating, not just something to earn money to support enjoyable activities away from work. Most product designers I know are addicted to accepting challenge. They work hard, and enjoy every minute.
Designers are the sort who can deal with myriad new challenges that will characterize the next half century. A desirable, sustainable world for ourselves and our children in 2046 cannot be predicted, and certainly will not be achieved by default. It can be achieved by design, as designers of the future apply their talent and enthusiasm to the task.