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We Just Went Through 200 Years of Radical Economic Upheaval -- The Next Economic Era Offers Us a Chance to Control It

Proposing a 'design economy' -- the more we participate in it and share it, the better we all live and the more sustainable and stable it can become.

Editor's Note: The following essay is a deep-think attempt to re-imagine the fundamental concepts of how modern societies can restructure their economies and how citizens can reorder their lives in a more democratic fashion. The author considers the emerging technologies of the future and the huge problems posed by industrial economics.

Proposing a Design Economy

I. In contemporary economic discussion, the idea of the Industrial Revolution is frequently presented as something bland, neutral and inevitable. Instead of conveying a sense of historical turmoil, disruption and the overthrowing of established cultural, political and economic institutions dating back millenia, we simply throw off the term, “Industrial Revolution” with little regard that it represented a fundamental reordering of human life. In many ways this is understandable, as the Industrial Revolution triumphed, becoming industrial rule, industrial economy, industrial bureaucracy, and industrial life -- the industrial status quo. In large swaths of the world, industrial economy is so dominant, it leaves the sense the world has always been that way and only a fool could imagine it being any different. Most amazingly, this has all been accomplished in less than two centuries -- an historical blink of the eye.

Today, we confront an era of equal historical change. Further understandings of the natural world and resulting new technologies are beginning to impact industrial society to a degree as fantastic as industrial knowledge and technology transformed agrarian society. While agrarian civilization lasted over 10,000 years, the reign of industrial society has been relatively brief; nonetheless, it is being usurped. This transformation is rapidly intruding on our lives, yet still not quite recognized beyond a general trepidation that things don't seem to quite work like they did before. The great collective social anxiety of the Industrial era, never satiated, now confronts a new transition for which the tools, skills, thinking and institutions are little developed, if they exist at all.

Maybe the most essential understanding we can have in such a time is the simple recognition of change. The Industrial era, for many reasons, is transitory. It is inherently unstable, and incapable of truly meeting the challenges and problems it created. For in the end, industrialism tries conforming or forcefully overwhelming life's great diversity into a few narrow homogenous environments, which are unhealthy and unsustainable for both the individual and the system as a whole.

The Industrial era's greatest strength, an uncompromising faith in technology, is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The simplistic adoption of any given technology, without an understanding or systemic feedback mechanisms to track its impact on society, is the ethos of a child, an immature civic morality. To paraphrase the technology thinker Marshall McLuhan, first we shape technology, then technology shapes us. We still grasp to understand how technology shapes us, yet we rapidly transform from industrial technologies to a new era, for lack of a better term, of information technologies.

These new electronic information technologies are transforming industrial economies. Technology has been the fundamental shaping force of the modern era; developing an understanding of the power of this shaping will enable us to meet some of challenges we face as new technologies now reshape industrial society. It is the understanding of this shaping process, call it design, that will be a fundamental force and positive potential of the next economic era. We are leaving the era of industry and embarking on great new experiments of design. To succeed, we will need the active participation of each of us helping shape our individual and collective lives. We must all be active participants in creating the thinking, tools, institutions, politics, and culture of the design economy.