Look around you; anything that isn’t made by nature had to be designed and built by we mere humans and what I’ll be referring to here as “things”. The Snowflake Effect is causing dramatic changes in the world of things as they rapidly transform from being mass produced to mass personalized and in the process, are becoming snowflakes themselves.
In the coming weeks and months, I’d like to explore this very large and influential meta trend of both the Snowflake Effect of mass personalization and specifically the effect on “things”. My interest in doing so is that I believe this is ushering in a new era, what some have referred to as the “Next Industrial Revolution”, and even more so than the “first” Industrial Revolution I believe that this next one will cause and require an even more profound revolution in the world of learning, education and training for all of us.
Flexible manufacturing was one of the initial enablers of this transformation from mass production to mass customization, however this was barely the beginning. With the advent of more and more computer controlled design and machining, and more recently the introduction of affordable 3D printers and scanners, we are seeing an exponential increase in the personalization of individual items which can now be both designed and produced to match the unique context of the individual person and situation for no more and often less cost that previous mass produced things.
The Long Tail of Things
As striking as these changes are and will be, let’s PLEASE avoid our history of believing that each new era will completely eliminate all of what has come before. This is about disruptive innovation not disruptive elimination. We do not want or need every thing to be unique. Large scale items such as airplanes and cruise ships for example will likely continue to be produced in quantity, but even now these items are largely uniquely built to match the individual customer and be adapted to match some specific routes or conditions. Many such large scale items are already being designed and built such that they can be changed over time to match a contextual change, predicted or not. For example, several of the world’s Navies are building their newest ships in such a way that they can be reconfigured to match different contexts of use such as switching from a configuration that is best for a military situation to responding to a natural disaster.
There will also likely be a need for some mass produced parts where large numbers of exactly the same thing is just what we want such as with fasteners like screws, nuts and bolts. For an even longer time yet there will be instances where many people will want to have the exact same thing and there will continue to be fads and hits such as popular books, songs and movies. But these will be at the front end of the Long Tail and small in number. As you move down the exponential curve of the Long Tail, you get to more and more things for more and more people which have less and less in common.
Even if I really like the pen you just showed me and we can “print” one “just like it”, I will often want to modify it a little bit to better fit me. I’ll want it to be a bit shorter or more curved to better fit my hand, match the way I write or a be a bit heavier to match my personal preferences. The same dynamics will play out if this were a coffee cup, a pair of eyeglasses, a pair of shoes, or a chair. In this way there will be an equivalent Long Tail of things and it will be a spectrum with products falling at all points along the exponential curve towards uniqueness. However as we are seeing with the Long Tail effect on music, movies, books and the like, the transition will be such that the volume of objects down at the unique end of the tail will rise dramatically and become the majority in terms of both instances, business and learning.
The Internet of Things
Above and beyond being mass customized and personalized by their design and production, things are increasingly connected, networked and interconnected to each other and to ourselves as we use them. One version of this is often referred to as “The Internet of Things”. A commonly cited example is the way in which home appliances are being connected to each other and the net for everything from monitoring energy use, setting thermostats, timing of when best to turn things off and on. Or where all the items in your fridge are dynamically updating their status in terms of how full they are, their expiration date, peak freshness and so on to help you choose what’s best to make for dinner tonight and what to pick up at the grocery store on your way home. But as we’ll cover in future articles, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”! Start to think smaller and smarter and imagine and prepare yourself for things like “smart” and digital dust, dirt, pixels, locations, ink dots and paint. More on each of this in posts to follow.
Things are Becoming Snowflakes Too
In short products or “things” are going to increasingly be snowflakes themselves; alike perhaps but no two exactly the same. And just like us as unique individuals, as things become more like snowflakes, they too will start to have their own identity, their own networks, their own conversations and even their own “social networks”. Indeed, if you’re paying attention, many already do! One of many future topics we will cover here.
Snowflake Things Need Snowflake People & Learning
However it is the more far reaching and more latent effects of these changes, especially those on how, when, where and what we learn that excite me and motivate me to initiate this conversation with you. If these trends have not already captured your curiosity and fascination as they have mine, then I think they soon will and I hope to help in that process. We need to seriously and deeply reconsider things such as core competencies and skills required for a world where mass personalization replaces mass production. We need to rethink and redesign things like learning, teaching, training, content and the like to take advantage of the increasing new capabilities of mass personalization and have have personalized learning experiences be the norm for everyone every day. As we gain the ability to do such things as copy, replicate, modify and mash up pretty much everything, not just the 2D and digital worlds, as easily as we now do with books, documents, music and video, we will face challenges such as what does original mean, is there a role for such things as copyright anymore and if you can have anything you want at your fingertips in an instant, what DO you really want and more so need? All these some of the questions prompting me to start this conversation and to cover in the coming weeks and months.
Just as it was the change from an agrarian society to an industrial one that produced most of our current models for learning, education and training, so too will this next era shape us as a society both locally and globally. The revolution in the world of learning, and make no mistake it is truly deserving of this often overused word, is upon us and it is as daunting as it is exciting and powerful. Yet as has often been said, the best way to predict the future is to design your own, and it is my sincere hope and conviction that collectively, we can strategically and serendipitously lead the transformation of learning, training and education rather than have it happen to us. By exploring and better understanding current trends and directions of the Snowflake Effect on the world of “things”, we will be able to bring the power of mass personalization to the world of learning such that each of us experience and help others to experience great learning moments every day.