When Innovation Becomes Revolution

I’m given this topic to consider in relation to the Roman’s invention of opus caementicium.

Roman concrete (opus caementicium) revolutionalised Roman architecture, allowing the Romans to create innovative buildings that departed significantly from the more traditional structures of the Greek and Etruscan past. Thinking about this in the broader sense … consider whether the discovery of a new technology leads to the creation of new forms or conversely whether the desire to express something in a different way leads to the invention of a new medium.

To answer this question, I have to go beyond the constraints of form and look further into way of life and social structure. And here’s what I’ve come up with, briefly:

Does new technology lead to revolution or revolution to new technology?

I think there is a dialectic relationship between new technology and revolution. To illustrate this I have the following two examples:

1. Brunelleschi and dome construction

Rising  375 feet above the pavement and spanning 142 feet wide, the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence remains till today the greatest feat of engineering in dome construction. This piece of grandeur was conceptualised in 1296 based on a late Gothic plan by Arnolfo di Cambio, but up until 1418, no feasible way had been found to construct the dome. The difficulty of its construction was complicated by its enormous size (as wide as but taller than the Pantheon) and the specific requirement that no external buttresses be used to support its weight as the Florentines sought to cut clean from the Gothic in returning to classical forms.

These aesthetic demands had led to a competition for technological innovation, in which Brunelleschi won for his ingenious construction techniques – the insertion of stone and iron chains between the bricks that are laid in a herringbone pattern to direct weight to the designated cornerstones.

the herringbone construction that Brunelleschi used to keep the enormous brick dome of Florence from collapsing

In his research for a solution, Brunelleschi had looked to the antiquity for inspiration, where he rediscovered structural integrity in relation to geometric proportion. This ‘discovery’, along with others made during the Renaissance, sparked a series of revolutionary changes in Western Europe. But the specific dome construction technique did not cause bigger and taller domes to be built, partly because Brunelleschi kept it a secret, but mainly because this innovation had arisen from a very unique circumstance and had no universal application.

2. 3D Printing

The technology of 3D printing has in fact been around for about twenty years now, but it is only very recently that it is taking off. From product retailing to medicine and architecture, 3D printing is promising infinite possibilities to those who are brave enough to dream.

Some of the technology’s impacts are already felt around the world, causing revolutionary changes in both social and economic structure of those societies. For example, the geographic proximity of production and consumption sites is no longer a major consideration in retailing as consumers can order in demand, cutting out mass production, shipping and storage in the supply chain. This means that it will bring about drastic changes to the logistics industry, the manufacturing industry and the business model of many design companies as they can now sell directly to end users.

3D printing will change the life of many individuals too. Think about those whose livelihood has been reliant upon their cheap labour, which with the advance of this technology might be rendered irrelevant altogether. Think also about how we can possibly eliminate the need to visit numerous shops just to find the right product.

soon 3D printers will be printing body parts

But the most exciting part of 3D printing is the potential is has in virtually every aspect of life. There are talks about printing organs for transplant, printing food to feed hungry mouths, and even printing materials for building houses. Like the internet, the power of 3D printing stops where imagination ends. And in this case, it is a new technology that leads to revolution, because the technology was not born from a specific demand and therefore has universal application.

Update: someone pointed out that I didn’t really point out the dialectical relationship between the two. So Perhaps I should better illustrate this relationship:

Certainly the example of the Florentine basilica illustrates how the desire to express something leads to relentless search for new technology. But it also tells us why a new technology fails to take off and lead to new forms when it is not allowed to be tested, because kept secret, in a wider area of applications. Dialectics requires dialogues, and forbidding a technology to enter a discourse between creation and invention means foreclosing its future.

On the other hand, the 3D printing example seeks to illustrate how a new technology/medium can unleash infinite possibilities in terms of creative forms and creative functions. But such technology began, like the Brunelleschi technology, as a practical solution to a creative need – i.e. to produce prototypes faster and cheaper. So while the dome construction can serve as a negative example showing why not all new technologies can lead to creative desire, the 3D printing example demonstrates, I hope, how their relationship can also be dialectical. Of course, I’d need to prove how the desire of new forms arising from 3D printing also leads to search for newer medium/technology, but I will leave it to the ongoing research on material science to prove the point.

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