I am not like anyone else, and neither are you. We are unique individuals with unique physical, mental, and emotional characteristics. We have our own preferences, needs, and desires. So why do we take the same medicine, buy the same products, and follow the same curricula? Mass-produced consumer goods and universal applications have contributed greatly to our comfortable and secure lifestyles. Standardized education, and health and social services have allowed large numbers of people equal access to opportunities. And yet standards and averages are always compromises: what if we approached solutions to products, organizations and institutions from the perspective of Unique rather than Universal?
Universal to unique
Just for you
The medicine we take today is the same for everyone, apart from prescription requirements and dosage. When I have a headache I take the same aspirin as you do, and most drugs in the world are standardized. Although this has obvious production and safety advantages, our bodies and needs are not standard. Imagine taking medicine that has been designed just for you: it fits your DNA profile perfectly, and works optimally for your physical condition. The rapid advances in human DNA sequencing and the staggering reductions in costs – from millions a decade ago, to a few hundred today to a few dollars in the near future – are making this possible. Each pill could be made uniquely for each individual.
Another momentous shift is occurring in the field of manufacturing. Our society of mass-consumption has made our comfortable standard of living possible. Entirely based on mass production techniques, it is epitomized by the assembly line system. Think back to the T-model Ford, available in any color you wanted as long as the color was black. It still stands as a symbol for the triumph of that era and way of thinking. By standardizing every constituent part as well as the assembly process, the cost per unit becomes inversely proportional to the amount produced. Incidentally, this is the way our smartphones are manufactured today.
The radical new promise for manufacturing is three-dimensional, such as 3D-printing. One method works by adding layer upon layer of material, using technology derived from inkjet printers that can produce everything from intricate plastic models to human body parts for reconstructive surgery. Plane manufacturers have embraced the technology for radical weight reduction. Current projects in Amsterdam include a fully 3D-printed three-story canal house and a 3D-printed bridge. Additive 3D-printing is still quite slow, but there are a variety of different techniques which are much faster, such as the aptly-named Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP), which speeds up the process 100-fold by pulling objects from a pool of resin.
While 3D-printing is slowly being embraced in industrial production, its revolutionary potential lies in turning every one of us into a manufacturer. If we can print spare parts, furnishings, clothing, shoes, and even our food, our relationship with retailers will change dramatically. We will be able to design everything to our individual taste and requirements, mixing and matching downloadable design templates. Some 3D-printers are capable of printing most of their own parts, thus allowing for runaway replicability. While it may seem unlikely to customize massive infrastructure systems such as power plants, the rapid growth in consumer solar energy kits and storage solutions shows how the shift to unique solutions is happening even in the energy-generation field. The next wave of industrial innovation thus follows the paradigm shift from Universal to Unique.
Shifting from universal to unique
One recurring question about paradigm shifts is whether they shift only in one direction, or whether they are pendular, swinging back and forth between extremes. Our conviction is that a paradigm shift can run for a matter of decades at the very least, and that most shifts will be going in one direction for the foreseeable future. This is clearly shown by the shift from Universal to Unique. Before the industrial revolution, from Antiquity to the Renaissance, objects were hand-made, and therefore unique by definition. This all changed with the successive development of steam engines, factories, assembly lines and robot manufacturing. The paradigm of universal production has become dominant over the past two centuries, and parts of it are now starting to shift back.
The shift from Universal to Unique is the shift from mass production to tailored and individualized artifacts. This entails new production and designing techniques, but also rethinking the role of the product and of the end user. It allows for some interesting hybrid approaches, as is evident in the phenomenon known as mass customization: some products – such as printers and printing material – are still produced industrially, but the overall aim is to produce unique artifacts tailored to individual needs. We can also imagine mass manufacturing co-existing happily with increased customization, addressing complementary aspects of our complex consumer infrastructure.
The shift from Universal to Unique can help us to think of all kinds of ways of valuing individual relevance and purpose. In this sense, it is a shift in thinking as much as in production techniques.
What would it be like to approach each user as an individual with unique needs and desires, and focus on addressing those?
If we applied this shift to educational design, for example, we could make the shift from a national curriculum and standardized final exam to a completely idiosyncratic learning trajectory for every single student. This would apply not only at university but also in primary and secondary school. Right from the start, your education would be tailored to your own unique learning strengths and weaknesses, both in terms of content and of difficulty level. If we have the technology to continuously track billions of smartphones and millions of cars individually through their signature GPS signals, we can surely devise a system to track millions of unique learning paths.
Elements of the shift from universal to unique
The first element is to move from a one size fits all approach to an individually tailored product. The core belief of a universality paradigm is that it is applicable across the board, without any exceptions. This is the belief we capture in the slogan “one size fits all”. Moving forward, we can focus on designing a solution for a single user that is individually tailored to his or her needs. In order to do this, we must know what these needs are. One of the best ways of doing this is involving the user as a co-creator, or pulling in requirements rather than pushing a solution unto the user.
The second element is from mass-produced to personal design. The key to mass production is to produce as much as possible with the aim of reaching as large an audience as possible, in order to keep costs down and maximize market share or profit. Mass production has proven to be a remarkable engine of growth. The next challenge is to provide goods and services that allow for personal design and customization, yet which are no more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts.
The third element is the shift from thinking in terms of an average user to thinking in terms of an idiosyncratic user. It is difficult to overestimate how pervasive the notion of average is in our society: average salaries, average ages, average weight, even average lifestyle. And yet none of us are average. We now know that our bodies don’t respond to exercise in the same way – people with certain DNA profiles don’t get any benefit at all from regular cardiovascular exercise, while others benefit greatly. Furthermore, we all have our own idiosyncratic preferences, need and desires. How could we take our idiosyncratic bodies and preferences as a starting point for products, institutions and curricula?
It's your move
Where do you see the shift from Universal to Unique happening in your specific field? It’s not only a question of manufacturing products, but a broader approach about how you can perceive the end user of your product or service. Imagine the opportunities involved in rethinking our educational process from the perspective of unique learning paths, rather than universal curricula and testing. What, besides individualized medicine, would be the consequences for healthcare? Could hospitals treat their patients as unique users rather than applying universal protocols? What aspects of your organization or business model could you change if you thought in terms of a Unique rather than a Universal approach?
To discover which aspects of your organization or business model you could shift from universal to unique, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.