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From atoms to organizations

It had already intrigued me when, after serendipitously coming across it on a web page I explored its applications and examples. The possibilities it opened fascinated me and I recorded a note to self to get hold of one. As a result, when I saw it on a stand at BHV in Paris, notwithstanding the frivolity of the purchase, I definitely had to acquire a 3Dbrush pen.

And here is the result, admittedly ugly, on the background of its own initial flat drawing, at the top of this post you can admire my first 3D creation: a little bicycle model, that took about 2 minutes to create from scratch. And yes, the pen does give the holder the exhilarating feeling that one is truly "creating" something, not in terms of having a new idea, but actually materializing an object out of nothing.

3D printing has been around for a while now and the 3D pen I purchased is just a toy that does not do justice to the possibilities already achieved by professional systems in various fields.

Take fashion for example. It is now possible to print a full dress, as the picture to the right glamorously illustrates. Modeled by queen of burlesque Dita von Teese, here is a full gown designed by Michael Schmidt and Francis Bitonti based on the golden number and the Fibonacci series. You can find out more about this dress on flicker and on the Shapeways blog.

But the toy I am talking about, even with its limited possibilities, brings the technology to a different level and challenges how we understand the link between our imagination, our creative actions and the material world.

In his painting " La trahison des images " ( The treachery of images) Magritte stresses that the image of the pipe is just an illusion in relation to the real object being depicted: it is more a representation of the artist’s inner world than a faithful description of the reality.

Now, we are crossing this line between image and reality. We can take a pen into our hands and, albeit with less talent than Magritte, draw an object that will actually exists, and can be used for some practical purpose.

Interestingly, coming back to Magritte's painting, Vauon, a traditional maker, is 3D printing a pipe called “the diamond”: the image on the left that represents a 3D printout, really is a pipe (

Ceci est une pipe

And this is just the beginning. It is generally recognized that the Altair 8800, designed in 1974 triggered the microcomputer revolution by bringing computing power at the tips of any individual geek. In a sense 3Dpens and other desktop 3Dprinters are making 3D printing accessible to anyone. Existing mainframes were much more powerful that the Altair, but the revolution was not driven by computer power. It was the distribution of this power among a multitude of enthusiastic minds and the incessant dialog between individual creativity and industry.

Actually, it is not even the beginning, it merely is the preamble to the beginning.  A lab at MIT is dedicated to the exploration of the connections between information and matter. It is the “bits and atoms” lab, led byNeil Gershenfeld

As Dr Gershenfleld points out in this blog, all the current technology of 3d printing and the likes can do is smooching material. The design of the smooching may be based on digital technology, but the construction is analogue: there are no building blocks.

The magic of life and biological entities, like a flower, a bird or ourselves, is that they result from the self-assembly of complex structures based on elementary building blocks: the aminoacids. The results are entities that are resilient and adaptive to the external conditions. One of the long term objectives of the CBA is to develop a technology where 3Dprinting is based on self assembling microscopic units that, once the objects are no longer usable, can be disassembled and reused to build other objects: a digital material technology. When printing objects will be based on a digital technology, an exponential capacity transition similar to the one between the Altair and the modern PC will become possible.

What does it all means for an organization? Will corporations be able to grasp the implications of this revolution?

At that beginning of the digital revolution, Route 128 in Boston had Wang, Prime, Data General, DEC: the whole computer industry, that planted the seeds of Internet and the information age was there. One would imagine they reaped immense benefits of their first mover condition.

They all failed.

We can surely argue many reasons why those pioneers were not able to build a long-term competitive advantage on their own innovation, but part of the explanation may lie in a statement made by one of the founders of those companies:

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

If those organizations were not able to understand the reach and reap the benefits of the revolution they themselves ignited, how can we expect our own organizations to be able to cope with the even more disruptive changes that loom ahead?

Maybe digital creations and programmable matter can be used as an inspiration on how to build new organizations that will be more apt to connect with societal changes and react aptly to new opportunities. Today’s organizations are designed top down, based on hierarchies revolving around processes that employees are supposed to execute. While the ultimate managerial buzzword is “empowerment”, organizations are conceived around the metaphor of the mechanism, with each individual representing a wheel in a complex structure that the top management drives by pulling the appropriate levers. What if instead we could build an organization from elementary building blocks that can self structure, rearrange and heal themselves as necessary, a bit like a living organism is capable to react naturally to the external environment? Our heart an lung function without our conscience. Scratches on our skin heal without the need of our conscious decision to fix them.

The management (shall we call it the “brain”?) of such organization would be free to focus on looking outward for threats and opportunities. A bit like our own brain devotes the majority of it’s consciousness to assess and analyze the external world and make decisions on how to respond. The inner workings of our body like breathing, pumping blood and all other vital function do not require our conscious attention, even if, or maybe because, they are critical to our survival.

Current managers however, spend a large fraction of their energy and consciousness looking inward: organizing, directing and controlling other people’s work. This represents an immense amount of energy that would be better spent focusing on the outside if only the “organization” could be trusted to be conscious of its own needs and self organize as needed. The real challenge for the organization of the future may well be "consciousness" rather than "management".

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