Rethinking What ‘Smart’ Objects Can Be

Things Fall Together: A Guide to the New Materials Revolution” written by Skylar Tibbits

A Review by Jenna Collignon, Staff Writer at Matrix Group Publishing

First Impressions

Things Fall Together: A Guide to the New Materials Revolution by Skylar Tibbits is a subtle yet eye-catching book.  Small enough to hold in one hand and cart around with you, the book is also striking with its black and white cover design, and one that you’ll want this to add to your collection.  Things Fall Together is separated into easy to manage chapters, and is supplemented with a reference list and index at the back for quick look ups. It may be small and pocket-sized, but this book is mighty and packed with knowledge. 

“In this book, I offer you a glimpse inside this emerging materials revolution, from my vantage point as founder and co-director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab.  The Self-Assembly Lab is a group of architects, designers, artists, engineers, scientists, computer scientists, and many others who work on a variety of research topics from self-assembly to new material behaviours or new fabrication processes.”  (Tibbits page 4)

What You Need to Know

Skylar Tibbits is the founder and co-director of the Self-Assembly Lab and Associate Professor of Design Research in the Department of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  The lab’s research is mainly focused on inventing new material properties, new fabrication systems, trying to rethink the way that we design, fabricate, and interact with products or the built environment. 

The Self-Assembly Lab is located in MIT’s International Design Center, a cross-disciplinary design research centre.  The research team behind the lab itself is extensive and packed with experts across fields – from engineering to design, science and art – who all work together inventing self-assembly and programmable material technologies.

“Sitting at the intersection of design, science, and engineering, we are an academic research lab that blends creativity with exploration, elegant design aesthetics with technical performance, and the design principles needed to make those ideas reality.” (4)

Things Fall Together: A Guide to the New Materials Revolution draws on Tibbits’ own research and work concerning self-assembly and programmable material technologies within his lab, detailing ideas and strategies that approach new material properties that could and will be used in future design and innovation.  Tibbits wants to challenge the notion of ‘smart’ technology and set out a different vision for the future of this technology.

Things Fall Together provides an insider’s perspective on the materials revolution that lies ahead.  Truly, this book is packed full of in-depth information regarding materials and the possible future of this industry and where it is going today.  Throughout, it is interspersed with photographs of research projects that the Self-Assembly have undergone, which add a reality aspect to these concepts that sometimes seem almost like science fiction.  The emergence of this technology and the rapidly advancing research in each of these fields – synthetic biology, materials science, etc. – make it possible to create new material properties and bring the possibility of a material revolution. 

Terminology Breakdown

Self-Assembly: a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through only local interaction.  As defined in the book, at the Self-Assembly Lab, three core ingredients used for this are “energy, geometry, and interactions.” (46)

Programmable Materials: a physical material structure that is embedded with information and physical capabilities like logic, actuation, or sensing.  These go beyond digital information in a material and are more than just the discrete assembly or disassembly of components. 

Active Matter: describes the expanded field of researchers that are programming materials from the smallest to the largest of scales to create highly active structures that can self-assemble or physically transform in some way.

Digital Materials: defined in recent years as a set of material parts that can be precisely, yet reversibly, assembled and disassembled.  For example: DNA, Lego building blogs, or press-fit assemblies. 

“In everyday terms, what is amazing is that we can see spontaneous patterns emerge in crystallization, or swarms of insects, or a single cell growing into a human that can regenerate and self-heal when injured.  The question is why this happens and how we can utilize it.” (41)

If you want to learn something new about material, or increase your knowledge of the subject, this book is one you should definitely pick up.  You can also have a listen to the podcast produced by Princeton Press to hear Skylar Tibbits sit and talk to Marshall Poe, editor of the New Books Network, about his research and his book Things Fall Together. 

Skylar Tibbits

About Skylar Tibbits

Skylar Tibbits is a co-director and founder of the Self-Assembly Lab housed at MIT’s International Design Center.  The Self-Assembly Lab focuses on self-assembly and programmable material technologies for novel manufacturing, products and construction processes.

Skylar is an Associate Professor of Design Research in the Department of Architecture where he teaches graduate and undergraduate design studios and coordinates MIT’s Design Minor and Design Major programs.  Previously, he has worked at a number of renowned design offices including: Zaha Hadid Architects, Asymptote Architecture and Point b Design.  He has designed and built large-scale installations at galleries around the world, has been published extensively in outlets such as the New York Times, Wired, Nature, Fast Company as well as various peer-reviewed journals and books.

Jenna Collignon

About the Author

Jenna Collignon joined the Matrix team in 2019, fresh out of the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Honours English Degree.  When asked what she most likes about her position as an editor at Matrix, she has trouble answering. “That’s because,” she says, “what ISN’T there to like?  There is something new on my plate every day, with new challenges and lessons to be learned along with that. It also doesn’t hurt to be part of such a great team.”