London’s celebrations of design should be celebrations of manufacturing too

London is home to two celebrations of design this week: London Design Festival & London Fashion Week. Both events aim to showcase the UK’s talent and position the city as the world’s design capital.

We’re right to be proud of our design and creative industries, we produce world leading talent and the creative industries are worth nearly £9 million per hour to UK economy. They’re a high growth area too, in 2012-13 the design sector, which includes the fashion and product design being showcased this week, grew in value by 23.8%. That’s over seven times more than the wider economy in the same time period.

But whilst we celebrate design we should be also thinking about the manufacturing skills and supply chains which enable and underpin this creativity. On this point here are three things to see and three things to reflect on over this Design Festival weekend:


#1 Distributed manufacturing

Changes in technology are enabling shifts in the way we manufacture and consume products, making small scale and customisable production viable. Today’s makerspaces are glimpses of the future workshops we could see on our street corners. This redistribution of manufacturing offers opportunity to change not only the means of production but also the relationship between designer and client, producer and community. If factories were on our high streets how might design change?

Visit: A New Normal – a showcase of projects that are pioneering these new ways of making today. Machines Room, Vyner Street.

#2 Materials – Ply

Understanding the potential of materials is crucial to design. Different manufacturing techniques can lead to radically different outcomes. Within East London three furniture companies are demonstrating different design and manufacture routes using the same, versatile material – ply: Isokon Plus have been producing high end furniture in ply for almost century; Unto this Last are using digital technologies to produce on-demand; and opendesk are creating systems to enable distributed manufacturing by connecting customers, designers and makers. You can see some of their work at…

Visit: Plywood: Materials of the Modern World at the V&A. Discover how this often overlooked material has shaped and been shaped by societal, political and technical change.

#3 Place and identity

Manufacturing shapes places and communities as well as objects. This identity is what we saw from heavy industry, and it’s what was threatened through deindustrialisation. Today, we’re seeing interesting examples of new communities of making.

Take Assemble and Granby Four Streets, who developed their workshop in Liverpool as a way to renovate local buildings. Their efforts won them the Turner Prize two years ago and they are now taking their experimental manufacturing techniques to a wider market. They’ve got a Kickstarter open at the moment to help launch a new tableware line made in the Granby Workshop.

In Barking and Dagenham Company Drinks are reimagining the borough’s hop picking heritage for the 21st century. They’ve recently secured a venue for a community kitchen, enabling them to make more. Check it out at their Open House this Saturday, and find out how arts and social enterprise can combine in small scale manufacturing.

Visit: Company Drinks Open House at Barking Park Pavilion on 23rd September

Think about:

#1 Supporting new talent

Both LDF and LFW pride themselves on showcasing emerging designers. As we appreciate these we should also recognise the supply chains which allow them to make their ideas reality. This is true of the big brands too, but for new and emerging designers access to small scale and local manufacturing is particularly crucial. Several years ago when working for a designer on his first on schedule LFW show I saw just how much designers like him depended on London’s makers, from leather workers to embroiderers, printers to jewellery platers, to produce their collections. Small designers benefit from the flexibility and proximity offered by local businesses, and the ability to do small production runs. Supporting these manufacturers is critical to supporting new design talent.

#2 Spaces to make

Part of supporting these manufacturers means ensuring they have the right spaces from which to run their businesses. The majority of London’s manufacturers are SMEs and are located across the capital either in dedicated industrial estates, under railway arches or at the backs of high streets. This industrial space is under threat from the accommodation crisis which we see across London; between 2001 and 2016 over 1300 hectares of industrial space was lost to housing or other development. Whilst the demand for residential accommodation is an important concern this loss is up to three times higher than the target figures set by the Mayor, and has occurred in spite low vacancy figures and high demand for industrial space. We must do better to accommodate the city’s industry alongside its residential, retail and office space.

#3 Circular economy

Whilst sustainability has been on the agenda for the last few years at LDF it looks to be lacking as a focus this year. This is disappointing given the urgent need for us to shift the way we use resources and energy. If we are to move to a more circular economy then we need designers and manufacturers to embrace new models. This includes not only creating new products more sustainably but also means creating systems for remanufacture and placing emphasis on reuse. In London studios like Agency of Design and Smile Plastics are showing direction and so, looping this back to my first point, is it time for us to imagine how this city could be a world leader in distributed and circular design and manufacture?

Full circle.

Cities of making: the role of manufacturing in a thriving city

Our cities have a long history as centres of production. Today, whilst new technologies offer enormous potential for innovative making in urban centres, manufacturing also faces significant challenges as it competes for space to thrive. Now is a critical time for us to discuss what goals urban policy should pursue in relation to manufacturing. Alongside European partners the RSA will do this in a new programme, Cities of Making.

Cable Street, Limehouse, Vauxhall – we are surrounded in London by the ghosts of the city’s industrial past; remnants of activity and production which shaped both our neighbourhoods and our economy.

For centuries European cities were places of industry and creation, as well as places of trade and service. But over the last fifty years, as technology and the economy changed and we increasingly moved to producing many goods overseas, the manufacturing activities taking place in European urban centres have faced change and decline. Someone of my age has grown up hearing that ‘we don’t make anything here anymore’, that industry and manufacturing are a closed chapter in British urban history. A growing service economy is welcomed by some, while both nostalgia and resentment for industry and its jobs still exist.

In London, particularly, you’d be forgiven for thinking that any significant manufacturing activity exited stage left as the city emerged into the spotlight as a world leading financial centre, complete with glinting skyscrapers built atop the city’s former industrial heartlands.

But this is far from the true picture. London has a sizeable manufacturing base, from metal fabrication to food production, garment production to furniture making; activities which form part of a wider industrial base including warehousing and waste processing, operations which underpin the daily activities essential to our city’s life and economy.

The future for urban manufacturing 

London’s diverse manufacturing sector finds itself in a challenging position, swayed by competing tides. We need a well-evidenced debate about what goal urban policy should pursue in relation to manufacturing, and what role different agencies and institutions should take in pursuing that goal.

One hand points to an exciting future: digital technologies are offering new ways of doing and of organising manufacturing, new businesses are emerging, in part as a result of a rising consumer interest in the provenance of products, and government are taking a renewed interest.

The other hands shows bleaker prospects as the demands for housing and redevelopment lead to a loss of industrial accommodation, the unintended consequence of land economics and our planning system.

Cities today face complex social, environmental and economic opportunities and challenges: in new forms of technology and business models, in increasing pressure from climate change and resource issues, and in changing demographics. In this context it’s time to look at what London’s manufacturing base offers this city, and what it might help us to achieve in the future.

Cities of Making

With this in mind, the RSA has launched a new project called Cities of Making. In partnership with UCL, TU Delft, Brussels Enterprises Commerce and IndustryLatitude Platform for Urban Research and Design, l’Université libre de Bruxelles and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, this two year project will explore opportunities for urban based manufacturing in three European cities: London, Rotterdam and Brussels. It aims to understand what works in supporting a resilient urban manufacturing base, and to provide practical support and information to local authorities, planners and civil society to help in achieving this. Here are some of the areas and questions we will be exploring:


Cities bring together different people, culture and activities. This diversity can be the potential for flexibility, innovation and resilience. What can a diverse economy, incorporating a range of manufacturing activities, business sizes and locations, offer a city and its communities?


London, and the UK more generally, prides itself on its leading creative sector. The fashion industry is a prime example, there we have happily outsourced production and retained design. But as global trends shift, what might the impacts of this splitting, and the resulting loss of skills, be for the long term innovative edge of a city?


Often cited as a reason to support manufacturing, good jobs and employment are vital for London’s growing population. But our collective ideas of a job in manufacturing might well be outdated.  What are jobs in our urban manufacturing sector really like today, and what might they become as automation and other new technologies change the way we work?


These questions are, of course, not unique to London, Brussels and Rotterdam. Each of these cities brings its own heritage and personality to the mix, by investigating these urban centres in more detail we hope to understand better how manufacturing can continue its importance across European cities, and envision a future where manufacturing plays a key role in supporting urban communities to flourish in the way they live and work.

Text originally featured by The RSA – see the original here