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:

See:

#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.

So, why do we need manufacturing in the uk?

After years of de-industrialisation and a concerted focus on developing the knowledge economy, it is unsurprising that manufacturing has something of an image problem in the UK. Increasing however, technological, economic, social and environmental issues are converging to make the time ripe for re-evaluating this perception.

This blog explores some of the arguments for supporting manufacturing in advanced economies, like the UK, and forms a backdrop to Cities of Making, our programme of work on urban manufacturing.

1. Manufacturing, the driver of innovation

Innovation in manufacturing has been the main driver for increased productivity in economies. In the UK the first and second industrial revolutions changed the way we produced and consumed goods. These shifts, and the ensuing economic growth, catapulted the nation onto the world stage and dramatically changed our communities, our jobs and our environment. Even with the increasing importance of the services sector in the last few decades, many of the productivity gains we have seen are as a result of product innovations in areas such as communications and computing.

Where goods were once designed and produced within relative proximity, the rise of globalisation has led to a splitting of their development and their production. In developed economies like the UK we have kept, on the whole, the ‘valuable’ bits of innovation: research and development, and design; and shifted manufacturing to areas of the world where labour and production costs are cheaper.

We have arguably done well from this. But there are those who think that this approach will prove to be increasingly problematic if developed economies want to continue benefitting from high-tech innovation. In the US, Harvard Professors Willy Shih and Gary Pisano talk about the erosion of the nation’s industrial commons, the phrase they have coined to cover the common skills, understanding and networks which make manufacturing clusters more than the sum of their parts, and argue that this loss is and will stifle innovation within the States. They contend that it is not only low-skilled labour that has been outsourced, but that sophisticated processes too are being lost, the production of batteries for electric cars for example, and along with them their skills and infrastructure.

At the same time the countries to which such manufacturing has moved are benefitting from their own industrial commons and increasingly developing products, not just manufacturing them. This is the attraction of places like Shenzhen, the ability to rapidly develop, prototype and produce hardware technology. For certain industries dividing manufacturing from design may be short-sighted.

The UK then, like the US, is in a competitive space if it wishes to attract and retain talent, and benefit from the competitive advantages which innovation can offer. Creating a climate supportive of innovation is about more than just shiny co-working spaces, entrepreneurs need to have access to a host of resources to generate and bring new ideas to market: investment, business support, skilled employees and skilled contractors – manufacturers included. Investment in achieving this can be seen in examples like the High Value Manufacturing Catapult and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, but in reality hardware entrepreneurs faces high barriers to enacting their ideas in the UK. Hubs like the Central Research Laboratory in West London are beginning to emerge in order to tackle this problem, but much more support is needed.

2. Jobs, and for who?

Given the scale of employment which manufacturing once delivered in this country it is unsurprising that many conversations about manufacturing centre on the question of jobs. De-industrialisation and the ensuing structural unemployment it brought was devastating for individuals and communities around the country. Its effects are still being felt today. For some here and across the pond, it is the re-creation of these many and stable blue-collar jobs that we should look to manufacturing to provide. However, we must exercise caution when looking to recreate manufacturing times past: the scale of employment in manufacturing has dramatically declined, from nearly 30% of all UK jobs in the 1970s to under 10% today, and doesn’t show any signs of growing back to previous levels. Automation and changes in manufacturing technology will also mean that the jobs in future will look very different.

This is not to say, however, that jobs are not pivotal to the argument for manufacturing. Instead, we need to focus on the quality of the jobs and who might benefit from them. Whilst the scale of employment is much lower than it once was there are signs that manufacturing can deliver decent jobs, the typical (median) weekly earnings for a UK worker in manufacturing are £555, slightly higher than the median earnings for all employees. Still, job quality and pay is variable across different manufacturing activities, compare a typical garment machinist to a car factory worker, whose average weekly earnings are £376 and £665 respectively. Manufacturing businesses have the potential to support different kinds of jobs and skills, but this is far from guaranteed and we need to be having a much more honest conversation about what jobs manufacturing will offer us in future.

3. A new industrial revolution

Developments in technology combined with rising overseas labour costs are making the reshoring of manufacturing more appealing and viable. Adidas, for example, have invested in automated production in Europe. New technologies, such as additive manufacturing, and the potential they bring for mass-customisation and redistributed manufacturing are also shifting consumer trends. Companies such as Unmade and Autodesk are signalling the potential for once again manufacturing close to the customer in the UK, and blurring the lines between design and manufacture, and manufacture and retail. If the advances promised by Industry 4.0 are realised, these factors could once again bring manufacturing to our doorsteps and we should be ready to make the most of this.

4. Rebalancing the economy

In the wake of de-industrialisation the UK built an economy heavily reliant on the finance and services sectors, and one which is very concentrated in the south east. The fall-out from the financial crash, the uncertainty of Brexit, and the realisation that the trickle-down economics is not working for large swathes of the country calls into question whether this is the best approach. As a result there is increasing interest from government in devolution and in building resilient and inclusive local economies. Industrial Strategy is even making a comeback. These are significant opportunities for rebalancing our economy, both in terms of sectors and regions, and manufacturing could play an important role. But in reality we aren’t seeing Osborne’s March of the Makers, instead manufacturing’s share of UK GDP has stagnated at around 10%.  Rather than being symptomatic of the lack of importance of manufacturing this arguably shows just how much damage has been done to UK manufacturing over the past few decades, something we should no longer ignore.

5. Building a resilient city

We are witnessing large scale global challenges: climate change, resource scarcity, mass urbanisation. It is clear that many of the structures on which our economy is built will not continue to serve us and need radical rethinking for a resilient and prosperous future.

Whilst much of the economic boom enjoyed since the industrial revolution has been built on the way we produce and consume goods, we now realise that we need to change our linear take, make, waste model which seriously threatens the foundational environment of our planet. A shift to a more circular and sustainable economy is increasingly discussed; at its core is a requirement for us to change the way we produce and consume goods, including the reuse and repair of goods.

We are seeing examples of this, from repair gurus to the servitisation of products, but we face a real challenge to put this theory into practice at scale. Given that production is key to this change it follows that manufacturing capacity and skill will be core to this shift. If we are to radically rethink our production then we need to grow our capacity to make and maintain goods in a much more local fashion than we have seen for over a century.

6. Making our future

Manufacturing has had a tough time in the UK over the last few decades, but it is clear that it should have a seat at the table as we think about the future of our economy and society. We need to be careful not to fall into the many nostalgia traps which lurk around manufacturing; it’s not all steelworkers and jobs for life, nor is it all craft beer and workmen’s jackets. It’s a more complicated picture than is often presented and one which we should be looking at even more closely if we are to unpick the rhetoric from the reality and, importantly, the potential. It’s time to think seriously and pragmatically about what manufacturing can do for our country and for the places within it.

Article first published by the RSA.