By Flickr user: Pikaluk under CC license
I grew up in the Black Country, the heart of the 19thC West Midlands’ industrial powerhouse, famous for its steel, coal, and glass. At sixteen I spent a few weeks working in a traditional glass workshop on a site established in 1855. Having thankfully not experienced its pollution, social upheaval and exploitation, my romantic vision of the past is undoubtedly rose-tinted. But I’ve always valued the process of making and getting absorbed in tools and materials. Skilled craftsmanship is good for the soul.
I recently came across the online aftermath of Laptops and Looms, which took place in Derby last month. The event centred on the potential of new technologies to resurrect manufacturing in Britain. I was sad to have missed what looks like a fascinating discussion in an historically appropriate location; the site of the first factory in the world. I was also excited to see others pursuing an idea that has been gently fermenting at the back of my mind since I became interested in 3-D printers and other ‘micro-manufacturing’ technologies a couple of years ago.
The vision that seems to be floating around is something like this. Out of the rusty ruins of the British manufacturing industry, small start-ups will kit out workshops with the latest micro-manufacturing tools. They will compete against cheap Chinese labour by offering a personalised service, working with customers to design a unique finished product. Modern consumers brought up on mass-produced and mass-marketed goods will relish the opportunity to stick their hands into the design process and help create their own stuff. Every day they will create something entirely new, functional, beautiful, and bespoke. New jobs will be created in shrunken factory towns up and down the country.
For me, the reason this idea is so appealing is that it combines an emerging subculture with a popular political trope. The first is ‘maker’ culture which has made its way from U.S. garages, popularised in MAKE magazine and Boing Boing, and now practised at various hacker / maker spaces around the world (such as my local London Hackspace). The Power of Making, an excellent exhibition currently at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrates the ascendancy of this subculture whilst putting it into a wider historical context. The second is the idea that Britain needs to start making things again. This is popular not just with industrial policy dinosaurs of the old left; earlier this year, David Cameron promised to rebalance the UK economy, in part by resurrecting manufacturing. This time, we clearly cannot compete globally with steel or cotton. But local, personalised, small-scale manufacturing has the potential to succeed in Britain. I’ll certainly be watching this space very closely.
For more, check out the following posts (by people who actually attended the event!):
Matt Edgar ‘The Dissolution of the Factories’
Paul Miller ‘Laptops and Looms’
Russel Davies ‘Make things, not media platforms’