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A couple of weeks ago Matthew blogged about the need to voice a more positive case for manufacturing in the UK. He argued that we should promote not only its economic value, but also its potential social and environmental contribution.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teaches us how, through self-limiting beliefs and stories, we can talk ourselves into a funk. There may be many powerful forces working against a UK manufacturing revival, but a self-defeating script should not be one of them.

We should have a story that is inspiring but achievable, to work towards. Events conspired this week to suggest what that story might be, and how we at the RSA (among many others) might help it become a reality.

On Monday we launched our 'Making at Home, Owning Abroad'  report. The research looks at the future facing the UK's mid-sized manufacturers, and how they might adapt successfully. Dr Finbarr Livesey, the report's lead author, spoke in the RSA's Great Room, and we heard responses from the Business Secretary Vince Cable,  and Julie Madigan, CEO of The Manufacturing Institute. You can listen here

In a nutshell, our report makes the following points:

  • the economic landscape is shifting in ways that will undermine the logic of some globalised manufacturing over the next 10-15 years
  • this is the result of a convergence of trends, such as rising production and transportation costs, greater automation and new production technologies, such as synthetic biology and additive manufacturing
  • such convergence calls for a more concerted and active response than if we were considering only one or two trends in isolation
  • the result of these changes may be a rejuvenation of regionalised and localised making, with a possible increase of c.100-200k UK manufacturing jobs
  • potentially this would lead to lower trade as fewer 'home-made' goods crossed national boundaries, but a net positive result for the UK's trade balance. This would result from falling imports and the acquisition of foreign productive assets, alongside continuing exports in specialist sectors
  • this 'reshoring' could result in multiple benefits from a UK perspective including  1) an increase in manufacturing to rebalance the economy 2) a reduced trade deficit and 3)  reduced greenhouse emissions from waste and transport.
  • In response, Vince Cable agreed that there were indeed reasons to challenge the fatalistic view of UK manufacturing. He cited anecdotal examples of reshoring and revival that provide some encouragement, along with a raft of policies - on taxation, skills, technology, finance and other things - that the Coalition are planning to cultivate the new manufacturing infrastructure over the next decade.  However he was, as usual, refreshingly candid about the difficulties of forging a long-term industrial strategy in the short-term, tribal and adversarial culture of British politics.

    Julie Madigan highlighted another reason for optimism: the power of consumer innovation. As production itself becomes commoditised and accessible,  people will increasingly be able to hack and/or build their own products. The opportunity she argued, was to harness Britain's natural flair for amateur tinkering, design and making with new production technologies and mainstream manufacturing. The result will be more great products making it to market.

    This idea, in particular, was music to my ears....

    For the past few months I've been talking to various makers and maker spaces, manufacturers, and other industrial innovation organisations like Nesta and the Comino Foundation about the potential to stimulate and sustain 'new manufacturing' through a series of regular challenge prizes. As RSA buffs will know, this was one of the main reasons the RSA was set up in the C18th, and it ran open innovation challenge prizes in various categories including manufacturing (called Premiums), until 1850. We've been working on trying to revive Premiums because it's such a great (and now widely used) model for innovation and systemic change.

    In the programme we've designed, each 'Maker' Premium would focus on a specific product brief which would meet a social as well as commercial need. The challenge will  elicit 'maker' prototypes using the rudiments of the new local manufacturing infrastructure (e.g. Fablabs and Hackspaces) and link them with small, medium and large manufacturers with the resources to help them refine, scale and make their product locally. Over successive waves, we aim to foster the talent, technology, resources and infrastructure to help create the kinds of beneficial changes described in the 'Making at Home' Report, and flagged up by Julie. This will also help to support the aims of our sister 'Great Recovery' Project.

    We've got a proposal for these C21st Premiums currently circulating among potential sponsors, partners and participants (contact me if you're interested!). I'm waiting the reaction to see if it might be a goer. Hence my delight at hearing Julie's comments.

    Trying to get these things off the ground takes time and legwork.  It can all feel rather abstract until the pieces fall into place.

    But then another bit of my week brought it home to me. My colleague Hilary and I visited a new potential maker space in London that  the RSA are hoping to co-create and grow with other partners, just a few minutes walk down the road. Seeing the space and planning what we intend to do in our first event there suddenly made it seem very real, very immediate and very exciting. Standing in the shadow of where Charles Dickens worked as a boy in a Victorian blacking factory, talking about laser cutters and 3D printers, the idea of mini-workshops and factories like this popping up everywhere is a strangely 'back to the future' thought. I remembered how Vince Cable told us how ceramics was coming back to Stoke, and textiles back to the North West.

    The UK's manufacturing future will be a curious blend of the old and new. We aim to make it an inspiring, if unusual story, in the writing and the telling.




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