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This week Corbyn announced plans that would see a Labour government support UK manufacturing through state procurement, rather than see those funds go to non-UK companies. Unsurprisingly critics have cried protectionism, compared Corbyn to Trump, and dismissed the idea as unworkable. Others though, have pointed out that EU nations like France or Germany already provide this kind of support to their manufacturers. (There are also those concerned about the impact of Brexit on UK manufacturing and unconvinced by Corbyn’s stance on the issue.)

Corbyn is right, manufacturing does have an important role. We need to move beyond well-rehearsed responses which seem to set opinion about the sector as a binary choice - manufacturing is everything vs manufacturing is nothing. This serves only to stymy useful and pragmatic discussion about the real value and role of making things, not just making things in this country but in all communities. We’ve lost sight of why this matters, but it is a crucial part of vibrant and inclusive economies where money, knowledge and resources flow.

But before we get to that, let’s address two common critiques:

Acting to support manufacturing need not be protectionist

This is too simplistic a view. Support need not be exclusionary so long as it is governed fairly. The key thing to remember here is that the free market ideology which the UK has embraced in recent decades has not worked for swathes of the population. You don’t need to look far in the UK to find places and people who have suffered. For many the demise of local manufacturing is part of a story which ends in economic insecurity and loss of identity.

This damage continues in the UK and around the world. Millions of people are affected by the environmental and social impacts of a system which relies on overconsumption and chasing cheap production; from the exploitation of workers, to the pollution wreaked. This year ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ - the day on which we have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the entire year - will be on 1st August (4th May for the UK). In 1970 it was on the 29th December. We cannot continue to produce and consume things the way we do, the market is set up to make us play the wrong game.

Enabling production in local areas is part of the shift that needs to happen. This is not to advocate for every town to be making their own phones, but we should be looking at what we can make, remake and repair more locally. This question of scale and place is the missing piece in the circular economy discussion.

Supporting manufacturing is not a rejection of other parts of the economy

“The fetishisation of factories and production lines over all other parts of the economy is misguided. We should not be ashamed of our world-class creative, digital and professional services." So came the response from the Institute of Directors to Corbyn’s speech. Why is it that manufacturing is seen in isolation rather than embedded within the economy?

Production is not separate from our creative industries, it helps fuel them. Production is not separate from our services industries, it helps sustain them. The making and maintenance of material goods is part of the web of our lives. It means we can have shoes repaired, premises fitted out, prototypes made. It is part of innovation, particularly for sectors where process drives innovation, like in biotech, or where it is embedded in innovation such as in craft or advanced material production. We are treading a risky path if we assume that production can always be out-sourced, and innovation retained.

There are fetishes which cloud discussion about manufacturing – nostalgia is not helpful, nor is a blinkered obsession with 3D printers. Neither of these characterisations reflect the true nature of manufacturing today or, most crucially, what it needs to be to serve us in the future. The industry is a broad church from very high to very low tech, from labour intensive to automated production, from the self-employed carpenter to the big pharma company. We are missing an understanding of the role of material production in our lives, communities and economies. It is a lack, rather than excess, of interest in the subject that is the trouble.

Production has a role in creating thriving local economies

Labour’s plans highlight big-ticket manufacturing of ships or trains. This type industry is, of course, important. But there is more to manufacturing than just ‘wheels and wings’. On a much more local level, production is part of creating thriving local economies across the country.

This is, in part, because of the role it fulfils in supporting other activities in the economy. It provides sandwiches at lunchtime, keeps lifts running, and means there is someone who can fix your car or alter your suit. These activities are part of having a diverse economy, offering a range of jobs and skills, and potential for different kinds of innovation.

Local production can also help provide resilience and sustainability to communities. Be that in response to geo-political shocks or natural disasters. Crucially, to move to a more circular economy, which respects the planetary boundaries and seeks to keep materials in use at their highest value for longer, we will need to see more reuse, repair and remanufacturing activities taking place. Figuring out the right scale and models for doing these can only be done at a local level.

Finally, making physical things allows us be co-producers of the world around us, rather than merely consumers. In its essence it offers a different way to shape the world and embodies a different kind of knowledge: knowing of the hand rather than of the head. We should remember that all products and innovations are inspired and shaped by the community which developed them. In wine production you call it the ‘terroir’ – the essence of the place in the product. The culture and place which created Silicon Valley is not neutral and the products it creates are not neutral either. 

We may sometimes feel that we live in a digital world, but we are surrounded by physical goods. If only some people, in some places get to shape these, then they are making us all play by their rules and that isn’t a democratic society. What we produce and how we produce it should be the subject of conversations at a local and national level, because these productive activities have a role to play in creating an economy for everyone.

RSA is part of Cities of Making, a consortium of organisations investigating the role of manufacturing in European cities. 

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