Laptops and Looms

I spent a wonderful three days last week in Derbyshire talking about how we could use everything we’ve learned about creating and supporting digital technologies to start a renaissance of making things. Instigator-in-chief was Russell Davies who wrote a little bit about why we were getting together in his Wired column last month:

We need an economy that makes things again. And I’m not alone in thinking this. The generation that built the web is tiring of the immaterial and is turning back to objects: to 3D printing, to laser-cutting, to Arduinos. And maybe they can — as with the web — transform hobbies and eccentricities into industries.

We kept it all a bit Bilderburg as we were worried that hundreds of people would want to come and we had no idea whether it was going to work or not, but on reflection it was rather good so we decided we’d do something a bit bigger and more organised next year.  At the end of the three days we all agreed to write down some of our thoughts from this year, so here goes. Ten lessons and questions the discussion raised for me:

  1. It’s easy to romanticise the industry of old but much of it was horrible and remains so in the countries where we now outsource many of our manufacturing needs. If we’re to bring manufacturing back to Britain (which I think will gradually happen over the coming decade) we need to think differently about the economics of consumer goods including the jobs created and how to eliminate the environmental impacts.
  2. There are very good reasons why the manufacturing of consumer goods and electronics shifted East. The skills of people and companies in China and the other manufacturing powerhouses are absolutely incredible and combined with low wages meant the economics made sense to Western brands. That doesn’t mean is was always the best decision though -  this article on why the US can’t make Amazon’s Kindle is spot on and probably applies even more acutely to Britain.
  3. Craft and making things is fulfilling whether it’s a professional or an amateur pursuit. There was quite a lot of discussion of labels we put on different types of activity and people in this area. It brought back the conversation that The Pro-Am Revolution created about how those boundaries are blurring. It seemed that the boundaries were even more blurred today than five years ago to me.
  4. We talked a lot about ambition for businesses and I think there was a pretty clear split between people who were looking for this to be a world of lifestyle businesses and those who were more ambitious. Personally, while I think they’re great for the people involved, I’m not a big believer in lifestyle businesses being a driver of social change. I’m looking for ways of creating services and products that radically improve lots of peoples’ lives. As Reid Hoffman says “Things that help millions of people and last forever”.
  5. There is massive potential for software and the internet to revolutionise other sectors – including manufacturing. Marc Andeessen’s metaphor of software eating the world is pretty aggressive and I’m not sure entirely accurate but broadly I agree with the power of code to improve the way things and people are organised.  There’s huge potential for digital services that stitch together resources and institutions in new ways.
  6. There’s a very important economy in Britain that is hidden from Wired Magazine. It’s a world of railway arches and industrial estates. There were a number of examples of projects that had succeeded by picking up the phone or knocking on doors to see what small businesses did and how open they were to trying new things rather than trying to find people to work with using LinkedIn or Yelp.
  7. Everybody loves owls.
  8. One thing we didn’t talk about was the renaissance of food businesses in the UK and I wonder what’s going on there. I’d like us to get more people involved next year who are finding new ways of creating food using tech enabled processes. I wonder whether people like Square Mile would have been able to grow in the way they have without technology, both in terms of manufacturing and ways of reaching and communicating with their customers.
  9. Dan Hill pushed us to think about what we should tell David Cameron. I’d like to see a huge increase in funding for manufacturing apprenticeships – with financial incentives for people to do them and businesses to take them on. One local government thing would be commercial use restrictions. I think it’s got to the point where it makes little sense to have demarcation within the ‘business’ bracket and I’d get rid of them altogether. I’d also create an empty building tax – doubling business rates on properties that are empty and forcing local authorities to sell all buildings that meet the empty buildings criteria. That way we should have many more spaces where people can start businesses cheaply to see whether or not they are going to work.
  10. All good conferences should end with a spot of cricket at Chatsworth House.
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  • Joe

    I think another point is that there are retained and underused manufacturing skills operating in a parallel economy already.  My experience with the UK textile industry suggests that a lack of ambition condemns many highly skilled workers to extremely low wages (often, criminally, below minimum wage). Often this is because the factory owners continue to produce low value products with very low profit margins.  The situation is compelling if we focus on the general economic health, but much more serious if we focus on the workers involved.

    I’ve worked quite a lot in small factories overseas, and I believe that there is potential for local clothing production and that it can be competitive if pitched in very specific ways – eg rapid turnover, small runs, close to the market, etc. 

  • gthurman

    There was an article last week re a 13 year old U.S. boy that noticed tree limbs appeared to be in a pattern, ending with his patent of creating artificial trees to generate electricity 20 to 50% more efficiently than the billions (?) of dollars spent on solar farms. He was encouraged to follow his idea from inception, and patent the results by his parents. It’s rather disturbing to think about the brain power wasted across this ‘Flat World’ because parents across the economic spread can’t or won’t take the responsibility to raise the children they produce. It’s nice to have a better widget or a brighter display, but education is necessary to break the idea of continuing a product/procedure ‘because it’s the way we always have done it’.

  • Love this article, and perfect timing to include in my upcoming post of why my new office will be retro. (Paper, wall clocks and T cards!)  And please please please let us know more about the owl!  It’s so cute.

  • I wonder … if  there is a potential trap… a danger of a confidence bubble developing, similar to the first dot com bubble or the so called credit crunch?

    The new tools available to a new set of people are inspiring them; they have the creativity skills. Going to Derbyshire to think about laptops and looms is good creative strategy and chimes with the spirit of the times perfectly. But, as Russel Davies points out, the conditions enabling  textiles businesses springing up in Derbyshire no longer exist.

    The reasons for a textile industry in Derbyshire  were water power, moist air and  favourable trade conditions thanks to an empire. Importing raw silk and cotton, bulk materials does not make economic sense any more. And wool, a Debyshire bulk produced product is rarely used to make fine clothing. John Smedley, one of the best known quality garment manufacturers in Derbyshire imports their merino wool; it is not from Derbyshire black faced sheep as the locally sourced, sustainable narrative might demand. They use Japanese machines [1].

    Prince Charles appears to be leading the campaign for wool. He makes the observation that the cost of shearing a sheep is more than the value of the wool obtained [2]. This campaign for wool seem like his other harking campaigns; in architecture, food production and health.

    It would be wonderful to afford to make things – clothes, bread, other items which are mass produced – and to improve them, making low cost bespoke items. And to do so in a community of makers. But skills are expensive to obtain and the simple economics of living somewhere — paying council tax, water rates, and buying food — excludes them as valid methods of making a living  unless you have capital or assets already available. Charles has the capital, so do the owners of the Chatsworth cricket ground. And yes! … it is nice to play a spot of cricket on a Sunday in Derbyshire (Cheshire too!!).  Moving to a non-cricket playing part of the Eurozone might be a way to go: Italy, Greece, Portugal???

    The hidden ‘Edgelands’ economy “under railway arches and on industrial estates”, I suggest, would frighten the life out of the art/geek hipster graduate armed with a laptop, a commitment to Open Source and a Northern Quarter derived social media strategy. A conversation in a pub close to the confluence of the Mersey and the Goyt is not going to give birth to a Apple or a Hewlet Packard or another Rolls Royce.

    I hope it does though. I like the story of there being something in the air, the history … which like DNA provides the means for an evolution – its Tony Wilson stuff, or at least where he was heading – psychogegraphy goes country. Romance! Love it.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.


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