Moby famously sang that we are all made of stars. And yesterday evening at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), Professor John Wormersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, echoed Moby’s mantra (okay, maybe that’s a bit of stretch). Professor Wormersley spoke about how the search for black holes and the higgs boson impacts society and the economy.
Professor Wormersley’s talk was engrossing for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he emphasised the link between ‘big science’ (think of the discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN last year) and the implications for our daily lives, society and the economy.
While for many people (me included), our knowledge of theoretical physics may come mostly from reruns of The Big Bang Theory on E4, Professor Wormersley noted that we rely on the numerous outcomes and chain reaction results from ‘big science’ in our daily lives: the internet (originally Tim Berners-Lee’s method for information management for scientists at CERN), wifi (which was enabled through Hawking radiation), and MRI scanning (which comes from knowledge of superconductors). In short, we need theoretical physics to help develop and improve our economy, our health, and the environment.
Yet ‘big science’ is often viewed as a risk because it is in an investment in the unknown, the unexpected and can often fail. But, as Professor Wormersley pointed out, we must be willing to take that risk.
So, Professor Wormersley’s thesis got me thinking about design. Just as Wormersley emphasised the need for and the link between theoretical and applied science, I think we need both theoretical and applied design.
But how can we teach and understand and then reap the benefits of theoretical design?
We can interrogate the design brief. Instead of just applying our knowledge of design and the design process (observing, analysing, prototyping, etc. ), we should use design to question our motives and why things are the way they are, without necessarily expecting a certain outcome.
This is where projects like The Great Recovery come in. The RSA’s Great Recovery project is about how we can promote and foster a circular economy and for now, we’re focusing on making connections between science, design, manufacturing and policy. But, we don’t necessarily know what the end result will be – though there actually is some ‘small, medium and big science’ going on in our workshops related to the project) as we don’t know necessarily what the end result will be.
You might even call it ‘big design.’
In Monday’s Guardian Aditya Chakrabortty asks why Apple don’t shift their manufacturing base to the US. He argues that although the costs would rise (apparently from $178.45 to $337.01 for an iPhone 4G according to CRESC analysis), Apple would still make a 46.5% margin on each iPhone. He notes this move would also create social benefits for the US in the form of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, and suggests it would represent ‘enlightened self-interest’ on Apple’s part.
While it would certainly be an example of ‘think different’, I can’t see shareholders supporting a move to knock 25% profit off each iPhone sold. But it might just become viable if they combined it with another idea: adopt a ‘closed loop’ manufacturing model.
My six year old Apple laptop is on its last legs, not so much because the parts are wearing out, but because software moves at a tremendous pace. So the latest version of the Firefox browser no longer supports my system, and Flash video player is discontinued for my type of processor. People don’t expect computers to last forever, in the same way that they expect their mobile phones to become out-dated after a couple of years. But unlike my phone, I own my laptop outright – why can’t I sell it back to Apple, or even rent it from my local Apple store in the first place?
There could be a real financial incentive here (perhaps even sufficient to offset the cost of manufacturing in the US). A recent report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation estimates that ‘the cost of remanufacturing mobile phones could be reduced by 50% per device’ if manufacturers adopt a more ‘circular’ model, in which the resources are re-used at the end of the phone’s working life.
Apple will recycle your spent goods, but rather than blend those lovingly designed, assembled and used products into piles of scrap, couldn’t they design for disassembly instead? I was struck with the video (seven minutes long but worth it) that accomplished the launch of Apple’s CNC-milled MacBook a few years ago – I’d love to see a factory that un-makes their old products so beautifully.
The fascinating thing about today’s growth data is what it tells us about the rather painful birth of a new type of UK economy. Before the Crash of 2008, growth in the UK was largely driven by public spending, construction and business and financial services. New Labour Governments lived with this quite happily by skimming off the tax revenues from the buoyant economic activity in these sectors and directing it into public services and tax credits.
While in opposition, George Osborne made a great deal of how this economic approach was now defunct and it was time to create a new “British Economic Model” based on a wider base of high growth sectors, an active but more constrained finance sector and much less public spending.
While the Treasury is making much of how buoyant manufacturing is and suggesting that this shows the UK is beginning to rebalance in the way Osborne wants, the data suggests something far more complex and less certain is happening.
The story of the first quarter of 2011 is, in fact, one of a reasonable contribution to growth from manufacturing (0.1%) but a much more significant contribution from public spending (0.2%) and business and financial services (0.2%). Over the last year, public spending and business and finance have contributed 0.3% each, while manufacturing has contributed 0.4%.
The other big driver of the New Labour era was construction. This is still the case currently with the building sector contributing 0.4% to growth in 2010. But what is striking is the extraordinary volatility in this sector. Construction has gone from boom in the second and third quarters of 2010 to recession with major shrinkage in the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this.
So we cannot yet say that there is any sign of a really significant break from the New Labour approach yet. What growth there is in the UK economy is still coming from business and finance, public spending and construction. What is new is that manufacturing is making more of a contribution than it has historically but will probably need to do much more to suggest a real shift to Osborne’s vision. And construction is highly volatile and, as such, deeply unpredictable.
The truth is the economic jigsaw pieces were jumbled up massively by 2008. The data suggests we may have to wait quite a lot longer to see how they fall but for the moment signs of a completely new picture emerging are limited.
Filed under: Design and Society, Enterprise, Social Economy
In a blog a couple of weeks ago, Matthew Taylor called for ideas for a new RSA project on manufacturing. Given the RSA’s commitment to practical project work, he suggested that heavy industrial projects would be impractical for us and that worthy reports on the future of manufacturing in the UK are two-a-penny.
The rise of hacking (see this paper published by the RSA’s Design team in 2009) provides food for thought, but the practical project isn’t yet clear… Anyway rather than go over the same ground again, I thought I’d do something more constructive, like make a map of the Hackspaces that are springing up around the UK. This one (click on it to go to the actual map) shows the Hackspaces listed on the Hackspace Foundation website as of today.
I’d be interested to know what factors contribute to the forming of a hackspace. Is it a university near by? More diverse or tolerant communities? Concentration of creative or high-tech industry? What do you think?
In a VoxPop for Design week last week I proposed making a spectacle of myself on the Fourth Plinth by running up samples on my sewing machine in full view of the public; and to their benefit, since I propsoed giving away the fruits of my labour. My stated reason was that we have become distanced from production; our competence to invent or improvise solutions to the practical problems that beset us is diminished in proportion to the increasing quantity of solutions we buy. Jonathan Glancey wrote stirringly about this growing incompetence to make in the Guardian last summer.
I’ve commissioned an essay for the RSA about the renewed interest in making and manufacturing after a period when business and policy have tended to concentrate on knowledge and services. I’m asking for a fresh account of why we stopped making things (if we did stop); what the benefits of making things are; and how making things might become easier. What conditions would foster small, local, manufacturing entrepreneurship? And what are the implications for improvisation and innovation among ordinary citizens who, while they may be making to save money or resources, are not making to make money?
Our understanding of services became rich and metaphysical as the last century turned and the internet came to define so much of business. But Mark Adams, Director of Vitsoe and one of Britain’s most resolute and articulate design-led manufacturers, reminded me that products and services are not an either/or. In a new dawn of manufacturing, on a planet where sense tells us to make and buy for longevity, and in a society with today’s level of personal expectation and individualism, goods and services are critically interdependent.
The service aspect of goods brings us to repair. An obvious symptom of our remoteness from making is our disinclination to repair. In gathering an interest group around making, manufacturing and repair I discovered that my Dutch friends at Premsela are involved with Platform.21 in a Repair project in full swing. In true Dutch style, it emphasises the surprising beauty and surreality of repaired objects; hybrids of style and substance; relocations of meaning and memory; repair as a creative project under artistic direction. Our RSA repair project will be less self-expression and more self-reliance.
Among my own repairs, I confess to darning socks. There’s a design problem: while manufacturers frequently advertise a “reinforced heel”, they don’t address the real stress point which is not the heel but the tendon area above the heel where the edge of your shoe wears the yarn away.