I came from a place that wasn’t particularly supportive of its artists, or so it seemed to me. It wasn’t particularly supportive of its entrepreneurs, academics or technologists either. It wasn’t too keen on becoming the next chic artistic hub, the next Silicon Valley, the next entrepreneurial hot bed or the next renaissance centre of learning. It wasn’t that bothered about any of those things. People in my home town were mostly interested in sport, the great outdoors, the weekend, leisure activities, barbeques and “going down the beach”. Those are all laudable pursuits, of course, but they seemed to me to completely displace achieving anything that was of more than local significance. To play on the world stage, even footballer (and inventor/entrepreneur) Craig Johnston, a contemporary and local hero of mine, had to leave the place and go to Liverpool, in England, to get his own party started. It was exceedingly difficult to make an impact on the world stage from my home town (though I have to confess that the bands Silverchair and The Screaming Jets did, at least for a while).
The place where I grew up, which was prosperous and vibrant, when I was a child, had a near death experience. By the turn of the century, the industrial and commercial decline of the place was abundantly obvious to anybody that cared to pay attention. It hadn’t changed with the times. It hadn’t kept pace with changes in the world. New industries and success stories had not been nurtured and encouraged, so there was nothing to replace the once powerful companies, now declining or extinct, that had once been the sources of much of the local employment. In fairness, it was shipping more coal through its port than ever before, but that was largely mechanised and my town was a lowly conduit through which the coal flowed. The mines (and the employment they generated) were further up the valley, were open cast, so relied more on huge machinery than manpower and the ships that took the coal away were made in ship yards overseas, not in the once successful local dockyards.
Conventional economic theory tells us that specialisation is optimisation. The theory holds that having local artisans making a bit of everything that was needed by local people was economically sinful, compared to mass production in large, distant, centralised, optimised manufacturing plants. Diversity of output, made in small volumes, by hand, or custom made to order, was economically wasteful and inefficient, compared to standardised products, cranked out in big factories, where labour was cheap.
The theory doesn’t mention the cost of transportation as a significant factor (and transport is under priced, because the costs to the environment are always “externalised”, meaning “not counted”). It also presumes that whereas our neighbours will make things for us in big factories, we’ll have our own big factories that make other things for them and we will trade. That isn’t what happened, of course. The theory also doesn’t factor into it our human passions. What if we really love making jewellery, but the local specialisation is coal mining? Are we supposed to abandon our interests and passions to conform to the local pattern of manufacturing, or in this case, extraction of mineral resources? If we abandon making jewellery to mine coal, doesn’t a piece of each soul that conforms simply die?
The economic theory, followed to its logical conclusion, might produce the most economically efficient outcomes, but look at the damage. How did efficiency become the most important goal anyway? Is efficiency worth having, if it brings despair and destruction? Who wants to live in an urban ghetto, doing something you hate to earn your living, in the name of economic efficiency? Are we supposed to just leave, abandoning the place to wild animals and the forces of decay? Some would argue that many already did.
My home town didn’t start this way. Before I was born, manufacturers were right there on the main street. There were numerous little factories hidden away behind retail shop fronts, where the things that were made in the back were sold to the customers shopping on the main commercial thoroughfare. Even as a teenager, I can still remember guitar amplifiers being constructed in the back room of a local music store. That was the default pattern, before I was born. Things were made on the premises and sold in the shop window out front.
Then, the big industries moved in. A beautiful piece of land, poetically named “Mayfield”, once a des-res with breathtaking views of the river and coast, was turned over to smoke stacks, coke ovens, blast furnaces and rolling mills. Shelly Beach, a riverside refuge so appealing that natives had gathered there for centuries before white settlement, was obliterated for a chemical works and other heavy industrial plant. That was the start of the separation between employment and consumption. Men went to work in the steel mills and women continued to shop down the main street. What slowly disappeared were the small, artisan-rich factories behind the store fronts. More and more, what was sold in those shops was made abroad. First from Japan, then from Hong Kong, then from Korea and finally from China.
Whereas the local artisans once flocked to hardware suppliers that supplied tools for craftsmen made in Australia, or imported from England and America, the demand for specialist tools dwindled, as the craftsmen and apprenticeships disappeared. Eventually, the only tools you could buy were cheaply made things, from the Far East, that resembled the quality tools of old, in appearance, but which failed to perform as well in use. Too many corners were cut, in the name of centralised, optimised, mass production. Efficiently manufactured tools that were useless.
After retailing and manufacturing had been divorced from one another, retail took on another dimension. Eventually, it wanted more space and more modern buildings. That was when the out of town shopping centres started to be built. As a teenager, I saw an entire suburb levelled, houses demolished and families moved on, so that a massive shopping centre could be built in its place. Those places became retail Meccas. People flocked to them. The manufacturing jobs might be somewhere else in the town and increasingly precarious and threatened, as the economy sought greater efficiencies by moving production to cheaper and cheaper places, but people still consumed like dutiful consumers.
Being a heavy industrial city, my home town was not a place that was particularly artistic, or overly supportive of creative people. We were tolerated, but thought exotic and irrelevant. Art and music were not considered to be real jobs, like mining and working in the steel industry were. Art and music were considered to be highly risky pursuits, engaged in by only the disreputable, compared to the solidity and dependability of the weekly pay cheque provided by huge employers, like the local steelworks. You could talk to your bank manager about a loan to build a house, if you worked in industry, but would receive short shrift if you were a self-employed artist or designer.
The more rebellious of us continued to pursue our interests in music, art and drama anyway, in defiance of the cultural norms. However, it was a stunted sort of rebellion. We were part time musicians and artists, not full timers. There was a thriving music scene, but heavily weighted toward cover bands, rather than original song writing. Standing out from the crowd carried a certain amount of danger and could, in fact, result in physical violence. Tall poppies were not permitted.
Eventually, economic efficiency meant that even the large industrial plants were no longer viable and they closed down. That part of Mayfield where the smokestacks once dominated was once again bare, but this time a toxic, contaminated, post-industrial wasteland where little finds a way of growing, not a green pasture. Only retailing remained. Tens of thousands of jobs were lost in manufacturing, with knock on effects to all the supplier and ancillary services. People found other things to do, or took early retirement. There was still the beach. Sport carried on. The shopping mall still beckoned.
What had once been a thriving commercial heart of a vibrant, successful city eventually also withered and died. Initially fuelled by credit, people had continued to shop in town, when the jobs went away. Eventually, with local incomes under pressure and more choice on line, coupled with better parking at the shopping centres, the main street of the town increasingly closed for good, boarding up shop fronts and abandoning empty buildings to graffiti artists and anti-social vandals. Those vandals were the children of once moderately comfortable, if not exactly prosperous, working and middle class families whose fortunes had taken a turn for the worse, when the manufacturing jobs went away.
This story was not confined to my home town, of course. We were not an isolated community suffering a unique fate. All over the first world, towns and cities just like my home town were facing the same forces of devastation. There are entire web sites devoted to this phenomenon, globally, describing and documenting the negative effects of late stage urban decay, when the makers have long gone and the shoppers run out of money.
Check out these web sites:
Even the service industries, once thought to be the saviour of those thrown out of manufacturing jobs, were outsourced offshore, for economic efficiency reasons. The scale of the waste depicted in these web sites is utterly staggering, if you think about it. Can it be the case that this level of wanton destruction is actually more efficient economically than any other course of action? How?
It’s a global phenomenon, but I would argue that my home town was just a little ahead of the decay time line. We went into recession earlier than some and stayed there longer, even while other sectors of the Australian and Global economy boomed. Interestingly, the phenomenon of deal malls is even becoming apparent in China, thought to be the engine of world economic growth. Nobody is immune, it seems.
An enlightened chap from my home town decided to do something about urban regeneration and started to organise artists and small entrepreneurs into a lobby group, to take over the abandoned commercial property and make something new with it. Here is a TED talk that he gave, recently. It has a really interesting history of making things included in it. It’s worth your time to watch it.
Marcus Westbury has done a lot to rejuvenate Newcastle, NSW. He lives in Melbourne now, but he was right to go back to the idea of bringing the makers back into the heart of the city, behind the retail store fronts. That is the answer and the route toward a renewable future.
Making things locally, for local people creates local employment in worthwhile and interesting career pursuits. It might not be economically efficient, but it sure beats urban decay and destruction. Richard Florida proposed something similar in his seminal work on urban regeneration “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Creativity is what is going to turn these wastelands into thriving, desirable places to live and work again.
There are other advantages. If you live and work near the shop, the long distance commuting, that wastes so much time, non renewable energy and worsens global warming, can be entirely avoided. That improves the quality of people’s lives and their health, both of which have measurable economic benefits. If you can walk to work, instead of driving, your health can’t help but improve.
If local artisans are engaged in producing food locally, it arrives at your table fresher, not several days or weeks old, because it had to travel a huge distance and work its way through a centralised, leviathan and slow distribution system. Accumulating fewer food miles has the same beneficial effect as reducing commuting to work by car. If food is made locally, it doesn’t need to be crammed with preservatives to survive the lengthy, convoluted journey from producer to consumer. The health benefits of a reduction of preservatives added and in the time taken between food production and food consumption has never been seriously studied, in my view. The food itself doesn’t have to be produced for ever-increasing, industrial-scale profit. It can, instead, be made for taste and nutritional value.
With local artisan bakeries, there is no need to pack the bread with yeast to make sure a loaf can be produced in the fewest hours. Slower methods of baking, which permit the yeast to grow, pre-digest the glutens for you and die off, can be used (artisan bakers already know this). Again, the health benefits of taking some of the yeast and rush out of bread production and letting the yeast do the digesting of the glutens and proteins instead of your gut, has not been seriously studied, as far as I can see.
The small scale of local artisan production makes it possible to produce a greater variety of food stuffs (and a range of other goods, of course), with more individual care and attention, as opposed to the standardised, industrially manufactured, junk-laden concoctions that emerge from huge, central, food factories. Not only is less energy lost to bring it to the consumer, but consumers that work and live near where the food is made get to walk to obtain it, thereby avoiding even more food miles. There is less energy expended storing and refrigerating it, too. It’s made, and you eat it, within a very short time. It doesn’t have to be in cold storage for weeks or months after manufacture. Think how much electricity that saves.
If you work and live close to the heart of a vibrant creative community, you get to live and work somewhere beautiful, exciting and inspiring, instead of spending your days in traffic or in faceless, factory-farm-like cubicles, on industrial parks built on wasteland. There are things to do in evening and you have the time to do them.
Taking the making of things back to a local level has other advantages. In many cases, especially with intellectual property manufacturing (in other words, where you work products are intellectual property, encompassing designs, software, graphical images, music), there is the possibility of working from home. There is no necessity for a physical shop window and much of the trade is conducted on line. Working from home means that you are available to take deliveries of your on line shopping, so there is a better chance that you will engage in more of it.
You are also more likely to go out and buy things you need locally, because you are only a few minutes from your home and it doesn’t cut into your working day significantly. In fact, working from home lets you be more flexible with your working hours. You can start earlier or work later, to compensate for brief journeys to the local shops to get the things you need during your day. People that work in office cubes, with rigid hours and long commutes do not have that freedom and consequently are not customers for local shops that only open while these people are holed up in their cubes. Business park workers, who often have money to spend, are not customers for local businesses, because by the time they are free to buy anything, all of the local businesses have closed. They are only available to buy things from local businesses before they open and after they close. This is why local businesses of every kind need an e-commerce presence these days, in fact.
The problem of how and when to deliver on line orders remains difficult, though. Delivering an on line order to somebody that isn’t home, then leaving a card through their door inviting them to come and get their stuff themselves, from a delivery depot some distance away, which is also only open during business hours, when the cube dweller is held captive on a business park, doesn’t close the loop from consumer to provider very effectively. In what sense is getting your package yourself from a depot a “delivery” service (that you have paid for)?
Making things close to home means you are more able to be present for your children. They can grow up without absent, commuter parents. They won’t become latch key kids. Think what that would mean for anti social behaviour. Also, children that are raised amongst people creating things, living and breathing the atmosphere of invention and productive use of time, are themselves given the confidence and encouragement to become creative too. That’s no small thing. Seeing parents make furniture, play music professionally or produce the local newspaper, as I did as a child, gives you a sense of tangible possibilities that school does not. It makes the ability to go out into the world and make things into a concrete, demonstrable reality, rather than a theoretical construct from a book.
Creativity increases confidence. Children that know how to make something, even if what they make is intellectual capital (i.e. know how), learn that they can cope, contribute and shape their destinies and the future of their world. Making things locally provides opportunities for the next generation to learn from masters of their craft and advance the skills even further. It takes children away from the idea that they are numbered, industrial units of production (human resources), interchangeable with any other industrial age worker and utterly disposable, and toward the idea that they have unique talents, abilities, interests and gifts, which they can use to make a meaningful contribution to culture and society. This idea was alien to children who grew up in industrial cities.
The whole idea of re-introducing production back into the local economy means that makers are there to support consumers, who in turn support the makers. It becomes a collaborative, thriving ecosystem of mutual benefit. We used to call it “community”. There can be great unity in community.
Even more importantly, when more things are produced locally, there are more opportunities to produce a diverse range of things. People’s needs are complex and so it’s possible, in such an environment, to aspire to being the local guitar builder, or the producer of software applications to sell to the local community and beyond, or the electronics expert designing microprocessors, or the builder of custom industrial robots and production equipment. People don’t have to accept that all the interesting working life activities are not for them, that they will have to settle for some mundane, uncreative day job in a field of endeavour they aren’t really passionate about and import all of their tools, toys, gadgets, needs and necessities from China.
Cottage industries don’t need to be primitive. We have the Internet, so information is abundant. There are better ways of making some things than by laborious and imprecise hand crafting and whereas once, any sort of mechanisation or automation was too expensive to contemplate, for small scale production, now the computing power required to run them is so darn cheap that it’s almost ridiculous to not have a small computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine, 3D printer, or automated production line in operation. I don’t know a single guitar builder that eschews machine tools, for example and there is no reason why these machines can’t be refined, so that local production is every bit as high in quality and consistency as large factories once produced, simply because they could afford the previous generation of production automation. Good production tools, with intelligence and precision, are now within the price range of local producers.
In fact, the output from small scale automation is potentially superior, because local producers can remain interested and engaged, applying their ingenuity constantly, as opposed to the minimum wage production line slaves that large, highly automated factories of the past tended to hire. Caring about what you make turns out to be decisive to quality and innovation. Tedious repetition in production tasks is for machines, not people. People are there to think and make innovative decisions, varying and improving the production process to achieve higher quality and more customisation, so that consumers are better satisfied.
As an example, Fender and Gibson make standard, production line guitars, but have realised that their custom shop models are more profitable and more interesting to consumers. They also know that this is how to foster innovation and keep their workforce loyal, interested, motivated, improving their skills and on their best game. There is no reason why the custom shops of the future cannot be local to every city, taking imported standardised components, perhaps, and transforming them into one-off special assemblies, mixing and matching the parts to make something tailored for each customer’s particular needs and wants. This is the route to achieving the holy grail of mass customisation, where the resultant products are superior to anything a large, standardised production line could have ever offered. Ford once famously offered any colour, as long as it was black. In the age of local manufacturing from standardised components, fluorescent pink isn’t a problem. My home town, Newcastle, NSW, already has a custom surfboard industry. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to extend this to other products.
It can’t be denied that making is fundamentally interesting and that when there are lots of people in a local economy making ingenious things of every kind, it turns the area into an interesting place to be. It adds vibrancy to the local area and economy. There are reasons to put coffee shops and restaurants close to small scale custom shops and art galleries. They’re hip and funky.
So far, most of this discussion has focussed on making things locally for local consumption, but there is a leap of thinking made possible by the Internet. The inventiveness of local people can now be taken out into the world. You can easily construct a global store front, in the form of an e-commerce web site and mobile app, which reaches all of connected humanity (about a third of the population of Earth, at present). That’s a large customer base to show your products to and a huge potential number of orders, for the cost of some software and the servers to maintain the on line presence.
If that on-line presence is supported by streamlined, computer monitored distribution centres and networks, so that goods could be supplied reliably, efficiently and swiftly to on line customers, then instead of a city like Newcastle, NSW, importing most of what it consumes, it can reverse the tide and begin to supply locally made produce to the world. That’s a pretty exciting possibility. Instead of the local custom bicycle shop selling their best model to local cyclists only, they can also supply to a cyclist that likes the design in China, for example. Wow!
So the possibilities for urban regeneration, aided by computer technology and Internet connectivity, are pretty exciting and by bringing the makers back into the heart of the city, including the digital producers, situated behind their physical retail presence and close to where they live, a city with a plan could really make something of itself, in the twenty first century. It could transform itself from decaying and irrelevant shambles on a death march to destruction, into a lively, vibrant hub of innovation and creativity.
Newcastle, NSW, has a plan for urban regeneration and here it is:
I’ve tried to read it and it depresses me to the point of being unable to read on. It depresses me because it entirely misses the opportunity. In this plan, the official plan of action that was decided upon in March 2009 and is currently being executed, you won’t find very much strategy about Internet bandwidth and connectivity to the on line, digital world, where so much commerce now takes place. In fact, I happen to know that there isn’t even a fibre optic backbone buried in the main street, the subject of this regeneration plan and as far as I am aware, no plan to put one in. Broadband provision, in Newcastle, NSW, is by global standards risible and places the city at a significant disadvantage in the world of global e-commerce.
Why is this important? In the on line world, information flows freely, having impacts on trends, techniques, supply of raw materials, supply of machine tools and automation and in gauging where the opportunities for local producers lie, globally. On the supply side, fast Internet means competitive advantage in displaying catalogues, on line, and in taking and fulfilling orders. Nobody is going to wait. Not even local people. Nobody is going to put up with antiquated supply chains, slow web sites, producers that are wholly invisible on line or on their mobile devices, unreliable order processes, clunky web design, production processes unaware of the best techniques and components available, slow production cycles unaided by computer software and automation, poor quality due to insufficient attention to perfecting the production process and myriad other things that having connectivity and computing power, applied to the making of things, entirely solves.
But these aspects of local production infrastructure are absent from the plan. There is no strategy to make the local producers into global suppliers. There is no infrastructure planned to enable local producers to be the best of breed, compared to the entire world. Somehow, the planners imagine that local people will buy local produce, even if they know, through the Internet, that better examples of everything can be bought elsewhere. There isn’t a single mention of how to help local producers become world class. It’s as if global competition doesn’t exist or that local consumers, already a tiny addressable market compared to the whole world, will remain ignorant of what else their money can buy simply by importing.
This is a picture of the Novocastrian big plan.
There are bus links, cycle ways and traffic management schemes, but no broadband and no data centres to serve the on line offering up to the world. There are no distribution centres, from which to ship locally made, artisan produce to other places. It is utterly bereft of a viable digital strategy.
Part of the big plan is to relocate some of the campus of the University of Newcastle into the heart of the city, but I happen to know that the university doesn’t realise that it is being inexorably drawn on line already. Students and the culture expect that lectures are available to replay on demand, as video. Students expect to track their progress, read the course materials, interact with tutors and each other, receive assignments and hand in their work on line, digitally. The university needs an infrastructure to search, electronically, for blatant plagiarism in student-submitted work. It also has to compete with other universities that are forging ahead with on line learning and curriculums. MIT is even offering tertiary standard educational materials (and probably qualifications, one day) for free.
Meanwhile, those that maintain the university’s IT infrastructure struggle to meet these demands with chronically underfunded budgets, a lack of vision about the on line future of learning in the twenty first century and insufficient manpower to meet the competing demands for IT infrastructure support. The university remains focussed on buildings and physical estate and is totally blind to the need to compete on line, with modern, up to date, IT infrastructure. One day, students will choose a university on the basis of its IT infrastructure and that day is not too far away. Having a beach side campus, while novel, won’t attract the most able students who are the most serious about their chosen vocation.
Yet, the big plan calls for more buildings for the university and mentions little about how these new buildings will become connected digitally. The IT infrastructure required, which in the case of the university would be a medium sized data centre, is not envisioned, in the plan. The opportunity to build a data centre, powered at least in part by renewable energy, connected to the world by a significant amount of bandwidth and serving the needs of both the university and local producers and makers, has been entirely missed.
How will all these Novocastrian craftsy artists make the world aware of their produce, take orders on line or ship to the world, without a digital infrastructure and strategy. They’re staying disconnected and serving only the local market. This is a very limited vision for the twenty first century. Amazon is already over a decade old. E-commerce is here to stay. How will the digital creatives (digital artists, programmers, record companies, film makers, photographers, designers) that everybody is relying upon to turn things around actually take orders, be able to win contracts in the real time bidding process for work that the procurement departments of large, global companies now rely on, or ship their finished articles in anything like an acceptable time? In digital terms, failing to have a strategy for digital connectivity, data hosting and goods distribution is analogous to having no roads, railway connections or sea ports, in the physical economy.
Newcastle, after the regeneration plan is complete, will remain a digital backwater, not even ranking as a whistle stop on the map of the Internet. It doesn’t exist in cyberspace at all, so it’s not connected in a significant way to the opportunities and spending power that are abundant in e-commerce. There is no infrastructure for converting online interest and orders into physical shipments. It’s a plan for failure.
Also absent is a plan to insulate the buildings, to reduce energy losses. Energy losses are a direct drain on competitiveness and negatively impact the environment. There isn’t any plan to recycle waste heat to provide domestic hot water, for very low cost. There is no mention of supplying renewable energy by wave, wind and sunlight (Newcastle has all of these) and no separation of water waste that comes from manufacturing processes from ordinary, domestic sewerage, at source, so that these can be processed and recycled differently (all cities fail in this, in truth). All of these work-creating municipal schemes could have been included in the plan and would have produced the regeneration required. Without them, the plan is likely to be wholly ineffectual.
So while my home town is heading in the right direction, in bringing the makers back into the heart of the city, I fear my home town might still be doomed. It isn’t connected to the world.
The world is interested in the “Internet of Things” and even the “Internet of Cars”, but Newcastle, NSW, doesn’t make any of that stuff. Apple’s iPhone division alone is bigger than Microsoft. But, there are no competitors to the iPhone being designed and made in Newcastle. No next generation iPads. No applications for them. All of that intellectual property could be created in sunny, balmy, beautiful Newcastle, but none of it can be, if there is no digital infrastructure to support it. Electronic devices could be modified or even built from scratch, in local custom shops and delivered to customers all over the world, but not without serious bandwidth and universal broadband provision, or a slick, modern distribution infrastructure. Without that digital strategy, no company could even contemplate starting a venture of this kind in Newcastle. Evidently, the authorities in Newcastle don’t think they need one. Heaven alone known where they think future employment will come from? Maybe they think Novocastrians will be content with purchasing digital photographs of its beaches from each other.
Makers should be where we live. We shouldn’t have to import undifferentiated manufactures, or even wait for them to be delivered from far away, while we abandon our homes and communities, daily, to earn a living in barren industrial estate offices, working in service industries, that make almost nothing, because all the making is done in China (or wherever else labour is cheapest, most disposable and compliant).
As artists, we ought to be able to pursue our art wherever we are, knowing that local infrastructures exists to promote our works to the world and enabling us to supply to the world.
Makers should be local, close to their homes and everywhere.