Yesterday we had a really great round table talking about supply chains and manufacturing, hosted by Future Makespaces. Supply chains touch on so many political topics. They matter intensely for labour conditions, wages, immigration, the environment and for the diffusion of culture. At the same time they remain mostly invisible: they have a dispersed physical manifestation, and subsist in innumerable formal and informal social relations.
Governments publish some data on supply chains, but it can provide only a very low resolution picture. Jude Sherry told us that trying to locate manufacturers legally registered in Bristol often proved impossible. The opposite proved true as well – there are plenty of manufactures in Bristol who do not appear in official data.
Supply chains are especially salient now because technology is changing their structure. The falling cost of laser cutters and 3D printers is democratising processes once only possible in large scale manufacturing – thus potentially shortening the logistical pathway between manufacturer and consumer; perhaps even bringing manufacturing back into the cities of the developed world.
What I took from the round table was the surprising diversity of approaches to the topic – as well as a chance to reflect on how I communicate my position.
If your writing, design, or artistic practice is about making the invisible visible, then supply chains are a rich territory – a muse for your work, and an agent of change in the materials and processes you can work with. I took Dr Helge Mooshammer and Peter Mörtenböck to be addressing this cultural aspect with their World of Matter project and their Other Markets publications. Emma Reynolds told us about the British Council’s Maker Library Network, which I think you could see as an attempt to instrumentalise that cultural output.
Michael Wilson (who was in the UK for The Arts of Logistics conference), came to the topic from an overtly political direction, casting the debate in terms familiar from Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace; positioning himself in relation to capitalism, neo-liberalism and anarchy. His Empire Logistics project aims to explore the supply infrastructure of California. He highlighted the way that supply chains had responded to the unionisation of dock workers in California by moving as many operations as possible away from the waterfront, and to an area called, poetically, the Inland Empire.
The ‘small p’ political also featured – Adrian McEwan told us about his local impact through setting up a Makespace in Liverpool. James Tooze told us about the modular furniture system he’s working on with OpenDesk – designed to reduce waste generated by office refits and be more suited to the flexible demands that startups make of their spaces.
My perspective is based mostly on ideas from the discipline of economics. I described the Hayekian idea of the market as a giant computer that efficiently allocates resources, where the market, through the profit motive, solves the knowledge problem – and that it does so in a way that cannot be improved upon.
Even if I don’t myself (completely) subscribe to this point of view, it is well embedded with policy makers, and I think needs to be addressed and rebutted.
Every attempt to actively change supply chains, from the circular economy to makespaces, faces a challenge from Hayekian reasoning: if a new system of supply was a good idea, why hasn’t the market already invented it?
I see my work as using the language of economics to position design practises that seek to augment or transcend that market logic. In particular, I think Elinor Ostrom’s work offers a way to acknowledge human factors in the way exchanges take place, as well as providing design principles based on empirical research.
One surprise was the divergent views on where the ambitions for the ‘maker movement’. Should it aim for a future where a significant fraction of manufacturing happens in makespaces? Or would that mean the movement had been co-opted? Is it’s subcultural status essential?
I realised that when I try to explain my position in future I need to address questions like why I’ve chosen to engage with economic language and try to illustrate how that dovetails with cultural and political perspectives.