Tuesday, 29 March 2011

So, just what will the future look like?

We've seen the future. We can afford it. Yes we can.

A gem from the home of dynamic capitalism:

The Future of Manufacturing is Local.
Think manufacturing, and most likely your brain defaults to abandoned factories, outsourcing and economically devastated regions like the Rust Belt ...
But there are many parts of this country [USA] where manufacturing is very much alive, albeit in a different form. The monolithic industry model — steel, oil, lumber, cars — has evolved into something more nimble and diversified. As this country continues to figure out how to crawl out of its economic despair, we could benefit from focusing on the shift.
The article quoted above comes from a design and architecture commentator on The NY Times' opinion pages. In that context our thoughts turn to the future for our own town as we read that oil and gas giant Statoil is re-considering the future of some of its North Sea activities.

Yes, they do make things
in San Francisco
We've said before that, at some point, we'll wish that we in Aberdeen had started the process of rebalancing our economy sooner than we have (indeed, have we started at all?) The article in the NY Times which examines the re-balancing of parts of the US economic activity towards a nimble and diversified model of re-thought manufacturing might provide us with some inspiration. The article focuses on the work of SFMade, a grass-roots bottom-up charitable organisation, which is demonstrating great success in providing real help in regenerating the shattered economy of California. The SFMade community (for that is what it now is) stands in contrast to top-down hierarchichal organisations such as local enterprise companies and chambers of commerce.

Key phrases stand out from the NY Times article:
Times have changed. So has business, and it's time to rethink, and indeed rebrand, American manufacturing. 
From one member of the SFMade community:
“For decades we have developed a culture of disposability — from consumer goods to medical instruments and machine tools. To fuel economic growth, marketers replaced longevity with planned obsolescence — and our mastery of technology has given birth to ever-accelerating unplanned obsolescence. I think there is increasing awareness that this is no longer sustainable on the scale we have developed.”
From another member:

“Pick your community well. You’re not there solely to make money; you’re there to play a larger role.”

About SFMade's corporate structure:

The decision to be a non-profit was borne out of the belief that trade organizations (like the Chamber of Commerce) often serve more of a business development function rather than address the needs of the local manufacturing community. In contrast to government-initiated programs, SFMade emerged from the community, the culmination of a grassroots movement. The group allows that community to reconnect, share resources, receive education and assistance on everything from zoning to sourcing to taxes.

It is particularly interesting to note that this important bottom-up work on economic rebalancing is being done in San Francisco. That's one of the cities used by Charles Landry as an exemplar of best practise for creative human-scale liveability during the recent presentation he gave in Aberdeen. The presentation was hosted by ACSEF (Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future) at the event which marked the relaunch of their misconceived and controversial City Gardens Project which, if realised, would cause the destruction of Aberdeen's Union Terrace gardens. 

It is vital that we see alternatives to ACSEF's monolithic proposal emerge in Aberdeen. We believe that their top-down approach to regeneration is out of its time and reflects their inability to grasp the fundamental and disruptive change which the nature of capital is subject to at present. Where once capital was embodied in factories and large chunks or arrays of machinery; monolithic amounts of liquid currency, tracts of land and large workforces - today, rather, capital is increasingly ephemeral; being comprised of ideas and individuals; ones-and-zeroes and the people who've created them - and mercurial, being much more mobile and subject to the whims of fashion and disruptive innovation. Our oil industry heritage with its big lumps of machines and money, tracts of (seabed) land and traditional working practices - largely unchanged in decades - has ill-served our town in preparation for the furious pace of change which now predominates in the new world of creative and social capital. All that is solid melts into air. 

Torry Rocks!
In our own small way in Aberdeen, we have, perhaps the seed model of something resembling the SFMade movement in the Torry Retail Rocks initiative, where young people can get access to subsidised (otherwise vacant) retail and workshop space in Aberdeen's historic Torry area (it's its own town, really). The streetscape and livability is already improving along Torry's Victoria Road thanks to this grass-roots bootstrapping work. We believe that this sort of initiative, which resembles the granular scale of SFMade, has much more to offer Aberdeen by way of a sustainable economic future than anything which traditional capital (and the traditional thinking that implies) can offer.

We feel that ACSEF have only partially grasped this point that capital has now a much greater social and creative aspect than at any time before the rise of capitalism itself. That's why they give the appearance of believing that a huge real-estate deal at Union Terrace is the means by which Aberdeen's economic future can be secured. It is not. The truth is much more granular - fractal, even, and impossible to encompass within one man's "vision"

While we've seen the future, we can't tell you exactly what it'll look like - this vision is panoramic, inclusive and cannot be assimilated in one glance. But we can tell you that we can easily afford to implement this vision. We can also tell you that we can't afford not to.

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