Idea factories? Manufacturing and making in the 21st century

Friday 30 September, 7.00pm until 9.00pm, Poynter Room, V&A Café, Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL

Tickets: FREE; no booking required.

Reflecting on ‘the Facebook movie’, The Social Network, Zadie Smith observed that while critics have spent the last decade bemoaning the lack of outstanding generation-defining art, it ‘turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world’. In 2008, the Digital Britain report seemed to confirm the future for British industry was creative, a trend continued by David Cameron’s stated ambition to build an East London rival to Silicon Valley. From the ‘app economy’ to DIY fashion, every area of popular culture is seen as ripe for ‘crowdsourcing’ the individual creativity of many, with user-generated content constantly shifting the boundaries of traditional design and production. Even those turn-of-millennium titans of mass-produced branding – McDonald’s and Starbucks – have started to experiment with ‘stealth’ stores which emphasise uniqueness rather than uniformity.

Despite this, however, it comes as something of a surprise for many to discover UK manufacturing is still the sixth largest in the world, albeit with an international reputation for pharmaceuticals and aerospace rather than cars and consumer goods. Yet there is constant unease about Britain’s ability to remain competitive in a globalised world: Generation 2.0 may come equipped with high-end programming skills and MBAs, but when it comes to the ‘hands on’ skills, British employers regularly have to look abroad for a Polish plumber, German engineer or Chinese mathematician. Moreover, as ‘real’ production becomes increasingly outsourced to the developing world, there is growing unease about high street shops’ complicity with child labour overseas. On top of ethical concerns come aesthetic ones, with many looking down on the mass production of cheap goods. Hand-sewn clothes by home-grown designers seem doubly preferable to clothes made with faceless machinery and sweated labour.

Is this move towards the ‘creative economy’ simply the latest evolution of Adam Smith’s division of labour, or is there a serious risk of overspecialisation once the Chinese et al develop their designers alongside their factories? Should we embrace a return to the days of thrifty ‘make do and mend’ or celebrate mass production’s achievements in creating mountains of ‘stuff’? What skills are necessary to fuel a thriving manufacturing sector, and are there any barriers being placed on innovation today? What should the UK be making in the 21st century?

Held in partnership with V&A Friday Late with MasterCard Summer Camp: Make September 2011. For more information please visit the V&A website.

Sandy Black
professor of fashion & textile design & technology, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, London; editor and co-author, The Sustainable Fashion Handbook; author, Eco Chic the Fashion Paradox

Daniel Charny
senior tutor, Royal College of Art; director, From Now On; curator, 'Power of Making', V&A

Dr Paul Reeves
engineering software designer, SolidWorks R&D (part of Dassault Systèmes); convener, manufacturing work group for Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation

Angela Saini
science journalist; author, Geek Nation: how Indian science is taking over the world

Matt Warman
new technology journalist, Daily Telegraph

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Recommended readings
Tata for now

The country’s biggest manufacturer is Indian. What does it seek from and give to Britain?

Economist, 10 September 2011

Power of Making, V&A, review

Power of Making is an exhibition about craft. 'Craft' is such an off-putting word, with connotations of amateurism, and a reactionary attachment to time-honoured traditions. But this exhibition transformed my understanding of what contemporary craft can be – ingenious, exciting, and relevant to the 21st century.

Alastair Sooke, Daily Telegraph, 6 September 2011

Power of Making: the case for making and skills

Seemingly disparate objects are brought together in a 'cabinet of curiosities' to unite and reinforce creative, cultural, social and educational points of view all offering different ways of understanding the potent power that comes with making.

Daniel Charny, V&A Publishing, 5 September 2011

Manufacturing shrinks for first time in two years

Manufacturing is contracting for the first time in two years, according to one of the most reliable surveys of activity in the sector.

Ben Chu, Independent, 3 September 2011

Individuality drive and 3D tech make firms go bespoke

This global individuality drive combined with the latest technologies has been stimulating companies to produce what used to be off-limits just a while back - mass-oriented bespoke content.

Katia Moskvitch, BBC News, 2 September 2011

Britain’s uncreative approach to design

A preoccupation with social engineering hampers the innovative and wealth-generating potential of design.

Martyn Perks, spiked, 18 July 2011

Britain makes more things than you think

Evan Davis’s TV tie-in book has some surprising stats on the state of British manufacturing. But our political class lacks the cojones to invest seriously in infrastructure and innovation.

Rob Lyons, spiked, 25 June 2011

Made in Britain

This book is about the things that Britain produces in order to pay its way in the world, from physical goods that we can see and feel, to intangible services that are much harder to quantify.

Evan Davis, Little, Brown, 19 May 2011

3D printing – An ‘Industrial Revolution in the Digital Age’?

Lisa Harouni, whose company Digital Forming is bringing 3D printing to high-street fashion brands and consumer product designers, has just convinced even the most skeptical investors here that something transformative is about to happen to the whole business of making things.

David Rowan, Wired, 9 May 2011

The Case for Working With Your Hands

Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate.

Matthew Crawford, New York Times Magazine, 21 May 2009


"In few places does the free exchange of views take place on so wide a range of issues as at the Battle of Ideas. Whatever the headlines of 2011 prove to be, the Battle of Ideas is where they will be most robustly debated."
Andrew Copson, chief executive, British Humanist Association

follow the Academy of Ideas