From HS2 to virtual reality: the new industrial revolution?

Saturday 17 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher 4-6, Barbican The New Industrial Revolution?

After the 2008 financial crash, there was much talk about the need to ‘rebalance’ the UK economy away from services, particularly financial services, towards manufacturing. In his 2011 budget, George Osborne declared the coalition government’s plan for growth: ‘We want the words “Made in Britain, Created in Britain, Designed in Britain, Invented in Britain” to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers.’ Yet today, services still play a role as big, if not bigger, than before, while manufacturing remains relatively weak.

In order for there to be rebalancing, what is required is not simply the expansion of existing industry but new kinds of products. Yet there seems little capacity to develop world-class giant companies in the UK. Technologies promising various forms of ‘New Industrial Revolution’ - like 3D printing, the Internet of Things (including drones and driverless cars) and nanotechnology - still don’t point to a UK that is likely to look or be significantly different to live in 20 years from now. There is little sign that new innovations, like graphene, for example, can be commercially developed in the UK.

The absence of high-value, high-tech industries co-exists with an inability or lack of desire to restructure or build new infrastructure – like roads, airports, railways, housing or the large-scale factories to build them in their millions, let alone new types of infrastructure. Even wind turbines and other green technologies are generally built and designed abroad. The use of ‘fracking’ to extract natural gas has been repeatedly blocked by planners in the face of noisy protests. Niche products and technologies aside, the only ‘new’ game in town seems to centre on sustainability and the ‘circular economy’ – the ability to reuse products and materials as opposed to the ‘take-make-dispose’ model of manufacture used at present.

Has the UK given up on being an industrial leader and happy to just act as a ‘following’ service provider to its more industry-minded economic peers who lead? Should we make do with doing what we already do, but better? Can sustainability really be the basis for new economic growth when it relies on using labour less efficiently in order to be use material resources more efficiently? Even if we give up on manufacturing as a major growth sector, can we really raise the productivity of services in isolation from making new products and overhauling our infrastructure and education system?

Jeremy Dalton
innovation consultant, PwC

Christian May
editor, City A.M.

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

Dr Hayaatun Sillem
director of programmes & fellowship, Royal Academy of Engineering

Dr Jack Stilgoe
senior lecturer in science and technology policy, University College London; author, Experiment Earth: responsible innovation in geoengineering

Rob Killick
CEO, Clerkswell; author, The UK After The Recession

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
We should build HS2

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Jake Unsworth, Debating Matters, 28 August 2015

We need a new industrial revolution

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spiked podcast, spiked, 23 July 2015

Time to get fracking

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The Economist, 20 June 2015

A Revolution in the Making

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John Koten, The Wall Street Journal, 10 June 2013

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