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Idea factories? Manufacturing and making in the 21st century

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?

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?


Sandy Black | talks | www
Daniel Charny | talks
Paul Reeves | talks
Angela Saini | talks | www
Matt Warman | talks
Mr James Woudhuysen | talks | www
David Bowden | talks


Date and Time:

30 September 2011 at 7:00 pm


2 hours



V & A
Cromwell Road
020 7942 2211
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Organised by:

Institute of Ideas
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Additional Information:

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

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