The politics of Trump and Brexit has drawn attention again to the phenomenon of “left-behind” communities. In the US rust belt and the UK’s northern cities, de-industrialisation and the loss of manufacturing jobs has stripped communities, not just of their economic base, but of their very sense of purpose.
But to some commentators, the focus on manufacturing is misguided sentimentality, an appeal to the discredited idea that the only proper work is making stuff in factories. These jobs, they say, have gone for ever, killed by a combination of technology and globalisation; the clock cannot be turned back and we must adjust to the new reality of service based economies, which produce economic value just as real as any widget.
I agree that the world has changed, but I want to argue that, despite that, manufacturing does have a special importance for the economic health of developed countries. It’s important, though, to understand why, if not for sentimentality or conservatism, manufacturing is important, or we’ll end up with bad and counter-productive policy prescriptions.
Manufacturing is important for three reasons. Firstly, consistently, over the long-run, manufacturing innovation remains the most reliable way of delivering sustained productivity growth, and this productivity growth spills over into other sectors and the economy more generally.
Secondly, centres of manufacturing sustain wider clusters in which tangible and intangible assets accumulate and reinforce their collective value, and where tacit knowledge is stored in networks of skilled people and effective organisations (what Shih and Pisano call the “manufacturing commons”). These networks include, not just the core manufacturers, but suppliers and maintainers of equipment, design consultancies, R&D, and so on, which in the long term are anchored by those manufacturing activities at the core of the cluster.
Of course, the same is true in other sectors too; this brings me to the third point, which is that the diversity of types of manufacturing leaves room for clusters to be geographically dispersed. Rebalancing the economy in favour of manufacturing will at the same time rebalance it geographically, reducing the gross regional imbalances in wealth and opportunities that are such a dangerous feature of the UK now.
Recognising these as the features of manufacturing that make it so important make it clear what an industrial strategy to promote it should not try and do. Its aim should not be to prop up failing industries as they currently exist – the whole point of supporting manufacturing is as a focus for innovation. Neither should there be any expectation that a manufacturing resurgence will lead to large scale mass employment on the old model. If productivity growth is to be the motivation, then this will not lead directly to large numbers of new jobs.
The point is to create value, not, in the first instance, to create jobs. But the jobs will follow, in those sectors that will support the new manufacturing activities – in design, marketing, data analytics, professional services. In fact, the characteristic of the new manufacturing is precisely that the lines between manufacturing and its associated service activities are becoming more blurred.
So an industrial strategy to support the new manufacturing needs to have, at its heart, a focus on innovation and skills, and the goal of creating a self-sustaining ecosystem. This doesn’t mean that one can ignore history – the future manufacturing specialisms of a region will reflect their past, because the nature of the assets one has to build on, in terms of existing firms, institutions and skills, will reflect that past. But equally an understanding of the transformations that technology is bringing is important too.
Manufacturing is changing, through automation and robotics, new materials and manufacturing techniques, and new modes of organising manufacturing processes in more reconfigurable and customisable ways. New business models are being developed which erode the distinction between traditional manufacturing and service industries, and underlying all these changes is the power of new digital technology, and the potential of large scale data analytics and machine learning. All these demand new (often digital) skills, better management practises, more effective mechanisms by which new technologies diffuse widely through an existing business base.
Last summer, we began the process of defining what a modern industrial strategy might look like, to support a resurgence of high value manufacturing in the traditional manufacturing heartlands of South Yorkshire and Lancashire. The outcome of this is presented in the Science and Innovation Audit commissioned by the UK government, whose report you can read here – Driving productivity growth through innovation in high value manufacturing.
As the UK government develops its own industrial strategy, I hope the policies that emerge are designed to support the right sorts of manufacturing, for the right reasons.