To mark the first of a quarterly series of insights from the team here at Distl, we offer you a glimpse of things to come as we examine urban manufacturing- from companies like Shinola in Detroit breathing new life into their city to Copenhagen Made, formed to showcase Danish manufacturing prowess. We look at how its resurgence is impacting our cities and our neighbourhoods. Be sure to check back mid-January for our complete report.
We somehow got away from the idea that- cities make things. Though the range and scope of products made in cities is subject to the whims of economic change, cities continue to produce many of the objects of modern life. From Copenhagen to New York, Detroit to San Francisco, the resurgence of urban manufacturing marks a renewed concern for provenance and a rediscovery of the economic and social benefits of the production of goods in our cities. Governments at all levels are beginning to take note that urban manufacturing is a key facet of a diversified urban economy. Yet more needs to be done to support and help nurture urban producers of goods. Initiatives in major cities around the world are at the forefront of this resurgence and a number of policy best practices such as the German dual vocational training system are being given renewed attention.
So what happened? How did we lose sight of the importance of manufacturing in our cities? Thanks to cheap oil and advances in logistics, the large manufacturers that had traditionally fuelled western economies had all but gone- offshoring their production to East Asia to access cheap labour and little or no regulation. Coupled with the advent of the Internet and its potential for commercial growth in the last decades of the 20th century, what became known as the dot-com era had taken hold and the priorities of governments followed suit. The mass globalization of markets and the rapid proliferation of Internet and communications technology over the last few decades resulted in no less than a monumental economic and social paradigm shift.
The world was now a significantly different place. Ironically, it became increasingly evident that the city was the true growth engine of nations and that sustaining a robust urban economy meant diversification and innovation. In the post industrial era, technology, design, entertainment and media and arts and culture soon emerged as the new drivers of economic growth and the entrepreneurs (a new generation of highly educated individuals with skill sets that allowed for increasing international mobility) at the forefront of these industries spurred a return to the city often repurposing the affordable (and stimulating) spaces left vacant by the demise of the large traditional manufacturers.
These industries have always been present in cities and have always, for the most part, engaged in manufacturing activities but have now taken a lead in driving urban economic growth. With quality and provenance top of mind for many consumers around the world, the range of products produced in urban areas is growing once again bolstering the potential for export. What’s more, contemporary urban manufacturing firms don’t operate large vertically integrated factories, but rather are smaller and part of a web of urban production and distribution able to tap into a large pool of highly skilled workers. As a result, these firms have a greater capacity to innovate, often working in co-shared spaces, and tend to create decent paying jobs for people who would otherwise work in the lower paying service or retail sector. Because of this, governments have begun reinvesting in this sector, for example, New York City recently announced it was investing $3.5 million in a new fashion manufacturing hub in Brooklyn for apparel, textiles and wearable tech. These government investments as well as platforms like Makers Row and initiatives like New York Made and San Francisco Made highlight how urban manufacturing has proven resilient and the uptake of locally produced goods is an indication that there are significant opportunities to enhance the benefits of urban production lines to help further diversify and strengthen urban economies.