After Industry, Dundee Design Festival, May 2017

I was commissioned by the organisers of Dundee Design Festival to write the foreword for the festival brochure – an essay about the role of design in the city of Dundee. "Katie, this made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. It is a brilliant, well thought-through, and concise piece of writing.” – Siôn Parkinson, Dundee Design Festival. All copy as provided to the publication. 

From Dundee’s first fireproof mill to the Beano’s print works; and then from Dundee Design Festival venue to one of the largest cultural centres in the UK – the evolution of West Ward Works tells the story of how a city once famous for ‘jute, jam and journalism’ is using the power of design to reinvent itself for the post-industrial age.

Modern design was invented by industry. The advent of mass manufacturing separated the design process from making. When the objects we needed were created by hand, they were made locally, often to bespoke specifications. Design and making happened simultaneously with craftspeople making decisions and adjustments throughout the process; managing what designer David Pye called the ‘workmanship of risk’. Making by machine requires a different approach – the economics of tooling demand high volumes of identical objects, the form of which must to be fully resolved before production can begin. Industrial making is dependent on the ‘workmanship of certainty,’ and to fulfil this need, design has become a distinct function in its own right.

So if design is a result of industry, what becomes of design in a post-industrial society? And what becomes of the cities built on the back of its success? Can design help cities once entirely reliant on industry – from Dundee and Detroit – to thrive again?

In 1973, Daniel Bell forecast The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society in his book of the same name. He predicted a shift away from dependence on the ‘economics of goods’ towards the ‘economics of information’ arguing that we should expect “new premises and new powers, new constraints and new questions — with the difference that these are now on a scale that had never been previously imagined in world history.” He wasn’t wrong – when Detroit lost the car industry to China and Japan, and Dundee lost jute production to India, the effect on both economies was devastating. “Weak market cities across Europe and America, or ‘core cities’ as they were in their heyday, went from being industrial giants dominating their national, and eventually the global, economy, to being devastation zones,” says Anne Power in her book Phoenix cities: The fall and rise of great industrial cities. “In a single generation three-quarters of all manufacturing jobs disappeared, leaving dislocated, impoverished communities, run-down city centres, and a massive population exodus.” The fact is that manufacturing simply stopped driving growth in the western world.

But just as the Industrial Revolution and its after effects shaped the 19th and 20th centuries, so the digital revolution will shape the 21st century. At its heart, whether it is through the workmanship of risk or of certainly, design is about solving problems, and the problems raised by post-industrialisation have been reframed as opportunities in what Chris Anderson has dubbed “the new industrial revolution."

The almost compulsive sharing culture that has grown up around the internet, and particularly social media, plays into the hands of the modern maker. Not only does a well-curated Instagram feed provide more bang for their marketing buck than paid-for advertising ever did, but skills are shared, techniques are circulated and ideas are distributed like never before, meaning that anyone with access to the internet can start learning about design and making – and, crucially, become part of a community of designers and makers. And sharing culture is not the only digital development lowering barriers to entry. Funding and investment platforms like Kickstarter provide start-up capital – and selling platforms like Etsy and Not On The High Street provide routes to market at the click of a mouse. The current resurgence of craft is as much enabled by digital technology as it is a reaction against it. The world of decentralised, artisan workshops predicted by Daniel Bell in 1973 is finally starting to become a reality.

According to Karl Marx, “power belongs to those who control the means of production.” In the industrial era, the scale and cost of machinery meant that big companies controlled factories. Now the digital revolution is redefining the factory (a word that comes from ‘manufactory’, and therefore means anywhere that things are made) and creating new factory floors. As Cory Doctorow says in his prescient sci-fi novel, Makers, “the days of companies with names like ‘General Electric,’ and ‘General Mills’ and ‘General Motors’ are over. The money on the table is like krill: a billion little entrepreneurial opportunities that can be discovered and exploited by smart, creative people.” Some 2,500 maker spaces, hacker spaces and fab labs (fabrication laboratories) worldwide now offer access to digitally-controlled machines such as CNC-routers and 3D printers, alongside more traditional tools and machines, that might previously have been out of the individual maker’s reach. And as costs fall, its increasingly likely that serious makers can own these tools themselves.

Anne Power attributes the speed at which European cities such as Dundee are recovering from the effects of a post-industrial society, (compared with the slower recoveries of American cities such as Detroit), to “innovative enterprises, new-style city leadership, special neighbourhood programmes, and skills development,” – all things in which design is playing a key part.

Now that we’ve reached ‘peak stuff’ (according to IKEA CEO Steve Howard, of all people), young designers no longer aspire to design the next ‘it chair’, but instead want to apply the skills and methodology of design to some of the hardest problems facing humanity. Design thinking takes the process of solving a problem, and asks, ‘What if the solution isn’t an object?’ Making something isn’t always the answer; sometimes it’s about creating systems, programmes and models. Take a problem like an empty 19th-century jute mill in the heart of your city. Design thinking might suggest a pop-up festival to demonstrate its value. That festival might attract the right audience and the right investment to convert it into something more permanent. That investment might result in a cultural centre that can engage, educate and inspire another generation of design thinkers – and equip them with the skills to solve the problems of the 21st century. In Dundee, that’s exactly what it has done. After the Dundee Design Festival finishes, West Ward Works will be converted into one the largest cultural centres in the UK – a testament to the power of design to evolve its way around problems, and a living reminder that it will continue to do so for centuries to come.