The resurgence of a culture of makers: re-localizing production
One way to empower local communities and their regional economies to manifest their visions of a better future is to re-localize production and consumption and thereby strengthen regional economies.
There is an important role for international trade and global exchange of goods and services, but not when it comes to meeting basic regional needs. Wherever feasible we should meet our needs as locally or regionally as possible and restrict the global exchange of goods to those that cannot be produced in a particular place.
Open innovation and knowledge-sharing at a global scale will be an important part of the process of re-localizing production and some global companies are already beginning to explore how to reinvent themselves as facilitators of the shift towards ‘distributed manufacturing’ and ‘the circular economy’.
Since 2013, together with Forum for the Future, I have been involved in conceiving and implementing a long-range innovation project for the Belgian manufacturer of ecological cleaning products and detergents Ecover. The project uses the unique island conditions of Majorca as a test field to explore how a global company like Ecover can help to facilitate a shift towards localized production for localized consumption based on local material and energy resources and in collaboration with local business partners. In the process we studied the potential of the Majorcan bioeconomy to deliver — in a regenerative way — enough biological raw materials (from waste streams) to produce cleaning products for the local market.
The island is particularly dependent on imports of consumer products and food, due to the increased demand caused by 16 million tourist visits each year. While the long-term sustainability of such mass tourism is more than questionable, these visitor numbers provide the economic engine that can finance the transition towards local production, food and energy infrastructures.
Ecover and ‘Forum for the Future’ collaborated with an on-island network of multi- sector stakeholders to create a showcase that, if successful, could serve as a transferable example and a model for a region-focused shift towards a renewable energy and materials-based circular economy (see Glocal, 2015).
We learned some very important lessons. Simply embarking on the process of co-creating an inspirational experiment like this and involving diverse stakeholders in it contributed to the wider transformation towards a regenerative culture. The conversation about re-localizing production and consumption on Majorca has started.
The regional experiment aimed to take a step towards a circular economy based on re-regionalizing production and consumption. It was motivated less by the potential for short-term economic success and more by the power of experimentation as a way to make sure we are asking the right questions. It catalysed a local design conversation while Ecover explores how it could reinvent itself as a global knowledge and business partner with a wide network of regional collaborators enabling distributed manufacturing and promoting regional economic development.
The transformation of our systems of production and consumption is a creative design challenge that will require whole-systems thinking and transformative innovation at its very best. The resulting disruptive innovations will ultimately make the existing system obsolete.
We were effectively trying to redesign production and consumption of chemical products, creating a local product by trying to operate more like an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, materials are sourced locally and assembled in non-toxic processes based on renewable energies.
The promise of this regionalized production system is a more diverse regional economy that generates jobs, encourages efficient use of regional waste streams as resources of production, helps local farmers get a good price for the food and biomaterials they grow, creates resilience by increasing self-reliance, reduces dependence on expensive imports, and contributes to the effort to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reducing transportation of feedstock and finished products.
The first steps towards achieving this are already being explored in many industrial ecology projects around the world (see Chapter 6). Even if some of these current projects are hybrid systems that still rely on fossil energy and non-renewable material resources, they are achieving increases in material and energy efficiency by connecting previously separate industrial processes in ways that turn one industry’s waste (whether material streams or waste heat) into another industry’s resource of production. They are second horizon (H2) stepping-stones to renewable energy-powered regenerative systems.
Unleashing the full potential of such ecosystems of production and consumption based on integrative industrial design requires regional collaboration across all sectors and all industries. The synergies that can be generated when previously separate industries are linked through ecological design thinking are substantial.
The book Blue Economy summarizes a number of such ground-breaking design solutions that are being implemented or are in advanced stages of development (Pauli, 2010). It offers inspiration for green entrepreneurs to get involved in H2+ transformative innovation.
The overall shift is away from a fossil fuel-based industrial system with centralized production facilities that rely on bringing raw materials from all corners of the Earth only to then distribute the finished products globally again. This wasteful system is based on outdated industrial design solutions developed during the first industrial revolution where the economics of mass-manufacturing meant bigger was better, and cheap abundant fossil fuels and non-renewable materials were taken for granted.
Currently, the vast majority of our consumer products contain petroleum-based materials. During the first half of the 21st century we will witness the transformation of this global system of production. We will begin to co-create a material culture that relies on locally available materials, green (plant-based) chemistry and renewable energy sources for regional production and consumption.
Integrative design based on whole-systems thinking and the kind of nature-inspired design solutions explored in the next two chapters will help us create ‘elegant solutions predicated by the uniqueness of place’. This is how my mentor Professor John Todd, a pioneer in his field, defines ecological design. Such solutions are an elegant blend of the best of modern technology and a rediscovered sensitivity to place, culture and traditional wisdom. New technologies are opening up a 21st-century, design-led re-localization enabled by global resource-sharing and cooperation.
Distributed manufacturing is becoming a reality as new 3D printing technologies enabling additive manufacturing at a small scale are developing rapidly alongside revolutionary approaches to open innovation based on peer-to-peer collaboration, the spread of ‘Fab-labs’ and a new maker culture, breakthroughs in material science, as well as diverse bio-economy projects. Much work is still needed in the area of developing locally grown and regenerated feedstock for 3D printing technologies.
The Open Source Ecology project started by Marcin Jakubowski demonstrates how inventors and technologists are already collaborating globally to recreate regional means of production that are increasingly independent of the centralized mass-production systems of multinationals.
The project’s aim is to create the ‘Global Village Construction Set’, an open-source design and engineering library of detailed blueprints that will enable people with basic engineering and technical skills to create the 50 most important machines needed to build a sustainable civilization. We are beginning to ask:
How can we implement the global shift towards increased regional production for regional consumption?
How can we create effective systems of open-source innovation that enable people globally to share know-how and design innovations?
How can we ensure that re-regionalizing production and consumption will happen within the bioproductivity limits of each particular region, and strike a balance between growing food and growing industrial resources regionally?
How can we make 3D printing technologies sustainable by ensuring that they use locally produced, renewable and up-cyclable feedstock in environmentally benign ways, powered by decentralized renewable energy?
How can we use bio-refineries and advanced fermentation technologies to facilitate the shift from a fossil fuel-based organic chemistry to a solar- powered, plant-based and non-toxic chemistry in order to re-invent our material culture?
An early lesson we learnt in Majorca is that a successful bioeconomy requires widespread collaboration between sectors. Policy interventions are needed to regulate access to biological resources and their sustainable (regenerative) production and use. With limited bioproductive potential within a particular region, we must find ways to create ecosystems of collaboration that optimize the use of available resources.
Regenerative design solutions require whole-systems design conversations across all sectors of society. From these conversations a guiding vision will emerge. This vision can be made reality, one place at a time, by all of us. [At the time of writing, the Ecover Glocal project is not advancing, due to a lack of funding. It created a network of collaborators and planted a vision that is likely to be taken up again in the future.]
[This is an excerpt from my book Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]
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Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration.
Author of the internationally acclaimed book Designing Regenerative Cultures