Fablabs, makerspaces, emerging global knowledge commons… These are but some of the outcomes of a growing movement that champions globally-sourced designs for local economic activity. Its core idea is simple: local ownership of the means to produce basic manufactures and services can change our economic paradigm, making our cities self-sufficient and help the planet.

Sharon Ede, urbanist and activist based in Australia has recently launched AUDAcities, a catalyst for relocalising production in cities. She shared her insights on the opportunities of making cities regenerative and more sustainable as well as the limits of cosmo-localization. Interview by Fernanda Marin.

Technology, as we all know, is not neutral. Making the transition to self-sufficient cities needs a cultural shift, not just a technological one. So, how do we design open-source tools that foster a change in behaviours and are inclusive?

Technology will go where cultural, social and economic values direct it. A cultural shift will include open source tools, and the kinds of processes we need to create those – but a cultural shift will require much more.

Governments can and do play a significant role in shaping culture through policy and regulation, and contrary to popular belief about where innovation originates, the state is not only a key entrepreneurial actor but also has a huge opportunity to reinvent itself as the ‘partner state’ – where government responds to the contributory democracy we are seeing emerge as a force that does with, not for or to, the communities it serves. The technology, and who owns it, is just a manifestation of what we value.

There has been a lot of debate about the real benefits of local production, especially that last-mile delivery is more harmful to the environment than the benefits it brings. In your experience, what is the ecological footprint of a product that has been globally designed and locally manufactured?

Any production that is not hyperlocal ie. from materials sourced within a very short supply chain, has to find its way to the consumer somehow. With respect to environmental concern, the ‘last mile’ is a question of the existing production paradigm finding the most efficient and low carbon way to achieve its objective. I’m not sure that the last mile debate concerning the most carbon-efficient delivery by a globalised supply system can be compared to local production. Local production will have ‘last miles’ (and more energy used in transportation, depending on where the materials were sourced for the production), but in general, I’d be less worried about lots of last miles from local production, than many more tens of thousands of miles of transportation required with ‘remote’ production.

It’s also worth noting that shipping is responsible for 17% of global emissions, but neither shipping and aviation are accounted for in international climate change negotiations due to the difficulty in allocating emissions ie. do they belong to the producing or consuming country? In general, local has many benefits, but it’s simplistic to assume local always equals ‘good’. It depends on so many things, for example, is the activity occurring in a water-scarce environment? How intensive is the production? Is the power source for the products generated from renewable energy?

Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is one way of assessing the ecological cost-benefit of different methods of production, but it can get quite complicated. Descriptions can offer a sense of the impacts, however, measuring these and making the trade-offs is less clear and requires not only a lot of data but a lot of consideration and interpretation.

This map of shipping routes illustrates the relative density of commercial shipping in the world’s oceans

Before even considering ecological footprints of production, one of the first things cities could do is look into ‘boomerang trade’ – the new economics foundation produced a report on this activity in the UK, where similar goods are being traded and transported across continents, or across the globe. There are also ridiculous examples, such as what I have dubbed ‘frequent flyer prawns’ – shrimp being flown to Thailand from Scotland, and then back because the labour needed to shell them is cheaper in Thailand.

Trade used to be about genuine comparative advantage. If economics is supposed to be about the efficient allocation of resources, and this is what our systems of economics are incentivising, then we need new economics.

What are the limits to urban manufacturing? Surely not everything can be made/produced locally, so as a percentage of a city’s total consumption of resources, how much can we expect to shift?

In theory, a city could make anything. It depends on factors such as whether we shift to safe, non-polluting products and production processes – one of the reasons for zoning in cities was to separate sensitive uses such as residential areas from the nuisance and potential danger of industrial areas (and there are environmental justice issues with who lives near dirty industry). What a city can produce also depends on what it wishes to prioritise, for example, does it want to invest a lot of land in car-dominated transport, or can it reclaim land for all kinds of productive purposes? Does it have the energy available to relocalise more of its production, or is it willing to invest in building such capacity?And governments and business love to talk about the circular economy, and recycling, but if you’re not making locally, if you’re not providing a way for things to be produced and materials to be remade locally, you don’t have a circular economy.

Most cities could readily produce more of their own furniture, utensils, fixtures and fittings, appliances, equipment/tools, textiles and clothing – as cities once did anyway before cheap fossil fuels allowed production to sprawl across the globe. But not all cities can or would want to make more complex artefacts like aircraft, which require specialised skills and facilities. It is likely that some kinds of manufacturing will still require an economy of scale – regional, or national, but not necessarily international. It depends on the size of the city; the skills of the workforce; whether the city values local production and associated economic and social benefits over windfalls derived from property speculation; and what its policy and incentive frameworks prioritise, though these are often influenced by national policy.

In general, it is wiser not to have your population running an ‘ecological deficit’, or being dependent on supply lines that may suddenly change or be disrupted, for example by a fuel shock or a change in policy elsewhere.

Try a thought experiment – if you cut off all external inputs to your city for a month, could it feed, water, power and otherwise sustain itself to keep functioning? What if you had to design the city anew, under such conditions? Could it be designed to still function in an interconnected global economy, but be resilient enough to meet the majority of its own needs?

For you what is the difference between Robertson’s 1994 idea of “glocalisation” and “cosmolocalism”?

Cosmo localism, or ‘design global, manufacture local’, certainly has some overlap with ‘glocalisation’, or the adaptation of globally marketed products to local culture, in that a shared global design can be replicated (or adapted then produced) locally. But by whom, and how?

Glocalisation is about the top-down marketing of consumer products designed remotely, in a centralised way and then tweaked for local culture. Cosmolocalism, or Design Global Manufacture Local (DG-ML) is based on a different production logic, as explained by Jose Ramos and Chris Giotitsas in ‘A New Model of Production for a New Economy’:

Traditionally corporate enterprises have solely owned the intellectual property (IP) they employ in the production of goods. They source the materials for the goods through national or global supply chains. They manufacture those goods using economies of scale in a set number of manufacturing centres, whereupon those finished goods are delivered nationally or globally.

DG-ML is an inversion of this production logic. First of all, the IP is open, whether open source or creative commons or copy fair, so it can be used by anyone. Secondly, manufacturing and production can be done independently of the IP, by any community or enterprise around the world that wants to.

Relocalised production is said to help people find new meaningful economic activities and be part of a community in a word where jobs are disappearing. So far there isn’t a solid business model supporting this shift. What type of policies could policy-makers implement to assist this?

There are plenty of examples of where local production has a solid business model and operates successfully. There may be some new elements to address in building enterprise and livelihoods around open source – something I am still on a learning curve with. However, it could also be that the issue isn’t just a business model per se, but a range of policy and investment incentives that prioritise non-local business(‘attract and retain’) at the expense of local business, the same way that perverse subsidies for fossil fuel energy incumbents have made it harder for renewables.

This is why ‘relocalised production’ needs further nuance. It’s not just about bringing the process of material production back, but a question of ownership, of who benefits. Is the relationship of that production to where it happens regenerative – mostly staying within the local community, making a social, economic and environmental contribution to the place in which it operates? If not, the value generated is ‘leaking’ out of where it is created, which is an extractive dynamic that weakens economic prosperity.

‘Halifax EcoCity Project – proposal for a fractal of an ecological city, Adelaide, Australia / Paul Downton

Part of audacities’ mission is to give advice to cities on how to invest towards “cosmolocalism”. What is the first step cities should take to make this transformation possible?

Each city will have its own unique way of addressing this, however here are some suggestions:

  • Build the understanding and buy-in to get people invested in the idea. Determine how you can best communicate what cosmolocalism means, and articulate the benefits for different interest groups – why would they want to pursue this, what’s the story to engage them with?
  • Make an inventory or map of what locally productive capacity already exists, both formal and informal.
  • Know when and why local production might not be the best option for a certain activity.
  • Keep the emphasis on people and culture first – and then appropriate technology. Give at least as much emphasis to the role of ownership and underlying economic DNA in local production as to the flow of physical materials.
  • Appreciate that innovation occurs and is being practised by people who do not identify with the language of innovation, who might not see themselves as entrepreneurs or makers or agents of change. Recognise that remarkable, innovative activity occurs in unexpected places – outside the boundaries of ‘innovation districts’ where, all too often, business and government and the big end of town have determined ‘this is what innovation looks like, who does it, here’s where it happens’ because you will miss many voices, many ideas, and a big part of what’s going on in your city.
  • Take some calculated risks – you can’t be innovative, or achieve anything audacious, without it!

Photos by Christopher BurnsAJColores & NASA on Unsplash

B.S. Halpern (T. Hengl; D. Groll) on Wikimedia Commons

And the ‘Halifax EcoCity Project – proposal for a fractal of an ecological city, Adelaide, Australia / Paul Downton

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