Socially Useful Production

Working Paper
  • Published 14/01/14
  • ISBN: 9781781181461

STEPS Working Paper 58

A history and analysis is provided of the movement for socially useful production, which flourished for a brief period in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. Swimming against the rising tide of neo-liberalism, activists provided both a critique of the existing institutions for innovation in society, and developed a set of practical initiatives that explored and anticipated more directly democratic processes for socially shaping technologies.

Consisting of an unusual and uneasy combination of grassroots trades union organisation and new social movement activism, the movement generated alternative corporate plans, arguments for alternative innovation institutions, socially useful prototypes and product banks, co-operative enterprises, and networks of community-based workshops. Activity was informed by a range of movement ideas: peaceful, environmentally and community-friendly alternative technologies; skill-enhancing, human-centred machines and worker control in the labour process; participatory design and industrial democracy; productive, practical activity for building socialised markets and economies; and a faith in the grassroots ingenuity and skill of people liberated through creative opportunities to engage in technology design and development.

Whilst eventually overwhelmed by the more powerful political and economic forces behind neo-liberalism, the movement nevertheless provided a creative impulse to ideas and practices whose legacy has been to point insistently to political choices in technology development and insist upon an opening of innovation in society.

Largely forgotten now, the radical roots of the movement are worth recalling for at least three reasons. First, the rich details of the movement provides a repertoire of activities to reconsider, some of which, including community workshops, are not too dissimilar to emerging initiatives today. Second, because the movement encounters with political economy reminds us that the route towards wresting technology choices from the hands of elites requires challenging political strategies. And third, because the movement argued these strategies had to include material, extra-discursive opportunities for people to express their (often tacit) knowledge and views through direct, productive engagement in material activity.

This Working Paper is linked to the STEPS Centre’s project Grassroots innovation: historical and comparative perspectives.