Technology Networks for Socially Useful Production

Journal Article
Published In: Journal of Peer Production

Journal of Peer Production, Issue 5: Shared Machine Shops
Read the full article online (public domain)

With unemployment reaching one in eight workers, and manufacturing in steep decline in the city, Londoners voted an avowedly socialist Labour council into power in 1981. Left-wing leaders of the Greater London Council (GLC) were committed to a radically alternative economic strategy compared to the “free-market” right-wing agenda of the Thatcher government nationally. The GLC quickly instituted a Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB) committed to job creation, industrial democracy, and socially useful production.

Amongst GLEB’s first acts was the creation of Technology Networks. These community-based workshops shared machine tools, access to technical advice, and prototyping services, and were open for anyone to develop socially useful products. GLEB’s aim was to bring together the “untapped skill, creativity and sheer enthusiasm” in local communities with the “reservoir of scientific and innovation knowledge” in London’s polytechnics (Greater London Enterprise Board 1984a, 9-10). In keeping with the political ideals underpinning the initiative, representatives from trade unions, community groups, and higher education institutes oversaw workshop management.

Technology Network participants developed various prototypes and initiatives; including, electric bicycles, small-scale wind turbines, energy conservation services, disability devices, re-manufactured products, children’s play equipment, community computer networks, and a women’s IT co-operative. Prototype designs were registered in an open access product bank freely available to others in the community; and innovative products and services were linked to GLEB programmes for creating co-operative enterprises. Similar workshops were created in other Left-controlled cities in the UK.

Ideas and enthusiasm for these workshops drew upon a wider movement for socially useful production, which in turn drew together strands of thought and activism from broader social movements, old and new. These included, workplace democracy and alternative industrial plans, community development activism, left environmentalist networks, radical scientists and alternative technologists, and, to a lesser degree, feminism. Workshops were conceived in movement terms of providing human-centred, skill-enhancing machine tools; developing socially useful products; and democratising design and production. As such, workshop aspirations extended well beyond local prototyping and manufacturing: Technology Networks were an attempt to recast innovation and inscribe it with a radical vision for society.

A history of Technology Networks provides a longer view on two questions motivating this special issue of Journal of Peer Production:

Are rapid prototyping practices changing the relationships to technology, research and development, and innovation?
How do shared machine shops interface with the political economy of contemporary capitalism?

In an earlier article in the Journal, Maxigas demonstrated how situating the distinct historical genealogies of hacklabs and hackerspaces in earlier autonomist movements improves appreciation of the strategic issues confronting spaces today (Maxigas 2012). Similarly, this paper provides historical perspective on issues relevant to community workshops now (Tosh 2008). Features in Technology Networks are not only relevant to FabLabs, Hackerspaces and other workshops, but also to current ideas and practices in participatory design and critical making (maxigas 2012; Smith, Hielscher, Dickel, Söderberg, & van Oost 2013; Tosh 2008; Sanders and Stappers 2008; Ratto 2011; Disalvo 2012).

The argument here is that Technology Networks, reflecting the wider movement for socially useful production, contained tensions in terms of social purpose, cultures of knowledge production, and political economy. The social tension was between spaces for product-oriented design activity, and spaces for network-oriented social mobilisation. The cultural tension was between professional and codified technical knowledge and the tacit knowledge and experiential expertise of community participants. And tensions in political economy – between socialism-in-one-space and the neo-liberal turn nationally and internationally – meant insufficient (public) investment was available to develop initiatives into significant economic activity, and especially without transforming the initiative into capitalist form.

A key lesson from this history is that radical aspirations invested in workshops, such as democratising technology, will need to connect to wider social mobilisations capable of bringing about reinforcing political, economic and institutional change. Otherwise, as we see in the case of Technology Networks, diminished versions of these ideas and practices will become captured and co-opted by incumbents.

The movement for socially useful production generated its own literature, supportive and critical, and which this study has drawn upon. Archived material was also accessed in relation to the meetings and conferences, programmes and organisations, artefacts, lobbying, and other repertoires of action generated by the movement (e.g. film, reports, media articles). The author has posted two examples on the web: one is a promotional booklet for Technology Networks produced by GLEB in 1984, and that can be downloaded via this link; another is a 1978 film documenting the Lucas workers’ alternative industrial plan, available via this link. Interviews were also conducted with protagonists and observers from the time. Finally, a draft of the history was circulated for comment, correction and reflection amongst a wider group of people with first-hand experience of the movement (Smith, 2104).

The paper is organised as follows. Section 2 describes the wider movement for socially useful production from which Technology Networks emerged. Section 3 describes the creation and operation of Technology Networks, as well as discussing some of the tensions that existed. Section 4 considers whether and how lessons then might be relevant for community workshops today. Section 5 concludes by reiterating how any radical aspirations for workshop practices needs to connect cultural developments with wider social movements and influence reinforcing political and economic change. Something easier said than done.