We Need to Re-Invent Ourselves as a Workshop, not a Casino

31/10/2011 11:51 GMT | Updated 31/12/2011 10:12 GMT

"Men don't and can't live by exchanging articles, but by producing them. They don't live by trade, but by work." John Ruskin

Prime minister, do you know what a rivet is? You should. If you could explain how a rivet works, you would be in possession of valuable knowledge of mechanics, the history of structures, material technology, stress, load paths and the aesthetic limitations of working in metal. But you cannot explain it because you are a modern, post-industrial Briton who has lost touch with the beautiful and important culture of things.

We built an empire. But now can't build anything. This is a calamity. We need to re-invent ourselves as a workshop, not a casino. Our economy was once based on (what's been called by Jozef Schumpeter) "creative destruction": a continuous industrial revolution. Lately it has been "destructive creation": the invention of abstract financial products with no cultural value. And, as it has turned out, no economic value either!

Before the calamity becomes a catastrophe, there is an essential political, economic, cultural, educational and social relevance to rediscovering the value of making things. We do not make (and are losing the knowledge to design) the goods we consume.

As an experiment, I emptied my bag on the kitchen table. The contents are as follows:

Fountain pen by Mont Blanc (Germany)

Rollerball by Mitsubishi (Japan)

Camera by Leica-Panasonic (Germany-Japan)

Spectacles by Alain Mikli (France)

Sunglasses by Ray-Ban (Italy-US)

Notebook by Moleskine (Italy)

Multitool by Leatherman (US)

Car keys by Mercedes-Benz (Germany)

Laptop by Apple (US)

Phone by BlackBerry (Canada)

Unless there is radical change our children will not have the status and opportunities of nineteenth century Chinese coolies. They will not even be able to afford to buy the foreign trinkets that fill my bag.

This is not a sentimental call to return to dirty old industry, but a demand that people begin better to appreciate the benefits of making things. People who make things do not just have superior mechanical skills, they have superior cognitive skills as well. A riveter understands from first-hand-and-eye experience the relationship between function and form, it comes naturally.

The trade benefits of manufacturing don't require much emphasis in a country where we are all dragging around more than five times our own weight in mood-altering deficit, but there are even more important occult advantages. If you make things you need to understand ideas, materials, markets, skills. If you make money, you just need the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master. And when you make things, you restore that essential practical and moral connection between effort and reward which have been lost in the flim-flam of post-industrial sophistry.

This was all beautifully explained in a regrettably obscure 1944 pamphlet by W. Julian King, a Californian engineer. King's Unwritten Laws of Engineering are not about physics, but behaviour. Manufacturing demands that individuals be both be decisive and share information. This positively stimulates personal human development: you start with an idea, it becomes a more elaborate specification that is in turn mass-produced, distributed, consumed, recycled. At each stage, additional skills are required and generated. So too is real value.

Then there is the question of national identity. Do we want to live in a ghost culture or a real culture? Do we want to be an off-shore mall populated by 60m owners of a Mulberry handbag or would we prefer to be surrounded by well-considered, well-made and meaningful products and buildings? Shall we just have national traditions as quaint antique memories, or should we be busy making traditions of the future? You don't get riots and looting in workshops.

Susan Hockfield President of MIT said, "Our economy will thrive only when we make what we invent". She's right.

Stephen Bayley will be giving a talk at the iq2 If Conference November 25-26 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.