The famous scene in Modern Times, in which Chaplin literally becomes a cog in the machine, is humorous and damning. Our ambivalence towards factories is part of the reason why the loss of manufacturing jobs in the ’90s was often met with a shrug. No one welcomed the collapse of industry, but in the midst of the dot-com boom we imagined something better. We didn’t get it. As a result, manufacturing advances lagged behind the remarkable breakthroughs in information technology. America’s industrial base migrated overseas. But now, a younger generation of entrepreneurs have started to emerge with bold ideas and an ambition to reinvent manufacturing.
For a city with a sprawling creative class, a long artistic tradition, and an enduring legacy of industrial invention, New York has begun to manufacture such visionaries. Bob Bland, a fashion designer turned CEO of Manufacture New York, has received $3.5 million from the city. Her fledgling 160,000-square-foot facility will provide spaces for designers, an R&D lab, and an integrated factory. Bland’s visionary organization brings designers and makers under one roof, and her push for wearable technology draws on broad expertise.
“Manufacture New York is building a 21st-century infrastructure that is inclusive and supportive of everyone in the process,” Bland says.
Aspects of Bland’s vision are reflected in New York’s historical garment district, which, at one time, produced 90% of clothing in the United States. The proximity of the fashion world to manufacturers, to schools, and to consumers had many advantages. The best designers anticipate the manufacture of their work. Similarly, quality manufacturing requires some understanding of design. A back and forth between the designer and the maker is as important as the division of labor. That’s why, as America auctioned off its manufacturing base in a race to the bottom, it lost more than jobs: It undermined a culture of innovation.
“Until we discover a Star Trek-style transporter,” Bland says, “being physically located close to each other, day in and day out, is the fastest way toward innovation.”
Companies with remote workforces are less inclined to invest in sustainable practices and the local community. Over time, not only are designers, creators, and manufacturers undervalued, their demise precipitates income and status inequality. Bland left fashion school, she says, with no understanding of the practical, scientific, environmental, or business implications of her products. This encouraged would-be collaborators to assume, “in the most insulting way possible, that fashion fabrication is unskilled labor.”
But now powerful tools, new materials, and greater access are empowering manufacturers–and Bland says it’s time for people to start thinking of them as a key part of American entrepreneurial culture. “Consider Y Combinator in Silicon Valley,” Bland says. “That model is so supportive of early-stage companies. Why is it that tech looks at early stage companies and bets on so many of them becoming cash cows? How many of those pay out? What are those valuations really based on? It’s like millennial day care. Of course other industries that make real products could match their returns with similar support. We really do think that early stage design companies could be the ‘tech’ companies of the future and they are worth betting on, they are worth supporting. Furthermore, incubators typically only need one big success to keep the entire facility innovating forever.”
Bland, however, emphasizes collaboration over competition. Favoring investment in design over technology is not the point. In fact, Bland says, technologists need partners like Manufacture New York. Brands like Apple only stand out because the design of most of the tech industry is impoverished. “That’s why we make sure designers are paired with every technologist: the aesthetic is respected, the engineering prowess is respected. Guess what? We have engineers too. They’re called pattern makers.”
This ethos of teamwork reflects an expanding ecosystem driven, perhaps, by the recent recession and the Internet. Collaboration Quests, a new web-based platform that emerged out of academia is hosting a forum for cross-disciplinary exchange featuring Manufacture New York. Yet, there’s more here than groupthink. Bland articulates many of the sentiments New York’s creative community has been feeling for years. What’s different is the scope and scale of her response: “It’s a model that can be customized at the grassroots level for any urban manufacturing center.”
While previous generations of artists and designers might have retreated into bohemia, high rents are making this nearly impossible. The project of transforming the economics of the fashion industry seems to be part of a broader phenomena that aligns creatives with sophisticated technologies. These technologies support more collaborative modes of manufacturing. It is not that the technologies themselves have determined the innovation, but it has created room for aspects of the design process to emerge and coalesce into something new. Grasping the implications of these changes is difficult. Growth will likely happen in surprising ways. Not unlike Chaplin riding the wheels of industry, the real lesson is not perils of the modern times, but the ability of creative types to transform them.