Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Post-industrial industry, or an idea relating to Detroit and company

Richard Florida, author of the book "The Rise of the Creative Class" has a long article in the latest Atlantic Monthly that's well worth reading. It expands on his concept of the future of the U.S. being in more abstract creative industries like computers and media, and suggests that these, along with a general retooling of American culture to respect the idea that unlimited fossil fuels and unlimited products of industry like cars will probably be part of the future for the U.S. I agree with a lot of it, but the idea of a truly post-industrial economy, taken literally as an economy without industry, is impossible. There were always have to be manufacturing, even if the main products are high speed and high efficiency trains for public transport. But, I don't think the question of an industrial or post-industrial economy is an either or question.

There are two very good reasons to doubt that moving to a more knowledge based economy will make industry obsolete, or that industry will not be able to work with knowledge based industries: Germany and Japan. While America largely innovated based on the British system of industrial production, introducing better organized factory processes, Germany and Japan were faced with developing their whole economies without much of a basis for reference. So what they did was to invest in scientific research in order to open up both new fields and radically new processes for industry. Germany went through what was known as the second industrial revolution, which relied on the use of light metals that weren't previously used, alloys, and synthetic products. Japan invested in R&D regarding chip construction as well as automobile design, with Japanese automobiles coming out more computerized and complex than their American counterparts. Both of these ways of innovating involved working smarter in a more "knowledge based" economy, and we can do a similar thing here.

Industry will always exist, but it doesn't have to be inefficient. Instead, we could take the initiative to help develop smarter industry, whose products function better, are produced better, and can compete on the world stage. This could happen by a cross fertilization of the centers of creative people that Florida refers to with more traditional forms of engineering. A feature of truly working smarter instead of harder would also be a re-skilling of American industrial workers to bring folks more into the rarified section of "skilled trades" than they were before, and to accompany it with more responsibility on the part of work teams on the bottom and less managerial domination. Some sort of workers' council could be present as well.

If industrial America can regenerate itself by adopting the same sort of techniques that once were thought to herald the demise of industry itself it can spread the benefits of a "new economy" from places like Seattle and Portland to places like Detroit and Buffalo.

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