Manufacturing and Knowledge Economies

From a political point of view, education and the economy are two of the most hotly debated topics around the world.

In his lecture for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), Sir Ken Robinson lays out what he believes to be the four purposes for public education; economic, cultural, social and personal.

“We [society] expect education to contribute to our long-term economic health, vitality and sustainability, that’s how we got to have these systems [of education] in the first place, but the economic model of the day was industrialism, which is why the system looks the way it does… [but] we have a different set of imperatives now…”

Sir Ken Robinson

I think this aligns with what the OECD (1996) understands to be a move, in OECD member countries, to what they call a ‘knowledge-based economy’ whereby knowledge is accepted as a driver of productivity and economic growth. In turn, this has lead to a new focus on information, technology and learning and their role in economic performance. Robinson (2015) also points out that if we are to meet the challenges of our time we must create systems of education that allow people to be both creative and adaptable suggesting that the current system confuses compliance with raising standards.

“The opposite of compliance isn’t disruption, it’s creativity.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Even though the industrial revolution has come to define the modern era, at first glance the manufacturing economy may appear to be the odd one out in terms of a sector to analyse for it’s potential in the field of research communication. It is seen in some circles of art, design and research as a place with no soul, no moral compass, even the direct cause of many global problems. But in other circles selling a marketable product is a direct way to measure success. Do you sell paintings? Are you funded? One of the most common questions a creative practitioner will be asked is, “Does your work sell?” If not, there could be an immediate assumption it doesn’t have value.

Whichever way your moral compass points we cannot ignore the fact that manufacturers of all persuasions have spent the modern era experimenting with ways to communicate their ideas to audiences in the pursuit of profit, the great motivator in a capitalist democracy. When money is the prize, the greedy don’t waste their time on the ineffective.

Over time, structures have become scaffolded around the manufacturing economy to communicate its philosophy and products to people clearly and efficiently and make its outputs easy to consume and understand. These include things like multi-platform advertising, the high street, trade/distribution networks and brands etc. The marketing of outputs goes as far as to find ways for us to associate our inner needs and desires with them thanks in part to public relations gurus like Edward Bernays (Century of the Self, 2002).

If we see research and knowledge as equally, if not more, important for today’s society then we should look to build similar structures around this. Manufacturers have found ways, by design or otherwise, to populate the neutral (public) space that we all inhabit with visual reminders and products. This has created a monopoly over what we see all day – what enters our fields of vision.

What lessons can a curator of research learn from manufacturing? If this seems an uncomfortable question, it could be that aversions to using certain tools for research communication likely come from an objection to what it has been used for in the past, not the effectiveness of the tool itself in doing its job. Tools are inherently neutral, connotations are not. You can still hold a strong ethical position whilst using the tools of the manufacturing economy. It is very possible that those invested in research and knowledge transfer are uncomfortable with the idea of competing for public attention, that their energy is best spent in the work itself… and I would agree, it’s not a competition and it shouldn’t be treated as such. But in a ‘post-truth’ world that stance is not going to cut it anymore.

To give some perspective; imagine if overnight manufacturer’s outputs could only be found in written form in libraries and the knowledge economy took over all advertising and the high street. The thought of that illustrates how unbalanced those two economies are in their relationship with publics.

This can be done in conversation with, not in opposition to corporations and manufacturing. A leaf should be taken from the book of Wade Davis (Explorer in Residence at National Geographic) who manages to negotiate the sensibilities of two worlds by encouraging conversation, understanding and innovation. Curators could and should collaborate with academics to create conceptually appropriate, significant, visible, outputs of aesthetic merit.